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When politics creeps into cooking - Maqluba and Yotam Ottolenghi

"Thanks to Ottolenghi’s best-selling books, we now have 'Ottolenghi hummus' and — believe it or not — 'Ottolenghi maqluba.' The latter is a quintessential rice-based Palestinian dish that has been 'rebranded' (or rather culturally-appropriated) as an Israeli dish."

Ruba Saqr - Jordan News

This post was going to be a simple presentation of the dish shown on the left here, from Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi's book Jerusalem (the link will take you to the recipe). It's called Maqluba (spelt in a myriad of different ways) and is an upside down layering of meat and vegetables and rice.

Why this dish? Well it all started with me trying to find something new to do with cauliflower, that wasn't a cauliflower cheese thing, a soup, a whole roasted cauliflower or a cauliflower 'steak'. Inspired by the Ottolenghi curried cauliflower cheese thing I made a while ago now, I started by looking through his books and found this rather delicious looking dish called Maqluba. It had all the ingredients I was looking for - cauliflower and rice in particular and it was an impressive presentation. I actually think it's not really going to be the answer to my initial problem, but I'll come to that later.

Having found it and found that it was a traditional Arabic dish - the name means literally 'upside down' in Arabic - because this is an upside down dish - I thought I would do one of my posts that looks at a traditional dish and its multiple variations. All traditional dishes from whatever cuisine are always fiddled with it seems to me. A television series that most brought this home to me was one I saw a long time ago now on SBS in which an Italian guy went to little villages which had a 'special' dish and then he asked all the nonnas to make their own version - and guess what - they were all different, and of course they all swore that theirs was authentic.

Anyway back to Maqluba. It is obviously Arabic, so I think it is therefore one of Sami Tamimi's dishes, rather than Ottolenghi's. But then I don't really know how they work together. Did they just each do a number of different dishes, or did they pitch in with ideas on each other's choices? There actually is a video of the making of Maqluba, and it is Sami Tamimi who is doing it - for Waitrose, so I guess this is an indication that this recipe is one of his. The introduction to the recipe implies that also.

And whilst we are talking about variations, Ottolenghi himself has a couple more - both of them vegetarian. The first one appeared in The New York Times and was made with lentils, tomatoes and onions and the second is on the Ottolenghi website and is called Vegetable Makloubeh.

And I would venture to suggest that neither of these are 'authentic' because this is definitely a meat and vegetable dish - often lamb rather than chicken. Which, of course, does not mean you can't fiddle with it to make it vegetarian - vegan even. And if you do that are you still entitled to call it Maqluba? Why not?

For it seems to me, having now looked at several different recipes, that the thing that they all have in common is the turning out of the dish - an upside down thing. Plus that it is a layered dish, that always - always - includes rice and meat and often has aubergines and cauliflower in it. It is also quite heavily spiced - often with the baharat spice mix. Potatoes are the next most common addition and some nuts sprinkled on top. But it certainly is the kind of dish that is ripe for someone to fiddle with.

And Ottolenghi and his crew - in this case Sami Tamimi - are really good at this. This is what makes their food so popular. I found a few bloggers and Instagrammers who had followed one or other of the recipes, and had, along the way, offered tips and suggestions along the way:

Multiculturiosity; Ever Open Sauce - the New York Times version - and four different Instagram posts - no recipes here, just pictures:

As you can see there is quite a lot of variation there. There is also Greg Malouf, who surely should be considered an authentic Levantine. He has chicken, he has rice, eggplants and onion, but no tomatoes or cauliflower and he also adds in minced lamb. His technique is quite different too because the elements are cooked separately then assembled in layers before turning out. He doesn't cook the dish in layers. Very different but at least he is Arab, so should we therefor consider it a more authentic recipe?

I say this, because during my 'research' I came across an article in Jordan News which furiously attacked Ottolenghi for what was perceived as making the dish Israeli.

“Israeli cuisine” is one of the most peculiar case studies on the planet. Rooted in deliberate cultural appropriation, it represents an incoherent mishmash of Jewish food that is offered on religious occasions, in addition to the traditional foods of Arab-Israelis, West-Bank Palestinians, and more recently, Gazans ... it is obvious the man has no breadth of knowledge, nor authentic cultural experience to justify his quick-fix impressions" Ruba Saqr - Jordan News

Strong words. I think Ruba is a female name and she had been enraged by Ottolenghi 'endorsing' a book by Anissa Helou called Feast: Food of the Islamic World. The argument being that Ottolenghi was not Muslim or Arabic and therefore was not entitled to endorse such a work. Which may be right but from a publishing point of view is good marketing. Ruba Saqr also deplores the fact that in spite of being Ottolenghi's business partner and co-writer of Jerusalem Sami Tamimi is not given as much credit - or fame. Also true. The name Ottolenghi though is not what I would think of as Israeli (as she says) - it's Italian. But I'm nit-picking.

