One of the world’s great cuisines goes mainstream.
orroccan food is the jewel of the North African Maghreb region, which also contains Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania and the Western Sahara. In fact, French icon Paul Bocuse called Moroccan cooking “one of the three great cuisines in the world.” Exploring succulent tagines — such as lamb fez resplendent with prunes, cinnamon, almonds, honey and hard boiled eggs — is only “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Believe it or not, among the great breads eaten in Morocco you can also count the French baguette, so influenced has Moroccan food been by the influx of the world. Forged at the crossroads of Berber, Arabic and Moorish influence, with contributions from the Persians, Spanish and Portuguese, as well as Jews expelled from Spain and Romans whose clay vessels inspired Morocco’s renowned terracotta tagines, Moroccan food is a refined, multi-layered mélange, the result of conquests, cultural interactions and trade. It is lush with lamb, ripe with chicken, increasingly flush with seafood and brimming with beef. The famous Berber harira tomato soup swims with lentils, chickpeas, rice, cilantro, parsley and spices. This soup is but one of the famous Berber dishes. Others are couscous and bastilla, a special phyllo dough chicken pie with almond paste, powdered sugar and orange blossom water. Traditionally served at weddings, this pie ultimately acquired many foreign contributions, moving far beyond its simple original Berber form as chicken cooked in saffron butter, according to cookbook author Paula Wolfert.
Today, for example, at Magazan, in Arlington, Virginia, Moroccan chef Riyad Bouizar serves bastillas that move far beyond the original Berber dish. He offers seafood bastilla with seasoned vermicelli; spinach, goat cheeses and raisin bastilla; and phyllo-enclosed kefta ground meat balls with cilantro, eggs and mozzarella cheese. Bouizar is part of a new wave in which young chefs wish to assert their creativity and to advance the march of Moroccan food.
Dueling Cookbooks: Traditional Vs. New Moroccan Cuisine
Controversy arose in 2011 when two mighty forces — traditionalist Wolfert and experimental Moroccan chef Mourad Lahlou — both published cookbooks with antithetical views. American-born Wolfert had lived in Morocco, striving for years to discover and define traditional Moroccan cuisine. Significantly, in her 2011 book “The Food of Morocco,” which won the 2012 James Beard Award for Best International Cookbook, she asserted her desire to see it maintained in its traditional form. Why mess with perfection?
In the opposite “corner,” in 2011 Chef Lahlou wrote his daring “Mourad: New Moroccan.” Having grown up in Casablanca, Mourad ultimately taught himself to cook surrounded by the memories of succulent meals that perfumed his early family life. A naturally inquisitive soul, he likes to push limits. Mourad bustles with the desire to reference the great traditional dishes, but transmogrify them into something new and surprising.
For example, though the royal kitchens at Marrakesh roasted whole chickens on spits (chicken mechoul), he goes further and dry rubs and fries whole roasted chickens with the mysterious, magical spice blend ras el hanout. He also suggests other unconventional uses for this spice blend, normally used in tagines, such as adding it to yogurt. Or putting it into chilled cream as a topping for summer soup. Or using it to flavor rice. Mourad himself has won two Michelin stars, one at the now-shuttered Aziza, the first Moroccan restaurant in America to win a Michelin star, the other at his namesake Mourad in San Francisco.
This controversy among culinary titans roils in an intriguing context: Though the glories of traditional Moroccan cuisine are not widely known, some younger chefs are eager to come up with twists and changes, partly due to their own searching creativity, and, one imagines, partly due to the roving curiosity and appetite for newness among foodies seeking their next titillation.
A Spice-Rich Ride
Moroccan cooking is flavored with refined spices including cinnamon, turmeric, cumin, pepper, ginger, anise seed, paprika, coriander, sesame seeds and saffron, creating succulent, mellow flavors. All of these spices came from the spice trade. None are inherently Moroccan. It’s how the cooks and chefs use them that is so magical.
