Palestinian cooks know that pizazz doesn't always mean better food

At an annual Palestinian cooking competition, the most successful competitors know that more spices and fancier ingredients don't always translate to more success. 

Daniella Cheslow
Contestants at the maftoul festival outside Ramallah.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent. 

It’s a national dish that women have cooked for centuries, but Palestinian chef Agustin Shomali says cooks can easily ruin maftoul.

“They go to extremes,” Mr. Shomali says. “They think ‘the more spices, the better.’ ”

Shomali was one of five judges at the fourth annual Palestinian maftoul competition, held on a chilly Saturday in early November just outside Ramallah. About 200 people came to see and taste dishes made with the oversized, soft couscous hand-rolled with water and whole wheat flour.

Traditional Palestinian maftoul dishes feature chickpeas, chicken and broth, cumin, a dusting of cardamom – and not too much else. But the 12 women vying for the $540 prize marshaled ideas from near and far. They added cauliflower, almonds, and even a snowman made of a hard-boiled egg atop an orange. Ultimately, sticking to tradition paid off for Naima Rayed, a mother of seven from a refugee camp outside Ramallah. She cooked a classic maftoul with plenty of chickpeas, pumpkin, and tomato. In addition to the prize money, Ms. Rayed will travel to an upcoming couscous festival in Italy.

Raed Saadeh organized the evening through the Rozana Association for rural tourism. He said the competition united women of scattered villages.

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