“I miss the chaos of Moroccan souks. The Moroccan souk is a place where anything is bought or sold, and it’s an incredible showcase of local food. I love the crush of people. I love the haggling. No one respects you if you don’t haggle. The price is what you’re willing to pay.” —Paula Wolfert
In this workshop, Wolfert and other experts will introduce you to Moroccan tagines, Tunisian briks, preserved lemons, fiery harissa and other signature flavors from the North African table.
Meet Your Guest Chefs
Explore Morocco and Tunisia with eight illustrious chefs and food writers who know the souks (markets), the street food and the refined cuisine of both countries. Meet them now:
Rafih Benjelloun is chef-owner of The Imperial Fez restaurant in Atlanta. He leads culinary tours of Morocco, his native country, and teaches Moroccan cooking around the U.S. Benjelloun has appeared on the Food Network’s “My Country, My Kitchen,” guiding viewers through the chaotic Marrakech markets and cooking up Moroccan feasts.
Zakia El Mabrass is the acting sous chef at the Moroccan restaurant in the La Mamounia hotel in Marrakech. She graduated from the King Hessian II culinary school in the capital of Rabat and has worked at the hotel for the past 10 years.
Joyce Goldstein is the chef-founder of San Francisco ’s former Square One restaurant and author of The Mediterranean Kitchen, Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen, Mediterranean the Beautiful Cookbook (co-author), Taverna, Kitchen Conversations and the recently published Saffron Shores.
Abderrazak Haouari is a chef from the Tunisian island of Djerba. Haouari has worked in some of France’s premier establishments and served as executive chef of the Ulysse Palace Hotel in Djerba.
Mourad Lahlou is chef-owner of Aziza restaurant in San Francisco, where he prepares contemporary Moroccan food. Before opening Aziza, Lahlou was chef and co-owner at Kasbah in San Rafael, Calif., which he opened in 1996. In 1998, the San Francisco Chronicle named him a Rising Star Chef.
Boujemaa Mars has been executive chef of La Mamounia hotel in Marrakech since 1978. A longtime student of the regional cuisines of Morocco, Mars is an expert on their subtleties and differences. Opened in 1923, La Mamounia is one of Africa’s grandest hotels.
Ana Sortun is chef-owner of Oleana restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. She holds a degree from La Varenne in Paris. Sortun opened Moncef Meddebs’ Aigo Bistro in Concord, Mass., and later brought her innovative Mediterranean food to 8 Holyoke in Harvard Square. In 2001, she opened Oleana, which was nominated for Best New Restaurant in America by the James Beard Foundation.
Paula Wolfert is a food writer whose books include The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, Couscous and Other Good Foods from Morocco, Mediterranean Cooking, The Cooking of South-West France, The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, Paula Wolfert’s World of Food, and Mediterranean Greens and Grains. Hailed as the “Mistress of the Mediterranean” by Food & Wine, Wolfert has long been recognized as one of the foremost American experts on Mediterranean cooking.
|Rear, l to r: argan oils, olive oil, pepper pastes; cups, l to r: sumac, tabil, za’atar
Every important cuisine has ingredients or preparations that distinguish it from others. Here are a few of the flavors that set Moroccan and Tunisian cooking apart:
Let’s turn to Paula Wolfert for an evocative description of this preserved butter.
“This is the great butter of Morroco,” says Wolfert. “The wild herb oregano is very interesting because it has antibacterial qualities. In Morocco, they make a water with this oregano, which is the same as Greek oregano, then they take fresh butter and rub it with this oregano water. Then they squeeze out all the water and put the butter—they call it smen—into pots and put the pots away. And it keeps for up to seven years and gets a rather cheesy flavor, a very delicious flavor. It gets to look a little like Gorgonzola toward the end.
“What do you do with it? You make the most delicious couscous. Especially in wealthy homes in Fez, all the tagines are cooked in smen, and it adds an extra flavor and smell.”
You can find a recipe for smen in Wolfert’s Couscous and Other Good Foods from Morocco.
With their tangy, salty, citric taste, preserved lemons enhance many dishes in Tunisia and Morocco. They balance the sweetness of Moroccan tagines, add a spark to Tunisian couscous and salads and give a lemony lift to North Africa’s braised lamb and chicken dishes. You can buy them loose in the souks of Morocco, but they are easy to make at home and many cooks do.
“They’re like a pickle,” says Joyce Goldstein. “You rinse them before you use them because that saltiness remains. You discard the center pulp and chop the peel very fine or into slivers. And you don’t have to use them only for Moroccan cooking. Preserved lemon peel is lovely mixed with olive oil, salt, pepper and a little cilantro as a marinade for broiled fish. You can add it to vinaigrette or to a stew—wherever you might use fresh grated lemon zest. I see them for sale in stores for, like, seven dollars a lemon, and I think, if you only knew how easy they were.”
