The word “malfouf” in Arabic means both “cabbage” and “rolled.” So in Lebanese and Palestinian culture, cooks must have felt that it was only natural to roll up the cabbage around rice, and the popular dish malfouf was born.
Stuffed cabbage leaves are popular in so many countries, from Russia to Poland and Sweden. But for some reason, Middle Eastern people feel the need to stuff every vegetable imaginable – eggplant, squash, tomatoes, bell peppers, potatoes and, of course, cabbage all get the rice-filling treatment.
As a child growing up, I didn’t think there was any other way to eat cabbage, because to me, malfouf was the ultimate comfort food. Tender leaves filled with aromatic rice, herbs and either lamb or chickpeas was one of my favorite afterschool snacks.
I attended an Irish Catholic elementary school growing up, so St. Patrick’s Day was a huge celebration with heaps of corned beef and cabbage served to all at fundraisers. While I enjoyed the corned beef, the Middle Eastern in me thought the plain steamed cabbage on the side looked kind of lonely compared with the stuffed cabbage I grew up with.
So one day I brought some malfouf to my Irish friends at school to show them a new way with cabbage. They loved it so much that they were willing to trade their mothers’ homemade Irish soda bread for some malfouf rolls. I absolutely loved those cross-cultural food swaps – to this day I still crave that soft Irish soda bread.
While malfouf is not a St. Patrick’s Day staple, it’s a dish I enjoy making this time of year to bring back that those great childhood memories. To make this meal vegetarian and Lent-friendly, my mother, Vera, created her own version of malfouf using chickpeas rather than the traditional cubes of lamb for the filling. There are so many herbs and spices in this recipe that I guarantee you won’t miss the meat. This dish is also fun to assemble with children – the bonus is kids are more apt to try new foods they help prepare in the kitchen.
Malfouf rolls make a pretty and elegant presentation for Easter as well. You can either invert the pot like an upside-down cake or line up the rolls individually on an oblong serving platter.
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