Nargisse Benkabbou's food memories
The chef and author of cookbook Casablanca shares the influences of the food she brought to the UK from her upbringing in a Moroccan community in Brussels.
Try Nargisse's recipe for harira here.
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. ‘I grew up very Moroccan, very European. My food 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.
Five essential Moroccan ingredients
‘The base of every tagine. In a similar way to using flour in French cooking, the onions bind the sauce. Some like their tagine more watery. I like it on the thick side.’
‘Made with cumin, paprika, garlic, olive oil, lemon and herbs, this condiment, marinade or seasoning is at the centre of many Moroccan dishes. A lot of salads are seasoned with chermoula as is tagine mchermel. It can be a roast chicken marinade, too.’
Orange blossom water
‘90% of Moroccan sweets, cookies and cakes have orange blossom water in them. 50 years ago, my grandfather used to make his own.’
‘Really important in Moroccan cuisine. Essential for tagine mqualli but we also put saffron in cookies and the chicken filo pie, pastilla. It’s expensive. If you didn’t have a lot of money you’d only bring the saffron out for weddings and special occasions.’
‘We use versatile almonds in sweet and savoury things. Tagines (often a tagine mqualli with dried fruits), can be scattered with roasted or fried blanched almonds, and most Moroccan cookies, including ghriba and biscotti-like fekkas, are made with almonds.’