A spicy, aromatic marinade for fish or meat, charmoula can transform even a simple grilled chicken breast into a memorable dish. The recipe varies from cook to cook—some versions are sweeter, some hotter—but a typical example might include olive oil, preserved lemon peel or lemon juice, garlic, cayenne, paprika, cumin, parsley and cilantro.
Fish marinates in charmoula for only an hour or two. Chicken or lamb can marinate overnight. In a Western kitchen, charmoula could dress up grilled shrimp or lamb chops.
“I love to cook,” says Rafih Benjalloun, “but there are days I don’t feel inspired. If I have charmoula in the fridge, I can bring home some liver or whatever, mix it in and throw it in the sauté pan, and I have a tasty meal.”
|A Feast of Tagines
The Moroccan tagine, with its peculiar cone-shaped lid, is one of the cleverest cooking vessels ever invented. Of Berber origin, it is perfectly suited to braising meats, fish and vegetables because it traps all the flavorful juices released by the ingredients. In Morocco, tagines are traditionally placed on top of a brazier filled with charcoal for long, slow cooking.
“The brilliance of the Berber concept is the conical sides,” says Paula Wolfert. “A tagine gets cooler toward the top, so you don’t even need an oven mitt to lift the lid. As the food slowly builds up heat, the steam rises along the sides of the cone and drips back, keeping the stew moist. You don’t need to add much water; the stew will produce its own liquid.”
Traditional tagines are made of clay, which Morocco has in abundance. (There’s a reason Marrakech is called “the Red City.”) According to Rafi Benjelloun, glazed tagines may look prettier, but unglazed tagines work better. Glazed tagines don’t need soaking or seasoning before use; unglazed tagines must be carefully seasoned (cured) before the first use to make them able to withstand heat.
To season a new unglazed tagine: Submerge the tagine in water for at least 1 hour. Drain and dry. Rub the interior, both base and top, with olive oil. Place in a cold oven. Set temperature to 350ºF and leave for 1-1/2 to 2 hours. (Source: www.tagines.com)
In Morocco, the word tagine refers both to the pot and to the dish made in it. Watch Zakia El Mabrass of Marrakech’s La Mamounia hotel prepare a succulent lamb and artichoke tagine. Notice that she doesn’t brown the meat first. Moroccan tagine recipes rarely call for browning the meat. Moroccan cooks want the aromatics to infuse the meat slowly, as the dish heats.
|Tagine of Veal with Honey Pumpkin
In a busy restaurant or hotel kitchen, cooking in tagines may not be practical. However, a chef can still use these dramatic clay pots to present braised dishes, as chef Boujemaa Mars demonstrates in the following video demo of a veal tagine. You’ll notice that he browns the meat first, a step that is not traditional for tagines but may reflect Mars’ early training under French chefs.
Watch chef Mars make a tagine of veal with honey pumpkin.
A few more points about Moroccan tagines:
- They should cook on the stovetop over very low heat. If necessary, use a heat diffuser to keep the stew from cooking too fast.
- Lift the lid as infrequently as possible to avoid dissipating the aromatic steam. Confident Moroccan cooks never peak under the cover until the dish is done.
- Tagines are usually made with bone-in meat and cooked until the meat falls off the bone. Moroccans eat with their fingers, so the food must be soft. Moroccan bread is the typical accompaniment, used to convey the food to the diner’s mouth.
A Tunisian tagine is completely unlike a Moroccan tagine. In Tunisia, a tagine resembles an Italian frittata. To make one, cooks first prepare a stew of meat and/or vegetables, then add beaten eggs and cheese and bake the tagine until it is firm and sliceable.
|Moukli de Poisson à la Juive
North Africa was a refuge for the Jews of Spain and Portugal when they were forced to flee in the late 1400s. For many, North Africa was the haven of choice because there were already Jewish communities, especially in Morocco and Egypt. For centuries, Jews and Muslims had lived harmoniously in North Africa. Although Jews were subject to many restrictions under Muslim rule, they were free to practice their religion.
In North Africa, the Spanish Jews—known as Sephardic Jews—found many of the ingredients they had known in Spain—lemons, oranges, sugarcane, eggplant, artichokes. These transplanted Jews began to incorporate the seasonings they found in the North African pantry, such as ginger, cayenne, ras el hanout, cumin and fresh coriander. They embraced the sweet and sour flavors that were characteristic of Arab cooking, and adopted Arab techniques, such as thickening dishes with nuts or bread. As they did everywhere, the Sephardic Jews began to cook like the natives, although they had to adjust dishes to meet religious laws.
