THE GRAND MOROCCAN TABLE
If you want to know that you are eating authentic harira, it should be "as smooth as silk," says a proverb from Fez. Harira is the classic soup of Morocco. Locally they claim that there are almost as many recipes for harira as there are people. But essentially it is a chicken soup, thickened with flour and eggs and flavoured with saffron, pepper and a generous sprinkle of cinnamon. To serve, a lemon is squeezed into each bowl and offered with a helping of dates or figs. Modern versions of the soup are made more filling by adding noodles, rice or leftover bread. Indeed, mentioning harira gives a taste of the rich and diverse Moroccan cuisine, with its exotic blend of flavours stretching from North Africa, across the Straits of Gibraltar, to Andalusia in Spain. Its indispensable speciality is heavily marinated meats, soaked in a compendium of vibrant spices, and cooked over the slow heat of charcoal. Moroccan food needs patience to allow the meat to absorb the flavours and turn out succulent and tender. Marinades vary from town to town. In Fez, mint is used with oil and a mixture of orange and lemon juice, but farther north there is a preference for coriander and garlic, while the far south, perhaps influenced by trans-Saharan Africa, uses ground peanuts and hot pepper. Pickled treats are another national favourite, which are passionately arranged into patterns of colour. Mainly, in the northern part of the country, in areas hit by harsh winters, everything that it's possible to pickle is pickled. In particular pickled lemons, bell peppers, beetroots, carrots and eggplants are a welcomed addition to the Moroccan table.
The most eye-catching earthenware in the souk is without a doubt the large pierced couscous steamer with their conical lids. These stunning pots became the emblem of Moroccan cuisine and are used to cook and serve the country’s most classic dish, the tajines. With their mixtures of sweet and sour, honey and vinegar, and meat or fowl with fruit or nuts - tajines compare with dishes in medieval European cookbooks like the one written for King Richard of England at the end of the 14th century. And indeed, many of the richest and most exotic recipes in that book are attributed to Outremer, the lands of the East. This vibrant fusion in Moroccan food is said to have been imported by the Moors when they fled Spain in the 13th century. This may well be true, but Andalusian cuisine in turn derived, at least in part, from that of Baghdad in the days of Harun AL Rashid, judging by surviving cookbooks and descriptions of food in “The Thousand and One Nights.” Today, some of the more modern recipes of tajines blend meats like chicken with raisins, grapes or almonds; lamb with prunes or quinces; pigeon with dates; quail with dried apricots; beef with apples; and duck with figs - all often cooked with honey and sweet spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and ginger. But there are also many other new combinations introduced to Moroccan cuisine by adventurous travellers. Tajines can now contain combinations of meat or fish with such complements as mint, green olives, lemon slices or fiery red and green chakchouka i.e. grilled peppers and tomatoes. The finest of the tajines are said to come from Fez, that incomparably beautiful city where every aspect of life, from the historic architecture of the medina, to the sumptuous gold embroideries, influence daily life.
Then there is the incredibly unique sweet and savoury pie with a long history called pastilla. It is a flaky pastry, filled with chopped meat - generally pigeon or dove - eggs, parsley and a quantity of ground almonds, and seasoned with the usual sweet spices: ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, saffron and fresh cardamom. Before serving, it is dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon. There is also another version of pastilla filled with meat and onion known as mrouzia, which is similar to the Andalusian empanada. But most importantly, when discussing North African contributions to cuisine, couscous cannot be left out. Traditionally, it was prepared at home from semolina, flour, salt and a sprinkling of water which are worked with the palms of the hands into small pellets. Rolling couscous is an art, with many theories on how it is best done, and not everyone has the skill of getting the grains even and fluffy. Couscous served with rich stews or tajines are often the centrepiece of any Moroccan feast. It can also be served as a sweet - this is a specialty of Marrakesh - where the sauce is made with mild onions, raisins, honey, ginger and sweet spices, or with quinces, or with pomegranates and orange-blossom water. Hence it is naive to assume that all Moroccan food is the same. There are major regional variations that developed due to the incredible fusion of cultures. Thus, the southern oases with their dates and sugarcane became famous for their sweets, while the mountains made use of their nuts, apples, figs and prickly pears, and the rich agricultural regions their oranges, lemons, almonds, apricots and pomegranates. Marrakesh has come to be known for its cakes, firmly based on almonds and pistachios, honey and orange-blossom water, dried fruit and sesame
[Image Credits: La Sultana, Marrakech] ...