“Cuisine is what remains of a culture when everything else has been forgotten,” says Amin Maalouf in the prologue of a book dedicated to Lebanese cooking. This writer, who told the story of the Crusades from the Arab point of view and wrote novels about life in a number of countries bordering the Mediterranean, doesn’t hesitate when selecting a dish from his native Lebanon: maghmur of aubergine or, to give it another name, Lebanese moussaka, based on aubergines, rice and, frequently, lamb.
There are many dishes in the eastern Mediterranean that combine these three ingredients. Dishes to which the promoters of local tourism –Turks, Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, Egyptians and, of course, the Lebanese– attach national names. But in vain. The recipes are native to a territory that until less than 100 years ago was part of the Ottoman Empire, which itself sprung from the previous Arab culture that stretched from the Arabian Peninsula and Mesopotamia throughout the Mediterranean.
A good example would be the maqluba, whose paternity is claimed by Lebanese and Syrians, although it also appears on Palestinian tables. It is a dish that, once cooked, is served upside down, and what was at the bottom of the casserole is on the top.
These upside down dishes have a long tradition in the Middle East. More than seven centuries, to be specific. The oldest known Arab cookbook describes dishes of this type, although as Clifford A. Wright, an expert in Mediterranean cuisine, points out, they had different ingredients from today’s maqluba. In any case, that ancient cookbook is from Baghdad, in Iraq.
There are many variations of maqluba, from the most orthodox, which combines aubergine, lamb and rice, to the cauliflower maqluba (typical of Syria) and the one with chicken and tomato, described by the Israeli chef Yotan Ottolenghi in his cookbook Jerusalem. They all have a series of ingredients and spices that, cooked in a casserole, assume the casserole’s shape, and then it’s turned over like a cake placed on a plate. In all these cases, the visible part of the food, originally located at the bottom of the casserole, now makes for a colourful combination: big pieces of aubergine in some cases and pieces of tomato in others. It’s usually accompanied by some yogurt-based sauce.
In the history of cuisine, the origin of different dishes is constantly being rewritten. And maqluba has a certain legend. Salah Jamal, in his book Arab Aroma, says that this dish originated in the leftovers that were given in a casserole to poor people. Since it was hard to distribute it directly from the casserole, it was overturned onto a platter: a maqluba, maqlouba or makloubeh.