Jewish law, for example, forbids working (which includes cooking) on the Sabbath, so Jews developed many slow-cooked dishes that could be assembled the day before. The pot would be buried in the fireplace ashes on Friday before sundown and would be ready for Sabbath lunch.
The North African d’fina, from an Arabic word for buried, is one such dish. In times past, Jewish women would assemble their d’fina—perhaps a mixture of mutton, chickpeas, spinach, harissa and other spices—and bring it to the village baker’s oven where it would cook overnight in the dying embers.
Another characteristic of the North African Jewish kitchen is double cooking, where a dish is fried and then baked. “A lot of this came about because people did not have ovens in their homes,” says Joyce Goldstein. “They had burners, so the frying was done at home, then the dish was brought to the baker’s oven to be completed.”
Note the double cooking as Chef Haouari makes Moukli à la Juive, or fried fish Jewish style, from the repertoire of Tunisian Jews, in this video. Note also the harissa in the tomato sauce, a Tunisian signature. [Part 1][Part 2]
According to Clifford Wright, author of A Mediterranean Feast, more than 90 percent of North Africa’s Jews immigrated to Israel after 1948. Today, only Morocco still has much of a Jewish community, and it is small.
Moukli (also transliterated as moqli or maqli) is an Arabic word meaning fried. Haouari’s elaborate platter of fried fish layered with fried vegetables and served with tomato sauce is a traditional Tunisian preparation.
After the Spaniards brought capsicums back from the New World, Tunisian cooking changed dramatically. No Mediterranean country embraced hot chiles more enthusiastically than the Tunisians. “This immigrant from America has given tremendous character to our tropical cuisine,” says Abderrazak Haouari, one of Tunisia’s finest chefs. “We use it and abuse it in every form.”
New World capsicums gave birth to harissa, the fiery pepper sauce that sparks many Tunisian dishes. Moroccan couscous is sweet and spicy, but rarely hot; Tunisian couscous can be hair-raising because of the liberal use of harissa.
“Yes, it’s hot,” says Paula Wolfert, “but it goes into lots of dishes where it’s diluted.” Harissa enlivens stews, soups, couscous, olives and vinaigrettes for salads. Mixed with olive oil, it becomes a dipping sauce for bread. It appears in sauces for pasta, egg dishes and virtually every part of the meal but dessert. According to Haouari, it stimulates the appetite and aids digestion.
Harissa is more than merely chile-hot. Most versions include other seasonings such as caraway, coriander, garlic and mint, giving harissa a complex flavor that many hot sauces can’t claim.
In the following video, Chef Haouari demonstrates three different harissas. The first, known as harous, contains onion—traditionally, chopped onion salted and fermented like sauerkraut. The second version is made with fresh red pepper instead of dried and contains no onion. The final version is the traditional one, made by hand in a soudi, or mortar. The name harissa comes from an Arabic word meaning to pound, or break into pieces, and in times past, the sauce was always made in the soudi.
Tunisians aren’t the only ones who like harissa. Listen to Rafih Benjelloun describe the Moroccan approach to this fiery sauce.
|Potato, Green Olive and Caper Brik
A crisp, flaky brik (pronounced breek), or filled pastry turnover, is one of the most popular street foods in Tunisia, eaten hot from the fryer—and eaten carefully, because most briks contain a runny egg. Other fillings include tuna and capers; mashed potatoes; brains; or spicy ground lamb, with the raw egg broken on top before the pastry is folded and sealed.
For their briks, Tunisian cooks use a very thin pastry similar to filo or strudel dough, called malsouka. (In Morocco, it’s called warka.) The dough is painstaking to make, so many people buy it from a specialist. Chinese egg roll wrappers are a suitable substitute.
Eating a brik without getting egg on your shirt takes skill, and different people have different approaches. Some fearless diners eat the egg part first; others work from the outside in, leaving the egg for last.
Braewats, small stuffed pastry triangles, are a favorite Moroccan hors d’oeuvre. Warka, the pastry used for braewats, means leaf in Arabic, so you can imagine how thin the dough is when well made. It is the same pastry used for b’stilla, the famous spiced pigeon pie. Braewats can be filled with ground fish or spiced meats or even with sweet fillings like rice pudding or ground almonds and cinnamon.
In times past, when women did not work outside the home, they would often gather to make hundreds of braewats for a special occasion, such as a wedding, writes Joyce Goldstein in her book SaffronShores. Sadly, these traditions are vanishing.