Blog Archive

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Morocco's Richly Flavoured Gifts

image: Wikimedia Commons; "Pottery wares at Sidi Bousaid" by Emna Mizouni.
A cook's journey requires no passport or visa, it has no borders to constrain its creativity and no traditions which can stifle its direction. For me personally as a chef, there has always been immense pleasure to travel anywhere in the world, discovering new fragrances and tantalising the taste buds with exciting and fresh morsels previously undiscovered. So it was that I decided to travel to a land of sand and desert where the elegant stride of a camel can cross the hills for days without needing a drop of water.

There I stood at the gateway to North Africa, a beret stuffed in my back pocket and with my pots and pans at the ready. My mind buzzed with memories of the wonderful Casablanca when Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is looking into those gorgeous eyes of Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and says, “Ilsa I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Okay, I have no idea what this scene from Casablanca has to do with cooking, except that the film was set in Morocco and it is a favourite of mine. Oh, and beans are used in Moroccan cooking, as well as chick peas, peppers, fish, lamb, and spices that bring anyone's taste buds to a new level of exhilaration.

Morocco played host to the Phoenicians and Carthaginians – Romans and Byzantines in ancient times. In the Seventh Century, the forces of Islam erupted in Arabia, bringing with them the most lasting and enduring influence. In 711 the Arabs invaded the Liberian Peninsula, today's Spain and Portugal, dominating this region for the next seven Centuries. The Arabs renamed the Liberian Peninsula to Al Andalus. This peninsula and Morocco was ruled by the Burber dynasties of Almoravides and Almohades through to the Thirteenth Century.

New spices were introduced by the Arabs and the use of fruit for the sweet-sour flavours evolved into dishes that can only be Moroccan. The Ottoman Empire passed on some influences from Algeria with its stuffed vegetables and the kebabs which are now found all over Morocco.

Spain found itself free from the Moorish invasion in 1492, forcing Moors and Jews packing who were not willing to convert to Catholicism. Many of the Jews settled in Morocco, bringing with them influences that enriched the diversity of the local cuisine. As the 'New World' was discovered, so was the tomato, potato, squash, and both sweet and hot peppers.

Just as the tapestry of Moroccan cuisine seemed to be filled to perfection, la belle France burst onto the stage; the French Foreign Legion settled in Morocco from 1912 through to 1962. No Frenchman can stay for long without his baguette, croissant, wine, and coffee, and fifty years was a rather long visit. But it was not only the very tasteful influences on cuisine that can be attributed to the French; in their intrusion on Moroccan life, they had improved infrastructure and agriculture, planted vineyards, and introduced viticulture. Upon leaving, the French left behind a strong influence on Moroccan cuisine, and that is why French style coffee is sold more often in Moroccan coffee houses than Turkish coffee today.

Morocco can be divided into four distinct regions, each with its own character adding to a cuisine bursting with fragrance and flavour. The North, with cities like Tetuan and Tangier, Andalusian influence is evident in tortilla-like omelets and rice dishes. Here, olive oil, peppers, tomatoes, saffron, and wild artichokes find their way into daily dishes. Tangier also has both Mediterranean and Atlantic fish in plentiful supply. North-west of this region, Seville oranges are commercially distilled to make zhaaran orange flower water. Sebou Valley and the Sais Plains lay between the cities of Fes and the west coast at Rabat. Here it is agricultural land with wheat, pulses, barley, sunflowers, olives, vegetables, citrus fruits and grapes.

Traveling to Central Morocco and the City of Marrakesh, with its famed walls surrounded by date palms and orange groves, aromas shift to the famous tangia. This slow cooked meat stew is traditionally cooked by men and has been known throughout the region for centuries. Growers of roses cannot miss the incredible gardens at Kelaa el M'gouna where fresh roses are used for rosewater and the dried buds for the spice stores. In Ouarzazate the Rose Festival is held annually in mid-May which rocks the socks off any Englishman.

The Chaouia region of the West Coast, from Rabat to Casablanca, also produces fruits, vegetables, sweet corn, vineyards and almond groves. As one continues down the Atlantic coast, fish and different kinds of seafood is in copious supply, with the town of Safi famous for tassegal, or blue fish.