Spice mixtures including ras el hanout could be called the twinkle in the eye of Moroccan cooks. Some of the blends can include over 100 spices and are purported to be aphrodisiacs. Others are designed to heat the body. Others still are prescribed to promote pregnancy, according to Wolfert.
Moroccan chefs guard their spice mixtures from the prying eyes and tongues of others. “The magic comes in how you coax out their essential flavors and get them to mellow and harmonize with one another and other ingredients in a dish,” Mourad writes in his book.
“(I)t is impossible to talk about the role of spices in the cuisine without putting them in the context of the sweet and savory balance,” he adds. Dried fruits, prunes, dates, apricots and figs help create the poise and refined balance between sweet and savory. Spicing could be called a balancing act in which cooks stand on their tippy toes but never lose their footing. Magical balances, aromas, tastes and harmony are always at play.
A whirlwind of cold and cooked salads help start the meal. Though not de rigeur, seven salads are a happy occurrence, an auspicious number representing wholeness in the Islamic culture, as Mourad explains.
At traditional Shokran in Chicago, cold salads include zaalouk, a roasted eggplant salad made with fresh tomatoes, olive oil, cilantro and garlic; taktouka, a popular roasted green pepper tomato salad flavored with spices and olive oil. There’s a yummy fresh carrot salad perfumed with parsley, olive oil, preserved lemon and Moroccan spices. A cooked spinach classic spiced with red olives, garlic, preserved lemon and Moroccan spices is called bakoula. Hummus is also part of the array. Among others, classic chopped roasted beet salad — a far cry from Mourad’s five-pound beet roasted in salt — is carved tableside and drizzled with cumin vinaigrette.
While some Moroccan restaurant environments are homey and simple, others amaze, like the rosy red lit Shalel Lounge in New York where rose petals splatter the stairway, the water fountain and the tables while diners cocoon in cozy, sexy niches. And in New York’s restaurant Tagine, a sylphlike belly dancer does a low, acrobatic bend to the floor with lighted candles on her stomach. Meanwhile guests feast on lamb shanks stewed in saffron sauce and topped with sweet potatoes.
Because of their use of tagines and amphora-shaped tangias, meat is braised, not seared over coal fires. The lid of the tagine captures any rising liquid, which falls back into the braising food after condensing on the vessel’s walls. Significantly, spices are put into the meat and vegetable mixture at the start so they infuse the sauce. Bread is used to sop up the spice-rich sauce first, then the vegetables are savored. Finally, the meat is tasted. Meat cooked in a terracotta tangia falls off the bones. Ras al hanout is traditionally added to dishes like lamb along with preserved lemon, smen (aged butter) and saffron.
Then again, new Moroccan chef Bouizar takes the classic chicken, olive and potato tagine, substituting French fried potatoes as his surprising twist.
A Moving, Soothing, Satisfying Caravan To Savor And Explore
Moroccan food makes you think, savor, balance and question. “Although one can speak of a singular, unified ‘Moroccan cuisine,’ each region has its own variations and dishes that reflect the distinct geography, climate, influences and history. Indeed, every dish … has roots, and these roots begin firmly in a region, village, or home,“ writes Jeff Koehler in his erudite book “Morocco.”
When the Moors invaded Al-Andalus Spain in the eighth century, they brought Moroccan food with them. When they moved on to Mexico in the 15th century, they brought with them oranges, lemons, dried fruits, ginger, saffron, almonds, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, anise, cilantro, cloves, mint, pomegranates, sugarcane and rice.
So when Mourad Lahlo and his longtime Mexican collaborator Louis Maldonado finally open Amara in San Francisco, they will explore common bonds such as the closeness of Mexican sopa de fideo and Moroccan seppa. And the joy of savoring lamb shank with mole and ras el hanout is palpable. Goodness only knows what common bonds and inventive creations will emerge.
As a cuisine formed partly by formidable foreign invasions, Moroccan food, which profoundly influenced Spanish cuisine, now commences to examine its own invasion by the Moors. So shout it from the rooftops. The Culinary Casbah, with its rich heritage, keeps offering new delightful discoveries.