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Food & Wine

Arabic chicken soup warms winter days

Photo By: Blanche Sheen/Special
Photo Blanche Sheen/Special Maftoul is the Middle Eastern equivalent of a hearty chicken noodle soup.
Watch Blanche's video guide on Town Tube

I am a native Californian, which means I don’t do very well in temperatures under 60 F. Between my iced-over lawn, the crisp air, the leafless trees and flannel sheets up to my ears at night, it truly feels like winter in Los Altos. On days like these, I feel like cooking and closing all the doors in my kitchen to sequester the spicy aroma and comforting simmer of a hearty soup.

If there is a Middle Eastern equivalent to chicken noodle soup, maftoul would fit the bill. From the silky chicken to the sweet onion and unique blend of spices, a bowl of this goodness makes winter much more bearable.

Instead of pasta, Arabs tend to use couscous or other grains like bulgur or barley in their soups. Maftoul is similar to couscous but made with semolina instead of unbleached wheat flour. Maftoul is the Arabic word for “couscous,” but this couscous in particular is larger grained than the average box you find in most grocery stores. While a smaller couscous is used in Moroccan preparations, this recipe calls for the Lebanese, Jordanian or Palestinian method using the larger grain.

Your best bet is to visit your local Middle Eastern market and ask for maftoul, which is like a larger hand-rolled pasta that suits soup better than the small-grained traditional couscous.

Another great substitute is the Italian acini de pepe, a pasta that looks like tiny beads.

My mother would make me this soup whenever I had a cold, and I would instantly feel better after a bowl (or two).

The tomato adds a different kick, and you can add chopped vegetables to the broth for variety. I have added chopped butternut squash and zucchini with tasty results.

Blanche Shaheen is a food blogger and journalist who lives in Los Altos. For more recipes, visit feastinthemiddleeast.com.


• 2 pounds dark-meat chicken (use all drumsticks or combination of drumsticks and thighs)

• Salt and pepper to taste

• 2 bay leaves

• 1 fresh tomato, skinned and pureed

• 1/2 can tomato paste

• 1 tablespoon whole allspice berries

• 1 large minced onion

• 5 cloves of garlic, each sliced in half

• 1 cup canned garbanzo beans (optional)

• 1/2 cinnamon stick

• 1 teaspoon allspice

• 2 teaspoons butter

• 2 cups maftoul (found in Middle Eastern markets – can substitute traditional couscous)



Place chicken in large pot and add approximately 2 teaspoons of salt, onions, cinnamon stick, allspice, allspice berries, halved garlic cloves and bay leaves. Pour in water so that there is at least 5 inches of water above chicken. Place pot on stovetop over high heat until boiling.

Remove any scum that rises to the top with a sieve. After water reaches its boiling point, reduce heat and simmer for 25 minutes.

Add tomato paste and tomato puree and let boil for an additional 20 minutes. Let soup cool slightly. Using tongs, scoop out chicken pieces and set aside.

Using sieve, pour broth into bowl to strain out bay leaves, allspice, cinnamon and onion. Return broth to pot and reduce heat to simmer. Add garbanzo beans, simmering for an additional 15 minutes.

Return chicken to soup. In another pot, melt butter and 2 cups maftoul and brown until butter is melted.

Carefully remove 4 cups tomato chicken broth from main pot and add to maftoul. After mixture boils, cover and simmer on low heat for approximately 20 minutes. (Cooking time and liquid required may vary depending on type of maftoul – make sure to follow package directions for doneness and add more liquid if needed.)

To serve, scoop maftoul into bowl and use soup ladle to pour broth, chick peas and meats over maftoul.

Serve immediately.

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