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Bastilla Overshadows All Other North African Chicken Dishes

posted on: Jun 10, 2020

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

Bastilla is an exquisite dish made from crispy paper-thin pastry stuffed with chicken or pigeon and almonds as well as, at times, seafood.   Considered to be the most sophisticated and elaborate of the many Moroccan dishes, this crown jewel of the Moroccan kitchen is a pillar of that country’s cuisine.  A magnificent flaky pie, it reminds one of the foods found in the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.

Bastilla (pronounced basteela) has at least six different variations in the spelling alone: Bastilla, Bastilla, B’steeya, Bisteeya, Bistayla, and Pastilla.  A sumptuous, delicate and aromatic pigeon pie, it is usually prepared in Morocco on special occasions such as on the arrival of a special guest, holidays, during Ramadan and weddings. It is one of the best known of the Moroccan dishes.

This magnificent dish had its origin in Moorish Spain.  It takes its name from the Spanish word for pastry, pastilla, from the Latin pastillum, a diminutive of panis, (bread).  After the transformation of the phoneme ‘p’ into ‘b’ that is specific to the Arabic language, the name became bestilla in Moroccan Arabic. Rudolf Grewe, a researcher of Hispano-Muslim cuisine, believed that the dish called judhaba in the anonymous thirteenth-century Hispano-Muslim cookbook, a chicken pie enclosed in many paper-thin sheets of dough was a clear forefather of the Moroccan Bastilla.

In Morocco, Bastilla is traditionally made with pigeon or chicken but it is at times there can be found seafood and even vegetarian versions of the dish. The pie is encompassed in a very thin pastry leaf called warqa (thin pastry) enclosing a filling that combines sweet and savory flavors.  Today, filo pastry is commonly used as a replacement.

Yet, even though Bastilla is considered to be the ‘epitome of chicken dishes’ in Morocco, in that country and, in fact, the whole North Africa there are dozens of chicken dishes that can vie with this delicious feast dish.  In soups, salads and entrées and other types of foods, chicken reigns supreme. especially among the toiling masses.  Usually more reasonable prices than other meats and blending well with other foods it gives the North African kitchen part of its world appeal.

These few North African chicken dishes will entice one into a world of culinary chicken delights.

Bastilla – Chicken Pie

Serves 10 to 12

2 medium-sized onions, finely chopped

3/4 cup butter

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seeds

pinch of saffron

1 1/2 pounds boned cooked chicken, cut into very small pieces

1 cup chicken stock

1/2 cup finely chopped parsley

4 eggs, beaten

1 cup blanched almonds, roasted until very light brown then ground

3 tablespoons sugar

12 sheets filo dough

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

In a saucepan, place the onions, 4 tablespoons of the butter and ginger then sauté over medium heat until onions begin to brown.  Add salt, turmeric, pepper, coriander, saffron, chicken pieces, and chicken stock, then cook over medium-low heat for 10 minutes.  Add parsley, then cook for further 5 minutes, adding more water if saucepan contents become too thick.  Stir in eggs then stir-fry until eggs are cooked.  Remove from the heat and set aside.

Make a filling by mixing half the almonds, 2 tablespoons of the sugar, and the chicken mixture then set aside.

Melt remainder of butter then set aside.

Place 5 sheets of the filo dough with sides folded in, on the bottom of a greased 9 X 13-inch pan, brushing each sheet with butter.  Spread chicken filling evenly over dough in the pan then cover with 5 sheets of filo dough with sides folded in, brushing each with butter.  Spread the remaining almonds evenly over top and cover with 2 sheets-sheet of dough, brushing heavily each sheet with butter and tucking in the edges.

Spread remaining butter over top, then bake in a 350° F preheated oven for 50 minutes or until top begins to turn golden brown.  Remove from oven then sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon of sugar and the cinnamon.  Serve while warm.

Lemon and Olive Chicken Stew – Tajine Mseer and Zaytoon

Serves from 4 to 6

Almost all types of couscous reach their epitome in Morocco.

4 tablespoons olive oil

3 pounds chicken, cut into serving pieces

2 medium onions, chopped

6 cloves garlic, crushed

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

2 tablespoons lemon juice

3 cups of water

1/2 cup green olives, pitted and sliced in half

1 lemon, peeled and thinly sliced

Heat oil in a saucepan; then sauté the chicken over medium heat until it begins to turn light brown, turning the pieces over a few times.  Remove chicken pieces with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Sauté onions in the same oil, adding a little more oil if necessary, over medium-low heat for 10 minutes, then add chicken pieces and stir in remaining ingredients, except olives and lemon slices.  Bring to boil then turn heat to low and cover.  Simmer for about 1 1/2 hours or until chicken is well-done, adding more water if necessary, then add olives and simmer for a further 5 minutes. Remove chicken pieces with a slotted spoon and arrange in the middle of a platter, then place lemon slices in a ring around chicken pieces.  Pour sauce over chicken pieces, then serve hot.

Chicken and Almond Couscous

Serves about 10 to 12

This Moroccan type couscous is one of my favorites.  The juices of the chicken, almonds, chickpeas, and raisins blend well to create a succulent dish.

