Malfouf is a classic Lebanese dish consisting of cabbage rolls stuffed with a ground beef and rice mixture, cooked in a lemony and garlic-y broth. It is a labour of love but so worth it when you flip it over onto a tray and simply can't stop eating them one after another! A dish that will impress.
What is Malfouf?
Malfouf in Arabic literally translates to two words: "Cabbage" and "Rolled". And this dish is exactly that - the Lebanese version of stuffed cabbage. Now cabbage is stuffed all over the world; it seems to be one of the more popular vegetables that everyone decided to stuff, in their own way. It is especially common across Eastern European countries (Ukraine, Serbia, Poland, Russia, Croatia to name a few) but also found in Italy, Greece and Germany.
But what really sets Lebanese cabbage rolls apart is that they are thinner rolls and have a unique lemon-garlic flavour. Most other cabbage rolls you will find will be thicker and bigger. This specific recipe for Lebanese cabbage rolls can vary region to region as well, and you will also find it in other Levant countries (Syrian, Jordan, and Palestine). In Iraq, cabbage is typically stuffed as part of Dolma as well.
What I love about malfouf is that it is easier to stuff than grape leaves, and generally faster as well. It tastes SO good - its usually really really hard for me to stop eating them. And the best part is that they are actually quite healthy too!
Ingredients you'll need for an authentic malfouf recipe
You will need some cabbage of course, and I recommend green cabbage. While there are many other cabbage varieties, green cabbage yields the prettiest results because of its smooth texture. Savoy cabbage may also be used, and it is softer and easier to work with, but the rolls end up looking wrinkly (which is okay too).
For the filling, you need ground beef, short grain rice (Egyptian, Calroze or Italian will do), onions, allspice and garlic. You'll need at least 3 heads of garlic (don't be scared!). If you don't have allspice, you can substitute it for Lebanese seven spice. Finally, you will also need a lot of olive oil, lemon juice, and dried mint.
How to make it, step by step
The first step is to prepare your cabbage by carving out around the root and removing it, making sure to go as deep as you can. Carving the root out allows the cabbage leaves to loosen up easily.
Next you'll want to submerge the head of cabbage in a pot of boiling water and leave it in there for a five minutes or so on a each side. Then, using tongs, start to dislodge the cabbage leaves by lifting them away from the head and removing them one by one. If you come across a leaf that looks hard/rigid, leave it in the water for a few more minutes to soften, which will make it easier to roll.
While the cabbage is boiling, prepare the meat mixture by combining all of the filling ingredients together in a bowl. Make sure the garlic is crushed and that the onions are finely chopped. Use your hands to ensure the meat and the rice are mixed together really well.
Next, prepare the cabbage leaves by cutting out the thick rib in the middle using a knife or kitchen scissors. Then continue cutting upwards to form two equal halves. Stuff the leaves by placing roughly 1-2 tablespoons of the filling the middle, flattening it down slightly, then rolling it up. Don't worry about folding the sides over, cabbage leaves don't need that because they're rigid and won't leak any of the filling.
Keep stuffing and rolling until you're out of either leaves or filling. This recipe should use up both the leaves and filling evenly, but if you have filling leftover, you can always cook it on its own like a pilaf (and it turns out fantastic!).
Mix together the broth, water, lemon juice, olive oil, mint and the salt to make the cooking liquid. You can use chicken stock cubes, or the liquid stock. Alternatively, vegetable stock or even water will work fine here.
At the bottom of your pot, place a drizzle of olive oil and then place a few extra cabbage leaves. Then place your rolls in the pot, making sure to pack them in tightly next to each other. Pour in the stock mixture, then add the whole garlic cloves as well as the dried mint. The liquid should just about come to the surface. Place a heavy plate on top.
Bring the pot to a boil on medium high heat for 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to medium and simmer for 1.5 hours, or until the cabbage is really soft. While cooking, you can taste the broth and adjust its salt and the tartness by adding a lot more lemon juice. Make sure you taste a roll and adjust accordingly!
How to serve Malfouf
To serve the malfouf, you can drain any excess liquid (just tilt the pot into the sink and place the pot lid so that no rolls come out) and then flipping the pot over onto a large tray. If you're scared of doing that, you can just put them on a serving platter one by one.