Finally, reaching the South or pre-Sahara region, the homelands of the Berbers and the nomadic Tuaregas, tastes change as the hot sands stand guard nearby. Meat is most likely to be camel, hedgehog or wild fox. Couscous is made from barley, maize, or millet, with milk and buttermilk, while dates, pulses and bread made from barley, millet or wheat are widely used as their staples.

Regardless whether one's journey of discovery takes them to the cities of Tetuan and Tangier in the North, to Rabat and Casablanca on the Western shorelines, or to ancient Marrakesh in Central Morocco, each one will find the Souks; marketplaces in the medinas, or old Arab quarters. Entering a Souk is like entering a time warp and being transported to the Middle Ages. Its buildings, type of goods on sale, the jumble of shops and stalls, blankets on the ground with baskets filled and brass scales at the ready, even the cobbled streets with the clatter of cartwheels drawn by donkeys all take you back in time. Simply stop at one of the outdoor cafes for a coffee and a pastry, or a mint tea hot and sweet, and soak in the flavour of Morocco.

Whether one enters the Souks or walks the streets of any city, no food journey in Morocco can be complete without paying homage to the spice shops. In Moroccan cooking, eight spices rule supreme; cinnamon, cumin, saffron, paprika, turmeric, black pepper, felfa (similar to cayenne pepper), and dried ginger. It is the spicing skills of Moroccan cooks that is the true unique essence of their cuisine, as these eight leading spices are blended and mixed with so many others, like allspice berries, nutmeg, lavender, thyme, and rosemary. Each of the spice shops has a rasel hanout, translating to 'the shopkeeper's choice.' This mixture can contain up to two dozen different spices and herbs depending on the skill and experience of the shopkeeper.

Walking through the spice souks, or spice shops, seeing the perfectly mound cones of ground spices with their earthen colours, and taking in the aromas leaves a heady sensation. Among all the blended and individual spices available, one spice rules supreme; saffron is the queen and the most expensive, its delicate texture and presence will change the flavour of any dish with only a pinch.

Centuries ago, the Berbers created the tagine, an earthenware cooking vessel made of two parts. The dish used for cooking is glazed, but the lids are usually unglazed. A tagine cooks all the ingredients of a meal together, as steam condenses in the lid and drops back down onto the food, keeping it from drying. Whether you decide to use a tagine or simply a roasting pan, it is the flavour of Moroccan recipes that will bring a new dimension to your table.

For a period of five days I had prepared a number of recipes, ranging from seafood, vegetables and meat. Street food like the Kefta Kebabs or Tagine Kefta Mchermel-Meatballs with Herbs and Lemon left mouths watering and opened the doors to a gastronomic spirit of adventure. So climb onto a camel and ride it into your kitchen for a new taste sensation.

Kefta Kebabs

1 brown onion, roughly chopped
2 tbsp parsley
1 tbsp cilantro
1 ½ lb ground lamb or beef
1 tsp cumin
1tsp paprika
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
¼ tsp black pepper

Put onion, parsley, and cilantro in food processor to puree.
Add meat, cumin, paprika, cayenne, black pepper, and one teaspoon salt. Process to paste.
Divide the Kefta mixture into sausage-like shapes about 3 ½ inches long.
Place on tray and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Cook on a hot BBQ grill and serve with lemon wedges.

Saffron Fish Balls in Tomato Sauce

1 ½ lb white flesh fish
1 egg
2 green onion, chopped
1 tbsp parsley
1 tbsp cilantro
2/3 cup breadcrumbs
pinch saffron threads


1 ½ tomatoes
1 brown onion, coarsely grated
3 tbsp olive oil
2 garlic loves, finely chopped
1 tsp paprika
½ tsp harissa or ¼ tsp cayenne pepper
½ tsp cumin
1 tsp caster sugar (superfine)

Roughly chop the fish and put into food processor with egg, green onion,
herbs, breadcrumbs, saffron, ¾ teaspoon salt, and black pepper.
Pulse into a paste.
Make balls size of large walnut and set aside in fridge.

