When I arrived at Northwestern University to do my graduate work, I had relatively little knowledge or experience of North Africa. Within a few short years, this changed as I studied the French-language literature of the region with a prominent specialist who happened to be teaching there, gained a close friend who was raised in Morocco, and finally chose North African Jewish writers as my field of study.
I finally went to Morocco in 2007, staying mostly in Marrakech, but also traveling across the Atlas Mountains to Ouarzazate. Marrakech remains in my memory a vividly saturated and almost surreal city. Part of this comes from the snow capped Atlas mountains that dramatically flank the hot city, and part may have come from the fact that, at the time, I was coming out of a rather lengthy period of anxiety during which I had hardly slept for weeks and weeks. I will always remember the quiet riad where we stayed (a riad is a residence with an inner courtyard common in Muslim countries where women were traditionally kept out of public as much as possible) as a place that brought me some peace at an unsettled time. The extraordinary contrast between the chaos of the casbah and the intense calm of the riad’s inner sanctum after dark reminded me that quiet can be found in the strangest of places.
Here are a few pictures from our trip.
A vegetable seller in the Casbah
Place Jama El Fnaa food stands
I also have a number of food memories that stand out from that trip. Each morning, we sat alone in the mosaic-tiled courtyard and a young woman brought us one of the most wonderful breakfasts I can ever remember eating. There was a flaky pancake (m’semen) that we saturated in butter and honey, along with French croissants and dark, rich coffee. In the afternoon, we got a small plate of salty/sweet cookies, scented with anise or orange flower water. Lastly, I remember the semolina encrusted flat bread that was sold in the street and which I have tried to find again, to no avail. While home ovens are no match for the high heat stone ovens that this kind of bread is traditionally baked in, I will offer you a quick and delicious recipe for Moroccan bread at home.
North Africa has an amazingly diverse and ancient culture, distinct from the rest of the Arab world, and this is reflected in the cuisine. Moroccan cuisine is quite different from classic Middle Eastern cuisine, and typically does not include things like hummus, baba ghannouj, and falafel. Instead, the flavors of Morocco tend towards the sweet- dried fruit, cinnamon, and honey, with many savory dishes having just a hint of sweetness from sweet spices or the addition of raisins, prunes, or dates. One of my favorite Moroccan dishes is a very unusual meat pie called Pastilla or B’stilla, which is made with chicken, cinnamon and a flaky pastry, and while I would not venture to make it at home, you should try it if you ever find yourself in a Moroccan restaurant that serves it. In Morocco, you also find lots of dishes with couscous, preserved lemon, as well as rich earthy stews made with cumin and paprika, and a vast range of honey-soaked pastries.
My friend Taieb, who spent his youth in Rabat, also happens to be a solid cook, and over the course of our PhD, we spent many evenings around the table, sharing his versions of various Moroccan dishes. This very much influenced my own cooking, and some of his techniques became part of my repertoire. Watching Taieb cook, I have noticed a few specific things he does that I think make a dish taste Moroccan. First, add more than you think you should of two spices: paprika and cumin. Yes, you will find recipes that also call for cinnamon, ginger, and other spices, but paprika and cumin are the workhorses of the Moroccan spice cabinet and you need little else. Second- grate the onion and tomato, or blend it in a food processor. Using fresh tomatoes instead of canned mellows the tomato intensity, and the grating distributes both ingredients so that they meld together to create a smooth, flavorful sauce. Third- don’t be shy with the olive oil. The first time Taieb cooked at my house, I nearly cried watching my extra virgin olive oil being poured glug after glug (‘what is that, like a dollar per glug?’ I thought) into the pot. But this makes for such a glorious sauce that it’s worth it, and if you want to cook like a true Mediterranean, you need to go heavy on the olive oil.
So I will offer you a few recipes today. One is Taieb’s recipe for keftas (meatballs). They are great on their own, but I have jazzed them up just a bit here and integrated them into a classic meatball tajine (a simmered dish). The idea for serving the meatballs as a tajine came from a recipe from Rick Stein Cooks on the BBC. The recipe calls for browning the meatballs in oil first, and this does give the best flavor. As you can see from the picture, however, we cut corners this time and put them straight it. This works too. If you’re going to make the meatballs on their own, however, stick with the pan method. Next, I give you a Moroccan bread recipe that can be quickly put together in under 2 hours.