The best way to enjoy malfouf is hot straight after flipping the pot, with some extra lemon wedges on the side, and bit of yogurt to dip into (or yogurt and cucumber salad!). You can also garnish with another dusting of dried mint.
Oh and if you end up in a situation where you bought too much cabbage, why not make this cabbage salad to accompany it too?
For more stuffed vegetable recipes, check out these:
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Malfouf (Lebanese Cabbage Rolls)
For the Cabbage:
- 2 heads Green Cabbage (small heads)
- Boiling Water
- 1 teaspoon salt
For the Stuffing:
- 2 cups short grain rice calroze, or italian
- 500 grams ground beef lean or extra lean
- 1 onion finely diced
- 8 cloves garlic crushed
- 2 teaspoons allspice or replace with seven spice mixture
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 2.5 teaspoons salt
For the Cooking Broth:
- 2 cubes chicken stock or vegetable
- 6 cups hot water
- 6 lemons juice of more per preference
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 2 teaspoon dried mint
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 8 cloves garlic
To prepare the cabbage:
- Start by carving out the cabbage root, all around, and digging as deep as you can. This step will detach the cabbage leaves and loosen them easily in the next step. Be careful when doing this - Cabbage is hard to cut through with a knife, so do this slowly!
- Next, to a pot of boiling water, add the salt and the head of cabbage and allow it to boil for a few minutes, flipping it on both sides.
- Once boiling, you can start to loosen the leaves using a pair of tongs, and they should come off easily. Keep separating the leaves, and if you find some of them are very thick and hard, keep them in the water for a few extra minutes to soften them.
- Loosen the leaves until you reach the middle which won't have any more large enough leaves to stuff. You can save it to use in another recipe. Repeat with the second head of cabbage.
- Remove the leaves and place on a paper towel lined tray or a colander to drain. Allow them to cool.
To prepare the filling:
- Finely dice the onions and crush the garlic cloves called for in the filling
- Mix together the washed short grain rice, ground beef, onions, garlic, and the spices. Use your hands (you can use gloves if you need to) to ensure the meat and the rice are mixed together very well
Rolling the cabbage:
- To prepare the cabbage leaves for rolling, place one leaf on a cutting board and cut away the thick rib in the middle of the leaf using a knife or kitchen scissors. Then continue cutting upwards from where the rib was to form two equal sized pieces
- Place 1-2 tablespoons of the filling in the middle of the cabbage leaf and pack it together and spread it out slightly, leaving an inch of space near each of the edges
- Roll the cabbage upwards, maintaining a tight grip. There is no need to fold the edges over, as the cabbage leaves are sturdy and won't leak any of the filling whilst cooking
- Continue rolling all of the leaves until the filling is finished (you should only have a few leaves left, but if you end up with leftover filling, read the notes)
Cooking the Malfouf:
- In a non-stick pot, drizzle a bit of olive oil and lay a few cabbage leaves at the bottom. Start stacking the cabbage rolls in the pot tightly next to each other
- Mix together the broth ingredients (except for the garlic cloves and mint) and pour over the cabbage rolls. Sprinkle over the garlic cloves and the mint, and place a plate inverted on top
- Bring to a boil on medium high heat. Once boiling, decrease the heat to medium and simmer for 1.5 hours, checking on it after the one hour mark. Adjust the seasoning by adding more salt, or more lemon juice per preference
- Remove from heat after testing a piece and ensuring that the cabbage is really soft. Serve with more lemon juice and a side of tangy yogurt!
- For best results, use green cabbage. I like it because of its smooth look. Savoy cabbage is softer and will work too, but will look a lot more wrinkly
- Depending on how much you stuff your rolls, you may or may not have leftover filling. If you do, you can cook it as a rice pilaf with some water and serve it as a side (always a hit with the kids), or you can stuff something else like a pepper and stick it in the pot too
- They key to this recipe is LOTS of garlic and lots of lemon juice, so don't skimp on either of those! Cooked cabbage on its own can be bland, and that's why we need to amp up the flavour