Peel tomatoes and chop.
Cook onion for 5 minutes, add garlic, harissa or cayenne pepper, and cumin.
Stir, then add tomatoes, sugar, 1 cup water, salt and pepper to taste.
Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes.
Add fish balls, shaking the pan side to side to cover the balls with sauce.
Bring to a gentle boil, then cover and simmer for 20 minutes.
Serve with crusty bread or over couscous.

Chorba Bil Hout Fish Soup

2 red peppers
1 long red chili
2 tbsp olive oil
1 brown onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp tomato paste
3 tsp harissa
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tsp cumin
3 cups fish stock
14 oz tin diced tomato
2 lb boneless white fish fillets, cubed
2 bay leaves
2 tbsp cilantro

Cut and clean red peppers, then clean seeds and membrane from chili.
Place skin-side up under a broiler and cook till skin blackens.
Remove and place into a plastic bag and steam till cool enough to touch.
Remove the blackened skin and cut into thin strips. Set aside.

Heat oil and cook onion till softened.
Add tomato paste, harissa, garlic, cumin, and ½ cup water, stir to combine.
Add stock, tomato and 2 cups of water, bring to a boil.
Turn down to medium heat, add fish and bay leaves.
Simmer for about 8 minutes or until fish is cooked.
Then remove fish with a slotted spoon. Discard bay leaves.

When soup has cooled a little, add half of the cilantro,
then pour into blender and puree until smooth.
Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Return soup to pan, add fish and peppers, and warm gently.
Garnish with cilantro and serve with crusty bread.

Briouat Bil Hout – Fried Pastries with Seafood

white fish or prawns/shrimp
2 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
1 tbsp green onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
½ tsp paprika
¼ tsp cumin
pinch cayenne pepper
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp olive oil


6 sheets filo pastry
1 egg white, lightly beaten
oil for deep frying

Cook white fish or prawns/shrimp till pink, let stand cool and cut into small pieces.
Put prawns into bowl, add parsley, green onion, garlic, paprika, cumin, cayenne pepper,
lemon juice, and olive oil. Toss well to combine.

Using a ruler and sharp knife, cut filo sheets to 4 ½ inches wide, and 11 ¼ to 12 inches long.
Stack the sheets in a folded dry dish towel to keep from drying.
Take a strip with narrow end towards you, fold it in half to make it 2 ½ inches wide.
Place a generous teaspoon of filling ¼ inch from the base of the strip,
and fold the end diagonally across the filling so as to form a triangle.
Continue folding till near the end, brush the filo lightly with egg white to seal.
Then place on a cloth covered tray and keep covered with dish towel till ready to fry.

Heat the oil for frying and fry four at a time, turning over once for even browning.
(An easy test to check if oil is hot enough for deep frying is to drop a piece of bread into the oil,
and if it browns in 15 seconds, then you are ready to start.)

Meatball Tagine with Tomato & Harissa

2 lb ground beef
1 brown onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves
2 tbsp Italian parsley
2 tbsp cilantro
½ tsp cayenne pepper
½ tsp ginger
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp paprika
1 egg


1 brown onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tsp cumin
½ tsp cinnamon
1 tsp paprika
2 400g (14 oz) tins chopped tomatoes
4 tbsp chopped cilantro
2 tsp harissa


125 g (5 oz) red chili, stem removed
1 tbsp mint
1 tbsp coriander
1 tbsp cumin
1 tsp caraway seeds
½ cup olive oil

For harissa, combine all ingredients with 1 tablespoon oil and ½ teaspoon salt in food processor.
Process for 20 seconds, scrape down sides, then process for 30 seconds more.
With motor running gradually add rest of the oil. Spoon into jar.
Will keep in fridge for 6 months.

Combine onion, garlic, herbs, and egg in food processor to form a paste.
Add to meat, then add spices and roll into balls.
Heat oil in pan and cook balls for 8 to 10 minutes,
rolling over till fully browned. Set aside.

