Morocco’s exotic cuisine

| January 4, 2013 | 0 Comments


Moroccan Chicken Pastilla

Moroccan Chicken Pastilla

Morocco’s culinary roots can be traced back to nomads, known as Berbers, who lived off the land. Subsequently, traders and conquering nations introduced a myriad of food customs, but the most profound impact came with the 7th-Century Arab invasion, which brought a wide variety of exotic spices (cumin, cinnamon, saffron, ginger and caraway).

Today, the cuisine of Morocco, a country located on the northwest coast of Africa, is one of the richest and most highly appreciated in North Africa. Recipes combine not only a broad range of exotic spices, but other flavours, thanks to common home-grown ingredients such as garlic, onions, honey, almonds, olives, olive oil, cilantro, mint, lemons and other fruits.

Popular, too, are macerated products including preserved lemons, olives, peppers and eggplant as well as a very rich nutty oil derived from the pits of the fruit of the argan tree, found in the arid region of southern Morocco. Add the historical mixing of sweet and savoury dishes that combine meat with fruit, and the result is a gastronomy characterized by subtle scents and delicate flavours, frequently augmented with a zip of pungency. And one must not ignore the elegant presentations.

Tagines are served in conically shaped pottery such as this.

Tagines are served in conically shaped pottery such as this.

The staple of Moroccan cuisine is couscous, made of durum wheat or semolina, which is made into the shape of a grain — indeed many people mistake it for a grain. The preparation of couscous requires a series of time-consuming steps, so is often only on a family’s menu on Fridays (or Saturdays and Sundays in some situations) and on Muslim holy days, or for special occasions. Although many Moroccan home cooks still employ the traditional technique of making couscous, there are excellent quality pre-cooked versions available, which take a matter of minutes to prepare.

To find out more about the cuisine, I visited Moroccan Ambassador Nouzha Chekrouni, who explained that there are four main types of couscous: a “seven-vegetable” couscous, a rather sweet Tfayer couscous with caramelized onions and raisins, a sweet cinnamon couscous dusted with icing sugar, and a sweet and savoury tiered couscous with a layer of cooked meat or poultry arranged between two layers of cooked couscous, then finished with cinnamon and a dusting of icing sugar. All four are served as entrées.

The ambassador emphasized that couscous is a dish intended to be shared with others, whether at a reunion of family and friends or at the mosque where worshipers (regulars or visitors), regardless of status, share platters of it.

Bread is another staple. Khubza, a round, flat, crusty, yeast bread, is part of every family meal. Only left to rise once, this bread is airy enough to facilitate the absorption of tajine sauces, yet compact enough to carry food to the mouth, which is important because Moroccans don’t traditionally use cutlery.

Moroccan cuisine boasts world-renowned tajines. All sorts of meats, poultry and fish (sometimes beef and lamb brains or calves’ feet) are cooked with vegetables, dried fruits and olives in a covered, cone-shaped pottery vessel, also called a tajine, from which the dish gets its name.

Among the national dishes is harira, a thick Moroccan soup eaten at breakfast, lunch or dinner. Lentils, chickpeas, pieces of lamb and a final addition of rice make up this nutritious dish. During the holy season of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, a bowl of harira is served with dates both at home and in restaurants to break the fast.

For Eid-al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, a customary feast would surely include pastilla (also known as b’steeya). This sweet and savoury pie ranks among the most decadent and elegant of Moroccan dishes. Layers of tissue-thin phyllo pastry (usually 8 to 10) are delicately and skilfully manipulated to enclose a filling, historically consisting of pigeon, almonds, cinnamon, sugar, eggs, parsley, cilantro and a sprinkle of orange-flavoured water. Today, chicken, fish or seafood are common alternatives to pigeon. There are even dessert pastillas filled with pastry cream.

Seventy days after Ramadan, Muslims celebrate Eid-al-Kabir. On this occasion, they cook michoui, a whole lamb on a spit over a fire or in an oven and serve it in its entirety at the table. Pieces are cut off, one at a time, and dipped into a dish of ground cumin. Many Moroccans enjoy a glass of tea with their michoui to cut the fat of the roasted lamb.

When it comes to everyday family meals, Moroccans sit on benches and eat at low, round tables. In many homes, the thumb, index and middle fingers of the right hand or pieces of bread are used to pick up food to carry to the mouth.

For Moroccans, the day typically begins with a breakfast of mlawi (galettes) or grachel (brioches), beghrir (pancakes) or bread, butter and jam. Except during the holy month of Ramadan, the principal meal is served at midday, but again, that custom is changing with time. For most families, this meal consists of only one main dish, such as a tajine or a couscous dish, or a hearty soup served with bread, salad, cold vegetables and perhaps rice on the side. Fresh fruit is the usual family dessert.

On special occasions, the meal would begin with a series of hot and cold salads, next a tajine or a hearty lamb or chicken dish, then a plate of couscous crowned with meats and vegetables. For dessert, the menu would include rich pastries made with almond, dates, sesame seeds and honey.

