When the Arab conquerors brought Islam to the area in the 8th century, the inhabitants were mostly Berbers, Moors and nomadic tribes. French, Italian and Spanish settlers followed, including an influx of Sephardic Jews. Throughout these years, the spice trade route from Asia through Africa to Europe also made its mark. Cumin, coriander, saffron, ginger, cinnamon and red pepper are tops on the spice shelf. These seasonings, along with the sun-drenched desert environs and colorful indigenous ingredients, flavor North African cooking with vibrancy and diversity.
In America, restaurants offering the cuisine are not plentiful, but more places open every year, with Moroccan eateries in the lead. Among the pioneers is Marrakesh at Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida. “Moroccan food is catching on because it’s flavorful and based on healthy ingredients, including grains, olive oil and leaner proteins mixed with vegetables and fruits,” says executive chef Somad Benzari. “Plus, Morocco is known for its hospitality; we love to receive guests.”
About 80 percent of the Marrakesh menu focuses on authentic Moroccan dishes, prepared according to ancient traditions. Among the signatures are Lamb Couscous, composed of braised lamb shank with caramelized onions, raisins and vegetables; M’Rouzia, beef top round with toasted almonds, hard-cooked eggs and steamed couscous; and Chicken Tagine. While chef Benzari takes advantage of local produce from Florida, he sources 99 percent of his pantry staples from Morocco, purchasing from International Gourmet in Washington, D.C., Swiss Chalet and Sysco.
Certain techniques and ingredients are essential to the correct execution of the menu. Ras el hanout, a spice blend, is made from closely guarded recipes. Although Benzari often makes his own, the pre-blended product combines pepper, wildflowers, belladonna and other “secret” ingredients. And to replicate the tender Lamb Meshoui, which Moroccans take to the village baker’s oven to cook, the chef gently roasts the meat in its natural juices.
At the 100-seat Andalous in Chicago, owner Mohammed Akaahrir, better known as “Hadj,” employs four Moroccan women to “honor” the home cooking of his country. His most “famous” dish is Pastilla or Basteeya—paper-thin layers of phyllo filled with minced chicken, fish or vegetables mixed with almonds, eggs, saffron, parsley and coriander, then dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon. Andalous’ Couscous Royale also draws the crowds. It features merquez, chicken, beef and lamb with chunks of zucchini, turnips, carrots, onions and eggplant. Guests add fiery harissa to taste from a bowl set on the table; it’s hand-blended in the kitchen. Also made in-house are preserved lemons cured in salt—another key ingredient.
“I travel to Morocco at least once a year to pick up ingredients and equipment, like spices and clay tagines,” says Hadj. To stock up in between, his brother-in-law mails out essentials. Items such as lentils, chickpeas, orange blossom water and couscous come from Zaid Brothers, an Arab wholesaler in Chicago. Mint tea—the beverage of choice—is sourced from a local Vietnamese supplier. “Real Moroccan tea is too strong for Americans,” Hadj claims. He brews his from green tea, mint leaves, orange blossom water, sheba (an Israeli herb) and a little sugar.
While neighborhood spots like Andalous build their reputations on home-style food, customers come to Aziza in San Francisco for Moroccan cuisine with upscale, contemporary California touches. At the helm is chef-owner Mourad Lahlou, a Moroccan native who turned to cooking while he was pursuing his PhD in economics in the States. “I was homesick for my food, so I tried to re-create the exact dishes I had eaten growing up,” Lahlou explains. “When I couldn’t find all the ingredients I needed, I started to improvise. Eventually, I found that some Moroccan recipes made more sense when they were modernized.”
A good example is his Lamb Shank with Barley and Spiced Prunes. It’s derived from a nomadic preparation of stewed lamb; the honey and spices preserved the lamb so it could be carried through the desert. “I loved this dish but it was too sweet. Plus, we now have refrigeration to keep meat from spoiling,” Lahlou notes. His version is infused with just a shadow of sweetness and boasts a more elegant presentation. Ditto for the Squab with hon shimeji mushrooms and thyme-ras el hanout. He debones the bird, pan sears the breast, confits the leg and makes a sauce with the carcass.
Lahlou takes extra care with his couscous, served with chicken, prawns and lamb. He not only hand-rolls the semolina every day, he cooks each vegetable individually to retain its integrity. Choices vary with the seasons, ranging from zucchini to rutabaga and sugar snap peas. California farms and ranches supply organic produce and free-range meats, but specialty items are imported.
Algerian and Tunisian dishes come into play at New York City’s Nomad. “My menu represents a triangle—ingredients from North Africa, foods from America and French presentation,” says Algerian-born owner, Mehenni Zebentout. His kitchen serves up original takes on classics. These include a whole-wheat Couscous with baby carrots, fava beans and a free-range egg; Barley Couscous with grilled quail; Seafood Tajine (a.k.a. tagine) with calamari, shrimp, mussels and fish stewed in charmoula (a garlicky herb and spice marinade) and Grilled Merguez served with an Algiers salad (tomato, cucumber, beets and greens).
The small plates and meze selection show influences from the Turks and French—both of whom occupied Algeria—as well as Senegal and other African neighbors. Both the briwats and boureks under this heading are enclosed in flaky phyllo; the former are shaped in triangles and stuffed with seafood, chicken or spinach, while the latter are cigar-shaped and filled with lamb or oxtail (Nomad’s twist). The restaurant’s Brik features tuna, capers, potato and egg. “The Tunisian brik [phyllo] sheets have tiny holes so they bake up crisper,” says Zebentout. He purchases these from Baroody Imports in New Jersey, a Lebanese and Indian supplier. He also sources from Sahadi, a Middle Eastern mecca in Brooklyn, as well as Restaurant Depot and area farmers’ markets. These purveyors sell the honey, olives, olive oil, couscous, almonds, dates and other dried fruits that his kitchen requires. “The economy is forcing me to shop around and I often drive to pick up my orders,” Zebentout reports.
Argan oil A smoky, reddish oil from the kernels of the Argan tree
Brik Deep-fried turnover made with phyllo and savory fillings
Couscous Rolled semolina grain that varies in coarseness; also the national stew
Harira A tomato-based soup with chickpeas, cilantro, cumin and pepper; typically served during Ramadan
Harissa Spicy red paste made of hot or sweet peppers, olive oil, garlic, cumin, paprika and cilantro
Merguez Spiced lamb and/or beef sausage
Ras el hanout Spice blend that translates as “head of the shop”
Tagine Terracotta pot with cone-shaped lid for slow cooking; braised dish known by same name