Traditional and New Moroccan Cuisine
I remember the first time I tasted harira. It was 1982 and we had just arrived in the old city of Fes in Morocco. The sidewalks were crowded with people, waiting to see the king who was coming for a visit to Fes. We ducked into a small restaurant that was full of people – always a good sign – and ordered lunch. The king? I guess his motorcade went by. All I remember is the harira, a bowl of dirt-colored soup that tasted like a bit of heaven, full of the complexity of spices that characterizes Moroccan cuisine. The memory of that taste sensation has stayed with me ever since.
So I was really excited to have a chance in February to visit Morocco again and take some cooking classes, learning to make some of the traditional Moroccan tagines and salads, watching the intricate process of making couscous from scratch, and yes! making harira!
When I got back home, I excitedly picked up a copy of Mourad New Moroccan, written by Chef Mourad Lahlou, owner of Aziza, a restaurant in San Francisco. Mourad was born and raised in Marrakech, and came to the United States to attend college. Homesick for Moroccan food, he started cooking, teaching himself based on his memories of food prepared by his female relatives for big family dinners in Marrakech. Fifteen years later he has the only Moroccan restaurant in North America to have been awarded a Michelin star.
But wait! There is no listed recipe for harira in Mourad’s cook book. There are no recipes for tagine of lamb with apricots or chicken couscous with seven vegetables. Instead, Mourad has used the basis of Moroccan cooking – you guessed it, it’s all about the spices – as a jumping off point for developing innovative lighter dishes that appeal to the Californian palate. His recipe for lentil soup, for example, is Mourad’s version of harira, and with the wonderful mixtures of spices and herbs, it turns out to be every bit as delicious as the soup I tasted many years ago in Fes.
The first part of this beautiful new cookbook is a series of lessons on the basics of Moroccan cooking, including an in-depth description of several different spice combinations. One thing I have always wanted to try is making preserved lemons, an ingredient used a lot in Moroccan cooking. Mourad’s directions are great, and all you need are lemons, kosher salt and a jar. Now all I have to do is wait a month or so till they’re ready.
Someone has famously said that there are three great cuisines in the world: French, Italian and Moroccan. Who am I to argue with that?