For the sauce, heat oil in pan and cook onion till soft, for about 5 minutes.
Add garlic, cinnamon, cumin, and paprika, cook for about 1 minute,
stir in tomato and harissa, and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes.
Add meatballs and simmer for 10 minutes.
Stir in cilantro, simmer for 2 minutes more and serve.

Moroccan Meatballs with Herb & Lemon Sauce

½ brown onion, chopped
2 tbsp Italian parsley, chopped
2 slices white bread, crust removed
1 egg
1 ½ lb ground beef or lamb
½ tsp cumin
½ tsp paprika
½ tsp black pepper


1 tbsp butter or oil
½ brown onion, chopped
½ tsp paprika
½ tsp tumeric
¼ tsp cumin
1 red chili, sliced or ¼ tsp cayenne pepper
1 ½ cup chicken stock
2 tbsp chopped cilantro
2 tbsp chopped parsley
2 tbsp coriander
2 tbsp lemon juice

In food processor, put onion and parsley.
Tear bread to pieces and add to processor with egg.
Add to meat, cumin, paprika, black pepper and 1 tsp salt.
Shape into balls and set aside.

Heat butter or oil, cook onion.
Add paprika, tumeric, cumin, and chili, cook for 1 minute.
Add stock and coriander then bring to boil.
Add meatballs, cover and simmer for 40 minutes.
Add parsley and lemon juice, return to simmer for 20 minutes.
Add lemon zest and serve.

Baked Fish with Harissa & Tomatoes

2 ½ lb whole white fish or fillets
3 garlic cloves
2 tsp harissa
2 tbsp olive oil
1 lemon, thinly sliced
1 brown onion, thinly sliced
2 large firm tomatoes, sliced
4 thyme sprigs

Preheat oven to 400° F, lightly grease a baking dish.
If using a whole fish, make diagonal cuts at the thickest part of the fish on both sides.
Combine garlic, harissa, and oil.
Spread the harissa mixture over the fish.
If using a whole fish place 2 teaspoons of harissa mixture and 2 slices of lemon inside the fish.
Arrange the onion slices in a layer in the baking dish,
then the tomato slices and thyme with the remaining lemon slices.
Place the fish on top and bake for 25 to 30 minutes.
Transfer the onion and tomato slices to a serving dish and place the fish on top.

(This can also be cooked on a barbecue by placing the tomato and onion slices into the cavity of the fish together with the thyme sprigs.)

Couscous with Chicken & Vegetables

3 ½ lb chicken
3 tbsp smen (purified butter) or butter
1 brown onion
½ tsp tumeric
½ tsp cumin
8 small onions
½ tsp saffron
1 cinnamon stick
4 cilantro & 4 parsley sprigs tied in bunch
3 tomatoes, chopped
3 carrots, cut into chunks
4 zucchini
1 ½ cups shelled green peas
15 oz tin chickpeas
3 tsp harissa

Heat the smen or butter or oil in large pan.
Cut the chicken into pieces and brown all around.
Add onion and cook till soft.
Stir in the tumeric, cumin, and small onions.
Pour 3 cups of water then add saffron, cinnamon stick, herbs, and tomato.
Season with 1 ½ teaspoons of salt and black pepper.
Bring to a boil and cook for 25 minutes. Add the harissa.
Add carrots and simmer for another 20 minutes.
Add zucchini peas and chickpeas and cook for 20 minutes more,
or until chicken and vegetables are tender.

Fish with Harissa & Olives

4 – 6 firm white fish fillets
seasoned plain flour to dust
1 brown onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
14 oz tin chopped tomatoes
2 tsp harissa
2 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick
1 cup black olives
1 tsp lemon juice
2 tsp Italian parsley

Dust the fish fillets with flour.
Cook each side for 2 minutes or until golden. Set aside.
Cook onion and garlic for 5 minutes.
Add tomato, harissa, bay leaves, and cinnamon stick, cook for 10 minutes or until sauce thickens.
Season to taste.
Return fish to pan with olives, discard bay leaves and cinnamon stick,
and cook for 2 minutes or until fish flakes easily.

Add lemon juice and parsley, cook for 1 minute and serve.