Generally speaking, all meals conclude with a glass of sweetened mint tea. Indeed, tea figures prominently in Moroccan culture. In stores and shops, merchants frequently offer tea to their clients.
Not to be forgotten are the many street vendors tempting passers-by with a tantalizing array of foods from kebabs, soups and salads to complete meals and light snacks. And who could resist a “string of doughnuts?” A leaf of the gingerbread tree (similar to a palm tree) is passed through the centre of the doughnuts and the ends are knotted together. They can be purchased by the half-kilogram, kilogram, or just by the handful.

Now, travel with me to Morocco and enjoy my very own addictive and unorthodox version of pastilla. The recipe may appear long, however the ingredients are simple, and the cooking and assembly are straightforward. Although optional, I always serve it with a light orange cream sauce, slivered poached dried apricots and, if available, fresh figs. Bon appétit.

Moroccan Chicken Pastilla

Makes 6 servings

3/4 cup (180 mL) butter, divided
1/2 cup (125 mL) finely chopped onion
1 tsp (5 mL) minced fresh garlic
3 cups (750 mL) shredded, cooked, roasted chicken (skin included)
1 1/4 tsp (7 mL) ground cinnamon, first addition
1/2 tsp (3 mL) turmeric
To taste, salt and crushed black peppercorns
1/2 cup (125 mL) chopped fresh parsley
1/3 cup (80 mL) chopped fresh cilantro
3 eggs
3 tbsp (45 mL) icing sugar, first addition
1/2 cup (125 mL) toasted slivered almonds
1 tsp (5 mL) lemon zest
1/4 cup (60 mL) slivered poached* dried apricots
8 sheets phyllo pastry

Flour paste:
1 1/2 tbsp (23 mL) all purpose flour
1 tbsp (15 mL) cold water

Dusting powder:
1 1/2 tsp (8 mL) icing sugar, second addition
1/4 tsp (2 mL) ground cinnamon, second addition

1. Over medium-low heat, melt 2 tbsp (30 mL) of butter in a large non-stick skillet. Add onions and garlic, sautée until onions are soft and slightly golden in colour.
2. Remove skillet from heat. Add chicken, cinnamon, turmeric, salt and crushed black peppercorns; toss gently. Add parsley and cilantro, toss; return skillet to heat and warm mixture through (about 2 minutes). Remove skillet from heat.
3. In a bowl, whisk together 3 eggs and 3 tbsp (45 mL) icing sugar. In a medium-size non-stick skillet, over lowest heat possible, melt 2 tsp (10 mL) of butter. Add egg mixture and stir almost constantly until eggs are soft-scrambled (about 4 minutes).
4. Add scrambled eggs to the chicken mixture, toss gently to evenly distribute eggs.
5. Add toasted almonds, lemon zest and slivered apricots. Toss gently.
6. In a small bowl (e.g., ramekin dish) prepare a “flour paste” by mixing together flour and water until smooth. Set aside.
7. Lightly butter all interior surfaces of an 8-inch (20-cm) springform pan.
8. Melt remaining butter and place in a small bowl (e.g., ramekin dish). Keeping phyllo sheets in a stack**, lightly brush top sheet with melted butter before transferring to the prepared pan with one end of the phyllo sheet covering the bottom of the pan and the other end hanging over the rim. Cautiously, press pastry into pan. With your finger, spread a touch of the flour paste only around the circumference of the inside bottom portion. (Note: This is done to stick the layers of phyllo together.) Repeat the process with 7 more buttered phyllo sheets while rotating the pan ensuring all inner sides are evenly covered.
9. Spoon chicken mixture into phyllo-lined pan and level the top.
10. One by one, lift the overhanging sections of each phyllo sheet in reverse order (i.e., sheet # 8 first; sheet #1 last) and fold to enclose filling. (Note: Tuck in and under any extra portions of pastry; do not cut them off.)
11. Lightly brush top surface of pastilla with melted butter.
12. Loosely lay a piece of aluminum foil over top of the pastilla and place it in the bottom third of a 375°F (190°C) preheated oven. After about 15 minutes, remove foil*** and continue baking (e.g., another 10 to 15 minutes) until top crust is golden.
13. Transfer to cooling rack. After about 15 minutes, release the spring on the springform pan. After 30 minutes remove the ring.
14. Prepare a “dusting powder” by mixing together 1 1/2 tsp (8 mL) of icing sugar and 1/4 tsp (2 mL) of ground cinnamon. Place in a small, very fine meshed sieve and dust surface of pastilla evenly.
15. Transfer pastilla to a serving platter. With a sharp knife, cut it into wedges. Serve warm or at room temperature.

* To poach the dried apricots, place whole dried apricots in a non-stick skillet with a touch of water; cover and place over low heat. Once they begin to simmer, turn them over, remove skillet from heat, cover and set aside until apricots cool.
** To prevent phyllo sheets from drying out, keep them covered with a lightly dampened clean tea towel.
*** It may be that the top circumference of the pastilla browns more quickly than the centre. In that case, carefully place strips of aluminum foil (shiny side out) around the top rim of the pan but only to cover those browned areas.

Margaret Dickenson wrote the award-winning cookbook, Margaret’s Table — Easy Cooking & Inspiring Entertaining, and she hosts the Rogers TV series, Margaret’s Table (

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Category: Delights

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