MARRAKECH, Morocco -- If you want to cook Moroccan, find a dada.
A dada is the domestic goddess who keeps the home fires burning. Nanny, cook, and major domo, she doesn't need a recipe. She keeps the cookbook in her head.
Ayada Benijei is a dada turned pro. She does not speak English, but she's the eloquent instructor of a Marrakesh cooking school at Maison Arabe, keeping a thousand-year-old culinary tradition alive. And every day, the tradition begins again, with a visit to the bread oven.
In Morocco, good bread is a priority. It's said that every Moroccan village has five institutions: the mosque, the fountain, the hammam (or steam bath), the madrassa, and the bread oven. That's why every family brings loaves of dough to a wood-fired hearth each day. If you want to get the gossip on who's got company coming, joke Moroccans, just ask the baker. He knows all.
The traditional Moroccan midday meal puts family-sized platters on the table, with flavors of saffron, fiery harissa, cinnamon and sugar. Combine those tastes with meats, simmered in the traditional clay pot called a tagine, fluffy couscous steamed three times with eggplant, turnips, and other vegetables, and a glossy tomato confit, and you've got the essence of this North African cuisine.
"It's a cuisine based on contrasts," says Amaggie Wafa, an instructor who works with Ayada Benijei. "It's savory and sweet. It's Jewish, Arabic, Berber, Moorish. It's multicultural. And we have abundant good ingredients." Like California, Morocco's sunny, dry climate produces top quality produce year-round.
Moroccan cuisine is poised to hit the U.S. consciousness this fall. Williams-Sonoma is promoting young celebrity chef Mourad Lahlou, and his signature line of spices, for the American market. Mr. Lahlou, a 44-year-old Marrakesh native, runs Aziza, a San Francisco restaurant that earned its first Michelin star in 2010 and has maintained it ever since. Last year he published his first cookbook, "Mourad: New Moroccan." Williams-Sonoma's endorsement ratchets up the profile of his national cuisine.
Mr. Lahlou's not alone. Armed with mortar and pestle, every Moroccan cook mixes his or her own signature spice mix: coriander, mace, nutmeg, turmeric, anise and black pepper. Cumin is essential for lamb and chicken. Harissa paste adds a touch of heat to sauces. Gentle aromatic pastes of almond, honey, rosewater, and orange blossom water scent the sweets that Moroccans consume with their mint tea -- actually a green tea, brewed with a liberal handful of fresh mint and a sizeable chunk of white sugar.
The first item on the checklist is the bread: After Ms. Benijei kneads the loaves, she carries them to the baker down the block. A few hours later, she'll return to pick up the perfectly crunchy loaves.
Next she pours golden olive oil over a dish of semolina, mixing it with her hands before setting the couscous to steam in a high, shapely pot over a savory vegetable broth.
"Bessmilla," she murmurs, asking the blessing of Allah on her work.
As the couscous steams, Ms. Benijei leads us through a surprisingly simple stovetop prep for the chicken tagine. Village cooks long relied on charcoal braziers, whose fumes often caused dangerous home fires. Today, the sturdy clay base of a tagine acts like a saute pan on a gas stovetop to prepare the spices in which the chicken will simmer.
The prized ingredients here are pure Mediterranean: ripe olives, ranging in color from bright green to rosy pink, and fresh cilantro, here called coriander. Turmeric adds its bright-gold signature hue to the dish. When the plump chicken hits the pan, the work is nearly done. Sliced onion, tucked under the chicken pieces, softens and swaps flavors. Finally, a dash of dark-red saffron: the stamens of the crocus plant are the most highly valued spice in the Middle East, and add a sumptuous finish to the tagine.
Another 30 minutes of simmering, and the finishing touch -- preserved lemon -- is added to the mix. The tall top hat of the tagine lid retains the heat so the flavors can blend. The couscous, perfumed with the flavors of zucchini and eggplant, has swelled into a fragrant mound. The bread, with its crisp crust, is ready to serve as "both knife and fork," Ms. Benijei says. It's time to eat.
Chicken Tagine with preserved lemon and olives
Serve this with couscous. Moroccan food expert Paula Wolfert recommends using the instant brands that are 100-percent semolina: Ferrero, Dari, Rivera, Trai or Tripiak. Be sure to steam the grain 3 times.
- 1/2 preserved lemon
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 tablespoon parsley, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon coriander (cilantro), finely chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon ginger powder
- 1 heaping teaspoon turmeric
- Pinch of saffron
- 1 pound chicken cut in chunks
- 1/2 red onion, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon ghee (clarified butter)
- 4 tablespoons water
- 10 ripe olives
Cut preserved lemon in half.
Separate flesh from peel. Reserve peel and chop flesh. Put chopped lemon in a tagine (or Dutch oven). Add finely chopped garlic, parsley and coriander and all spices. Coat the chicken in the marinade and add finely chopped onion.
On medium heat, heat olive oil and ghee and sear the tagine for about 20 minutes, watching and turning the chicken from time to time. Add a bit of water if necessary to keep chicken from sticking. After 20 minutes, add about a cup of cold water and simmer for 45 minutes. When chicken is browned and sauce is thick, add lemon peel and olives. Serve with couscous
-- La Maison Arabe
- 4 1/2 pounds of tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
- 1 pound white sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Pinch salt
- Roasted sesame seeds
Cut the tomatoes in half; remove seeds. Peel, and finely chop. Place tomatoes in saute pan or pot. On low heat, cook the tomatoes, covered, for 15 minutes.
Add vegetable oil, sugar, cinnamon, and salt. Mix well. Cook uncovered on low heat until tomatoes become caramelized (45 minutes to 1 hour), stirring occasionally. Garnish with sesame seeds and serve.
Variation: Replace tomatoes with sliced, peeled pumpkin. Wrap pumpkin pieces with plastic wrap and microwave for 15 minutes, until soft. Follow sauteing instructions and timing. You can replace the sugar with honey and the oil with butter.
-- La Maison Arabe
Christine H. O'Toole is a writer based in Mt. Lebanon (christinehotoole.com). She traveled to Morocco as a guest of Visit Morocco, the national tourist board. First Published November 15, 2012 5:00 AM