A Taste of Morocco By: C. Shawn Kretz
Recently I have been delving further into various ethnic cuisines. While I enjoy all cuisine, I am particularly taken with a choice few; Indian, Moroccan and Thai. Many dishes in this culture can be identified as having a blend of spices that make the dish unique. For the most part these may be described as “curries” which relates more to the finished dish than the spice combination. The curry powder we use in western cuisines is simply a catch all spice created to approximate as many elements as possible from various dishes.
However, traditionally each dish has its own spice combination, which can vary from region or village. Therefore, for authenticity one must not resort to curry powder. While I enjoy Indian curries I am currently immersing myself in the cuisines of the Berbers. Elements of this cultural group extend from Ethiopia to Morocco and into Spain.
I find it fascinating to see how cuisines evolve due to political and societal change, ie. When the Berbers began coming into Spain the Spanish cuisine began adopting elements from the new cultures foodways. However, this is not a surprise given how wonderful and unique Moroccan cooking can be.
Certain elements that set Moroccan (and North African) food traditions apart from the rest of the world. These include spice combinations, ingredient combinations, cooking techniques and cookware.
It is important to remember that peppers, tomatoes and other vegetables (especially of the nightshade family) were originally from the Americas, and were not introduced until after Columbian times (1492). Berber traditions had already spread into Spain, Southern France and Sicily as early as the 11th century during the Islamic period, and as early as the beginning of the Roman republic in the 1st century BC.
So, Berber traditions are ancient indeed, but went through quite the transformation post-Columbus as well, along with the rest of Europe. Prior to this tomatoes, corn and our favourite tuber the potato.
While this brief survey cannot attempt to elucidate every facet of the cuisine, it will discuss a few prominent concepts. Morocco has unique spice combinations and sauces(including condiments) for which there may be similar ideas in other cuisines. For example, “Ras el Hanout” the most common spice mix includes chili peppers, ginger, cloves, coriander, allspice, cardamom, mace,nutmeg, peppercorns and turmeric . A hot chili-garlic sauce known as Harissa has similar concepts in other traditions, however, they are still very different than other chili sauces or pastes.
Moroccans also cook with unique ingredients not often utilized or cooked with in western cuisines. For example, dates, figs, quinces,apricots, prunes, rose hips, couscous, black cumin (seen in Indian dishes), etc, are uncommon ingredients in many cultures, especially using those fruits in hot savoury dishes.
A popular group of Moroccan and Tunisian preparations known as tajines often include these ingredients. The tajine gets its name from a specific cooking vessel, often a decorative ceramic dish with a tall conical lid. Traditionally these are placed directly on the hot embers of a fire so that they are heated from all sides evenly. The special design feature of this vessel is that the conical shape helps force the condensation from steam to collect and run back down into the food to keep it moist. A great feature to have in a fairly arid region. The height of the lid also allows a convection current to churn within the lid thus speeding up cooking time and ensuring evenness in cooking.
The other benefit of this vessel is that the lid can be removed and the dish can go directly on the table. While ceramic tajines are more traditional, many western manufacturers now offer cast iron based versions that can withstand the heat outputs of modern stovetops. This has the added benefit of allowing one to brown the meats and vegetables first. This caramelization is what causes us to salivate upon smelling.
A tajine can have a variety of ingredients in it, generally focussing on a specific proteins, either meat or legume based (chicken, goat,lamb, chickpeas) or sometimes combinations. Figs, apples, prunes, apricots, dates or raisins add an element of sweetness and sophistication, often with a few spoons of honey. Spices make up the majority of the flavour profile of a dish, often including exotic spices such as saffron added at the last minute. Sweet, sour and salty pickled items also play an important part, such as the popular preserved lemon (salt preserved lemons) or items such as olives. Citrus juice also factors heavily as a dominant acid ingredient in cold and hot preparations. Finally, grains such as rice and couscous (small pasta granules made from semolina flour) are dominant, as well as breads (flat and leavened) made from semolina or other grains or lentils. Couscous is the most common accompaniment which can be served plain or with a variety of flavours.
There are a variety of tajines, these vary from region to region, however there are a few popular varieties found in themed restaurants. Mshermel is a chicken based tajine, kefta is a lamb meatball based tajine, and Mrouzia a lamb (or goat) raisin and nut based dish.
I am going to walk you through my version of a Mrouzia. Don’t worry you can use any wide, heavy bottomed, lidded pan or pot to cook the dish.
In Cornwall goat or lamb can be had fresh at Khan asian grocer/Halal meat shop, or frozen at food basics. I recommend using bone in meat. It is more difficult to eat off the bone, but it is more flavourful on the bone.
2-3 lbs stewing lamb or goat, bone in (1.5lbs if just meat)
1/2 spanish onion, diced
1 cup slivered almonds
1 cinammon stick
2 tbsp fresh ginger, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup golden or sultana raisins
4 figs, quartered
1 can chickpeas, drained
2 tbsp salted butter
Zest of 1 lemon, or 1/2 of 1 preserved lemon preferrably
2 tbsp honey
4 tbsp Ras el Hanout spice mix (look online for recipes)
1 pinch saffron
Serve with couscous
1 cup couscous
( Follow instructions on couscous package, every company is different)
This recipe can certainly be modified to include more vegetables, etc. Red peppers and fennel make nice additions, but are not traditional. You can also use whole spices or powdered, ie. Whole cardamom, cumin, cloves, mace, chili peppers, etc.
For the best flavour, take the meat, season, and brown in a hot pan with a little oil. Then add onions, garlic, ginger, cinnamon stick and Ras el Hanout. Cook on low until sweated. Then add remaining ingredients with a cup or two of water, cover and simmer lightly for 2 hours, or until the meat is tender. Serve with toasted flatbread and/or couscous.
I encourage you to research other North African appetizers and desserts that may interest you, make a meal of it.
My next article will deal with wedding planning, especially meals on a budget.
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