Friday, March 25, 2011

Guest Post: Sam in Morocco

My sister's boyfriend, Sam Albetta, just spent the past six months in Morocco and Egypt.  While he was there, obviously, he enjoyed a totally different cuisine than anything he was used to eating here in the States. So, when I asked if he would be interested in posting about some of his food experiences, he kindly obliged. Thanks, Sam, and I hope you guys enjoy this post as much as I did!

Hey everyone, I'm Sam.  

 My recent time in Morocco was quite a new culinary experience, not just because of the subtleties of Moroccan food, but also because it made me more aware of the intricacies of how food is obtained, prepared, and enjoyed in another part of the world.  There are a lot of things that just work differently in Fez, which is where I spent most of my time.  Hopefully I can convey some sense of that in this post.
The first thing you should know about eating in Morocco is that it really helps to be adventurous.  In addition to there being some food items to which Westerners aren’t accustomed, there is also often no semblance of a health code.  You should use common sense, but if you are overly-cautious you probably won’t have as much fun. 
There are many different types of restaurants found in the Medina (older part of the city.)  Some are larger, more tourist-oriented restaurants that are clustered around the main entrance.  These can often be best described as “rip offs.”  The food is comparatively expensive and often isn’t as good or authentic as what one can find a little further in to the city.  At some point, one needs to decide if they want to be served tourist-safe food by a guy wearing boisterously exaggerated garb in a prop-laden restaurant, or food that Moroccans actually eat, prepared by a guy in jeans standing behind a bloody meat counter with a flat-top.  If you think you might prefer the former, the rest of this post may not interest you.
flat top at a meat counter

It was just this kind of meat counter restaurant that ended up being one of my favorites.  This type of operation is really more of a stall than a restaurant, but they do cook up some great food.  There are fresh whole animals being broken down, hung, sometimes ground, and displayed, often including cuts of chicken, beef, lamb, liver, pancreas, and other various offerings of offal.   

meat counter proteins

Walking up and choosing an ingredient is your first move.  My favorites ended up being chicken, liver, and a large, reddish piece of charcuterie the locals called “pasterma” (like I said, be adventurous.)  Your counter man will then take that item and throw it on the flat-top with some onions, chopped olives, seasoning (chili and turmeric plus some others) and lots of oil.  You can also get a fried egg thrown into the mix (highly recommended.)  It’s then served in a piece of bread that’s pretty similar to pita.  The result can be had for a mere 15 dirham (a little less than $2) and you won’t be hungry afterward.  


 Another type of restaurant in the Medina is the soup-kitchen type.  Here you’ll find huge boiling pots of either harira, or a white bean soup called “bisura” or “baysr.”  These are often accompanied by fried eggs, a salsa-like sauce, and these delicious little potato fritters that are constantly being fried.  The spread at one of these places will only cost around 10 dirham ($1.25.)  

 soup counter

 While both of the types of restaurants mentioned above serve great food, it certainly isn’t the food for which Morocco is best known.  The tagine is undoubtedly the most recognizable dish from the Moroccan milieu, and while it tends to be a little more expensive than the aforementioned bargains, it is definitely something that travelers shouldn’t miss.  While acceptable tagines can be obtained in many restaurants, the best tagine is the one made at home, preferably the home of a Moroccan whom you have befriended.  


Tagine is actually the name of the vessel in which the meal is cooked; it is a heavy stoneware dish that has a flat bottom and a tall conical lid.  This heavy stone basin is usually brought to the table, ensuring that the communal serving stays hot throughout the meal.  A couple of times we were brought tagines that were still at an active boil even after they had been brought out because of how much heat the vessel retained.  Varieties of tagines might include any combination of potatoes, zucchini, onions, garlic, tomatoes, beef, chicken, lamb, liver, or eggs.  Ingredients are sautéed and then simmered together with a little broth or water while the heavy lid holds pressure inside.  The result is a rich and tender meal that will heat the diner well after the food is gone.  Forks are lunged across the table and rips of bread mop up steaming broth.  Alcohol is rare to come by in Morocco, so a meal like this will often be preceded by tea, or “shai,” which in Morocco is usually just mint leaves, boiling water, and a staggering amount of sugar.

Lastly, I’m including a recipe for a dish that I made for guests in my home while I was in Fez.  This dish was the result of my own interpretation of some of the Moroccan flavors and ingredients that I encountered while I was there.  If you can’t make it to Morocco anytime soon, maybe you can bring a little bit of Morocco to your own kitchen.  Have fun!   
Moroccan Braise

4-5 pound cut of beef
fennel seed
garlic cloves     
2 large fennel bulbs, quartered
2 onions, quartered  
5-6 sweet tangerines or other citrus, zest reserved

Thoroughly rub the beef with the spices.  Embed some cloves of garlic in the meat, cutting small slits if necessary.  If desired, let the beef sit with the rub overnight.

Brown the meat on all sides and transfer to a large lidded pot.  Add the onions and fennel bulb to the pot.  For the braising liquid, peel the tangerines and crush them in your hand over the pot.  Fit the lid on the pot and put it in the oven.  The temperature and timing of the braise can vary depending on the size and thickness of the meat.  For a larger, thicker piece, 3 - 4 hours at around 185 degrees should be about right.  For a thinner piece, 2 - 2.5 hours at around 200 should do it.  an expedited preparation of this dish can also be done in a pressure cooker in about half the time.  When using a pressure cooker, set the pot over a low to medium burner and maintain a low simmer.

 After cooking, plate the meat with the fennel and onions on a large platter and spoon some braising liquid over the top.  For a garnish, make a quick gremolata combining the saved tangerine zest, some chopped garlic, and parsley.  Sprinkle on top.


Anonymous said...

Great job Sam! Loved the pictures and commentary.