I guess it is a little ironic that the two people who have probably done the most to promote Middle-Eastern cuisine in the modern world are both Jewish - Ottolenghi and Claudia Roden. However, both grew up in either an Arabic country - Egypt in the case of Claudia Roden, or an Arabic influenced country - Israel. And they both obviously love Arabic food. Without them we Westerners would not have become so enamoured of that cuisine. And yes Greg Malouf, here in Australia, and Abla too have played their part, but on a rather more local scale. Of course there are others, but those two superstars are the ones we all know of.

I do not really know who wrote the words in the various Introductory pieces to Jerusalem. 'Our' is a word that is frequently used in the text, rather than 'I", but actually who wrote it could be any or all or a combination of Ottolenghi, Tamimi, or even one of two writers who are credited with 'additional text'. Whoever did write it I think eloquently rebuts the anger of the Jordanian writer.

"In the part of the world we are dealing with everybody wants to own everything. Existence feels so uncertain and so fragile that people fight fiercely and with great passion to hold on to things: land, culture, religious symbols, food - everything is in danger of being snatched away or of disappearing. The result is fiery arguments about ownership, about provenance, about who and what came first." ...

"The beauty of food and of eating is that they are rooted in the now. Food is a basic, hedonistic pleasure, a sensual instinct we all share and revel in. It is a shame to spoil it." ...

"Nobody 'owns' a dish because it is very likely that someone else cooked it before them and another person before that."

It's the same old 'authenticity' argument, but here it has been taken into the realm of politics and the deep divisions that exist in Israel. Food should be the opposite of all of that. Surely by taking a 'classic' Arab dish and fiddling with it to make it your own, you are paying that dish an enormous compliment. Imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery.

Forget Ottolenghi - if indeed it is Ottolenghi who is guilty of appropriating a much loved festive Arab dish and not Tamimi. Yes this recipe is now known as Ottolenghi's Maqluba but that's because the PR machine that is behind him, has made it so. I don't know if he is a better cook than all the various members of his team, or whether he just approves stuff. He is definitely the figurehead though. He may just have more commercial nouse or charisma. But he is not alone in fiddling with classic dishes and making them his own.

For example, to take this particular dish even Jamie Oliver has had a go. Now he doesn't call his efforts Maqluba - they are Cauliflower chicken pot pie perhaps a fair way from the original, but there are definitely some similarities in there - or Spiced cauliflower rice pie - many more similarities.

I'm also guessing that many others have many similar dishes. The fundamentals - a layered dish that is served upside down, and features rice - made crispy by the long cooking - a particular set of vegetables, and spice. I guess that Jamie's Cauliflower chicken pot pie, takes the next leap into pastry rather than rice. Or it could be potatoes ... You can definitely see the evolution of something different from an old idea though.

Anyway it's sad that someone could get so hot under the collar over food. Nobody ever makes the same dish the same every time - except perhaps in a restaurant. The Dearman family spaghetti and meatballs, for example, is never the same, even if I did at first make it from a Robert Carrier recipe, and he probably pinched it from somebody else, and anyway it's not Italian it's American - and yet, oh so Italian.

So am I going to make this? Yes, I think I will but not in the near future. This is what one commenter said:

"This was rather amazingly delicious. Also time consuming and made quite a few dishes for my husband to clean." Boston Cook

Another blogger said it took 3 hours to cook. All of which is Ok - for a special occasion - but not, I think, for a midweek dinner for David and I. I will save this one, and I'm sorry but I will make Ottolenghi's Maqluba even if it is really Sami Tamimi's based on his mum's, based on her mum's and so on ad infinitum.


Here's my rubbish soup and the carrot and cheese scones I made to go with it. David pronounce the scones a hit and the soup too though it doesn't look that appetising. Well it's brown food isn't it? Hard to make brown look appetising. There was another photo but it was all blurry.

And guess what? There are leftovers from the leftovers soup. You just can't win with leftovers sometimes. But there are more scones too.

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