My favourite dish: Nargisse Benkabbou
Chef and author Nargisse Benkabbou chats to Tony Naylor about her Moroccan Harira dish.
The chef and author of Casablanca shares the food influences she brought to the UK from her upbringing in a Moroccan community in Brussels.
See Narigisse's Moroccan harira recipe.
Nargisse Benkabbou would like to clarify something: "We do not have hummus in Morocco." Morocco is not known for its baba ganoush, either. Or any of the Levantine dishes which, when Nargisse first arrived in London to study, enthusiastic fans of ‘Moroccan food’ would tell her they loved. "In the UK, Moroccan is very mixed with Middle Eastern food. Beirut is a six-hour flight from Casablanca. We’re really far apart. We have some similarities, mostly in desserts, but I’m proud of my culture and, for me, it’s important to say, 'Hey, Moroccan food is very different'."
For the last eight years, after leaving the nine-to-five grind, the 34-year-old has been saying just that. Raised in Brussels, in a large Moroccan community, Nargisse, now an established food writer and chef, has fed her zeal for Moroccan food into blogging, supperclubs, cookbook Casablanca and her role as executive chef at L’Mida in Marrakech.
L’Mida’s menu blends hip Western influences and Moroccan dishes, a style Nargisse would like to bring to London. "I believe in evolution and modernity. Techniques change, utensils change," she says, pointing out that most families now cook tagines in pressure-cookers rather than earthenware pots.
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"I grew up very Moroccan, very European. My food and patisserie is influenced by that duality. I like to have both cultures reflected in things I do.
"Like a lot of people back then, my dad left Morocco at 16 to find a better life in Belgium. One summer, he met my mum in Morocco and brought her over. Dad is very entrepreneurial and he started a company selling halal cooked meats which, following his retirement (my parent now live in Rabat, Morocco’s capital), my two brothers took over.
"Mum and dad originally come from Fez, one of the best places to eat traditional Moroccan food, and they are both proper foodies. Mum was in charge in the kitchen but everyone in our family cooked and, although we ate Moroccan food regularly, we loved everything from oysters to the French patisserie dad brought home almost daily. There were always naughty treats at home. Friends would say, 'every time I have dinner at your place I gain five kilos!'
"My parents wanted us to know how rich and varied Moroccan cuisine is, and to understand its customs. For instance, my recipe, harira, is a nutritious soup that was the first thing we would eat during Ramadan to break the fast. Dad would say, 'harira has everything one needs'. It is served at the end of Moroccan weddings too and for breakfast in Morocco’s souks. Harira comes from the word harir meaning silk. It’s meant to be silky and comforting.
"My mum was very homesick in Belgium and cooking was a way to feel closer to home. I helped with simple jobs, peeling vegetables or shelling prawns. But mum would always get me to taste the food and ask me: 'what’s in this? Is there turmeric? Ginger?'. As a chef, that really developed my palate. I learned so much watching her cook.
"We’d all eat together and, when eating Moroccan dishes, there would usually be a selection of raw or cooked salads to start. Things like charred aubergines and chickpeas, chermoula-seasoned carrots or zaalouk, a soft, spicy aubergine dip eaten with bread. Then we’d move to mains such as couscous or a tagine.
"In the West, semolina granules – what Moroccans call smida – are known as couscous. But in Morocco, couscous refers to a variety of slow-cooked broths served on smida. The meat, often stewing beef, is cooked for a long time with vegetables, chickpeas, turmeric and saffron to create a delicious broth.
"In Morocco, on Fridays, it’s traditional to go to the mosque to pray and, for lunch, have couscous. Usually, people make a huge portion so they can give away a plate to people who don’t have anything; maybe to someone on the street or donate to the local mosque.
"Tagines are stews, essentially. But something people don’t generally know, outside Morocco, is how they are classified. The four dominant tagines are mqualli with turmeric, saffron and ground ginger; mhammer with ground paprika and cumin; chermoula-flavoured mchermel; and tomato-based tagine. To Moroccans, there is a clear logic to which ingredients you add: meat, fish, spices, preserved lemons, depending on which style you are making.
"Personally, I don’t mind people not following the rules. I’m happy people are embracing Moroccan culture. But, as a Moroccan chef, it’s important to spread accurate, authentic knowledge."
Also try our Moroccan chicken stew recipe.