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Eat: A Middle Eastern Layer Cake for Dinner

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Maqluba, a Middle Eastern dish, is an aromatic glory that requires a certain manual dexterity for its presentation.

Gentl and Hyers for The New York Times. Food stylist: Maggie Ruggiero. Prop stylist: Amy Wilson.

“Why did you take your shoes off?” Maha Sarsour demanded as she emerged from her kitchen to greet me. I debated whether it would be better or worse to say that I thought Muslim families go shoeless in their homes. Then it occurred to me that her daughter Linda, who had invited me to cook with her mother, might have forgotten to mention my visit to her. So I stood, a shoeless stranger in Maha’s house. “The floor is too cold!” she said.

Another daughter, Hanady, arrived with her children, and eventually Linda walked through the door at true New Yorker speed. I’d never met her but knew she was a social-justice activist with an intense work ethic. She was on a conference call, muted, as she beelined to give her niece a hug, me a nod and a quick look at the mail. “You ready to make some maqluba?” she asked.

A feat of engineering, maqluba means “upside down” in Arabic. It’s a pot of stewed chicken, tender vegetables and richly spiced rice, cooked and then flipped to reveal itself in aromatic glory, a layer cake for dinner. When I asked Maha why she calls it “her favorite,” she wasn’t shy. “You’ll taste it,” she said, sizzling cauliflower to a dark caramel. “You’re going to see.”

Linda told me: “Our neighbors are from Yemen, and they’d never seen maqluba before. They learned to make it from us.” Maha looked up from the stove, adding, “And they say it never tastes the same as ours.” It’s a dish she actually learned to make in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where she arrived with her husband, Nidal, from the West Bank in the late 1970s. “I was so excited: America!” Maha said. “But when I got off the plane, the houses were made of small bricks or wood, not like the big stones in my country that are built so strong. If those houses burn, you can live in it again — unless there’s a bomb.”

While Sunset Park is known mostly as a Latino and Chinese neighborhood, Palestinian and Yemeni families settled there around the time the Sarsours did. “Back then, there was already a mosque here, and even if your family wasn’t really religious, they knew their people would be here,” Linda said. Maha, who never cooked growing up, found she had a cousin nearby, whom she could learn from. Thirty-eight years later, I stood in her kitchen and took notes as she took 18 pounds of chicken and rice and flipped it upside down without losing a single grain.

We brought it to the table. Linda’s brothers had arrived, as well as one of Linda’s daughters and some more children. The house was buzzing on a Tuesday with three generations of Sarsours. “In Palestine,” Hanady said, “maqluba is something you might do once a month. But here, we can have it whenever, because we can have the money to do so.”

Gizelle, Hanady’s 2-year-old, ran to get Nidal in the living room. “Welcome! Your food is ready,” she said, and took his hand. He got up, she ran to the table, he waited for a moment and sat back down. She ran back to him. “Welcome! Your food is ready,” she said, and took his hand again. It’s their ritual, and she insists on sitting on his knee. Nidal said to me: “I’m so happy. The grandchildren come every day.” Hanady laughed. “Yeah,” she said. “He doesn’t give us a choice. We’re all here every night.”

The maqluba was glorious: The chicken gave its flavor to the rice, intertwined with toasted cinnamon, cloves, allspice and garlic. I tried to serve some to Maha. “You are the guest!” she said, refusing. Gizelle and one of her cousins yelled, “You’re ugly!” at each other until they collapsed in a hug, and Nidal shouted, “Shut up!” at a crying baby to everyone’s laughter. When you’re privy to this kind of playful snapping around a family table, you feel pretty instantly like part of the family.

I was soon walking around the room to get some more chicken for Linda and for Robbee, Hanady’s kindergarten-age son. We spent hours together, part of it mercilessly teasing Robbee about his secret crush, and I marveled at how this family has Thanksgiving every night. Just a few days after a postelection Thanksgiving that was profoundly contentious for so many families — so much arguing about who belongs in America — it was lovely to be welcomed into this one.

Recipe: Maqluba (Upside-Down Chicken and Rice)

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