Other things I suggest you try are mint tea and argan oil. Yes, there seems to be an argan oil craze right now in America (have you noticed that it is now in EVERYTHING in the beauty aisle?), and yet you still rarely see it as a food product. But argan oil has a rich, nutty flavor that is worth trying if you can find it. For years, I questioned the tale that Taieb fed me about argan oil, which involves goats in trees and…ahem, predigested, shall we say, seeds being pressed for their oil. Well, I’ll be damned if it’s not true. Here’s a picture your kids will find hilarious.
In any case, I love it mixed into almond butter and drizzled with honey, as shown in this recipe I cut out of a French magazine:
Lastly, no virtual trip to Morocco would be complete without a cup of sweet Moroccan mint tea. Everything about the service of mint tea in Morocco is delightfully impractical. The tea is poured from blazing hot metal teapots (towels are sometimes rubber banded to the handle to make handling possible) from a distance of 2 feet or more. The boiling liquid arcs past your face and into tiny etched glass cups, also impossible to handle without burning your fingers. If you want to make authentic Moroccan tea, make sure the blend is made with gunpowder tea and be sure to sweeten it generously.
Keftas Egg Tajine
- 1 lb ground beef (80/20)
- 1 small onion, grated
- 1 bunch parsley
- 1 bunch mint (or a teaspoon dried)
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp paprika
- 2 cloves of garlic
- salt and pepper
- 2-3 large tomatoes, diced, or 1 can
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- chopped parsley and/or cilantro
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 onion (grated or diced)
- 2 tsp cumin
- 2 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp ginger
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 3-4 eggs
- salt and pepper
Fry meatballs in a generous amount of olive oil on high heat until just browned. Remove and put aside. Add onion, garlic and spices and fry in oil. Next add the rest of the sauce ingredients and simmer until tomatoes begin to break down. Add the meatballs back and simmer for another 5 minutes.
Lastly, crack an egg for each person eating with you and simmer until egg whites are cooked. Sprinkle with more parsley or cilantro as a garnish.
- 2 cups whole wheat flour
- 2 cups white flour (1/2 cup toasted if desired, see note)
- 1 tablespoon salt, plus additional
- 1 ½ tablespoons yeast
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon sugar or honey
- 1 1/4 cup warm water
- additional flour for kneading
- cornmeal or semolina
Oil a large baking sheet. Mix the flour, yeast, sugar and salt in a bowl. Make a large well in the center of the flour mixture, and begin adding lukewarm water. Incorporate water little by little until the dough is sticky but can be handled. Continue working in the bowl or on a floured surface, sprinkling just enough flour to keep hands from sticking too much. Continue kneading for 10 minutes, or until the dough is very smooth and elastic. Allow the dough to rest, covered with a tea towel, for 10 minutes.
After the dough has rested, form into 2 or 3 balls and flatten balls into a disk shape. Cover with plastic and then the tea towel, and leave to rise about one hour, or until the dough springs back when pressed lightly with a finger.
Preheat an oven to 425°F.
Score the top of the bread with a very sharp knife, or poke the dough with a fork in several places. Sprinkle the tops with cornmeal or semolina and a sprinkling of salt.
Bake for about 20 minutes, turning halfway through baking, or until the loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped. Transfer the bread to a rack or towel-lined basket to cool.
* I tried a neat little trick to help make your bread taste a little more like its been wood-fired. Basically you toast just a bit of flour and either add it to the rest of the flour or use it for dusting while you knead. It also helps to add a little dimension to a quick yeasted bread, since lengthy fermenting times are usually a major source of flavor in artisanal breads. Quick breads are more likely to just taste floury. Take about 1/2 cup of flour and put it in a bare frying pan. Turn heat to medium and stir until the flour turns golden. Transfer to a bowl and cool completely before using.