2 cups couscous

2 large onions, sliced

1/2 cup olive oil

1 chicken, about 4 pounds, cut into serving pieces

4 cups cooked chickpeas

1/2 cup raisins, rinsed

1 cup lightly toasted blanched almonds

3 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground coriander seeds

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

7 cups of water

4 tablespoons butter

1/2 teaspoon paprika

Soak couscous in warm water for a few seconds, then quickly drain and place in the top part of the couscousière or double boiler with a perforated top.  Thoroughly break up the lumps in the couscous and set aside.

In the bottom part of the couscousière or double boiler, place onion and oil, then cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. Add remaining ingredients, except water, butter, and paprika, then stir-fry for about 5 minutes.  Add water – make sure it generously covers the chicken pieces, then bring to boil.  Fit the top part with couscous to the bottom part with stew then seal two parts together with a flour impregnated piece of cloth. (Should be sealed only if steam is escaping between the two parts).  Cook over medium heat for 1 hour or until chicken is done, stirring couscous every few minutes to make sure kernels do not stick together, then stir butter into couscous and remove from heat.

Place couscous on a platter pyramid style, then make wide deep well in the middle.  With a slotted spoon, remove chicken pieces, chickpeas, raisins, and almonds and place them in well. Sprinkle paprika over couscous, then serve.  Remaining stew and sauce can be served as a side dish with each person adding extra stew to taste.

Almond, Prune and Chicken Stew – Tajine Dajaj (chicken) bi-Barqooq wa (and) Lawz (almond)

Serves about 8

Versions of his dish originated in Fez, Morocco.

chicken, about 4 pounds, cut into serving pieces

3 medium onions, chopped

8 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

4 tablespoons butter

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon pepper

pinch of saffron

3 cups of water

1 cup prunes, pitted

2 tablespoons honey

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 cup blanched almonds

In a saucepan, place chicken, onions, garlic, coriander, butter, salt, pepper, saffron, and water, then bring to boil.  Cover, then simmer over low heat for about 1 1/2  hours or until the chicken is well-done, adding more water if necessary.  Remove chicken pieces with a slotted spoon and place them on a platter – keep warm.

Add prunes to the sauce then simmer over low heat for 10 minutes. Stir in honey and cinnamon, then continuing simmering uncovered for another 10 minutes.  Pour hot sauce over chicken pieces, then decorate with almonds and serve hot.

Chicken in Garlic – Tajine Dajaj (chicken)

Serves about 4

Not as elaborate as the Moroccan tajines, this Libyan chicken stew is nevertheless tasty ad wholesome.

2 pounds boneless chicken, cut into small pieces

2 tablespoons tomato paste, diluted in 1/2 cup water

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon pepper

6 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

Combine all the ingredients in a casserole then marinate for 1 hour.  Cover and place in 350°F preheated oven and bake for 1 hour.  Serve hot from the casserole with cooked rice.

Shorba Dejej – Chicken and Vegetable Soup

Serves 8 to 10

Like the sister North African kitchens, the Algerian cuisine includes a world of an exotic blend of flavors, such as in this recipe, that usually ensnares visitors seeking something new in the culinary world.

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound chicken, cut into 1/2 inch cubes

1 medium onion, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

1 medium potato, diced into 1/2 inch cubes

1 large sweet pepper, cut into small pieces

2 cups cooked chickpeas

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1 tablespoon dried mint

7 cups boiling water

1/4 cup fine vermicelli, broken

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1/2 cup fresh or frozen peas

In a saucepan heat, the oil then sauté the chicken over medium heat for 5 minutes.  Add onion, garlic and coriander leave then sauté for a further 8 minutes.  Stir in potato, sweet pepper and chickpeas and boiling water then bring to a boil.  Cover then lower the heat to medium-low and simmer for 50 minutes. Stir in the remainder of the ingredients then Simmer for a further 15 minutes and serve hot.

Bourek Dajaj – Chicken Rolls

Makes 12 Bourek

Ground beef or lamb can be used as substitutes in this Algerian recipe.

12 cooked crepe s

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups ground chicken

1  medium onion, finely chopped

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1/2 teaspoon ras al hanout

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon allspice

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander

2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped

4 tablespoons melted butter

Heat the olive oil over medium in a frying pan and add the chicken and onion and sauté for 12.  Stir in the remaining ingredients except for the coriander, hard-boiled eggs, and the melted butter.  Stir-fry for 2 minutes.  Remove from heat then stir in the coriander) and eggs.

Preheat oven to 350˚F.

Lay the crepes out on a flat surface.  Spoon 1 heaping tablespoon of the chicken mixture along the bottom half of the crepe then carefully roll into a cylinder.  Place the rolled crepe on a greased baking sheet, seam side down.  Continue until all the crepes are rolled.    Brush butter lightly all over the tops of the crepes.   Bake for 20 minutes then serve immediately.

Chicken Peanut Stew – Mafe

Serves about 6 to 8

Versions of this Mauritanian dish, prepared throughout West Africa, can be cooked with other type of meats.

2 pounds of chicken legs

4 tablespoons peanut or olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

3 cups of water

4 tablespoons tomato paste, dissolved in 1 cup boiling water

4 tablespoons peanut butter, dissolved in 1/2 cup boiling water

2 cups chopped cabbage

2 cups sweet potato, peeled and diced into 1/2-inch pieces

2 cups turnips, peeled and diced into 1/2-inch pieces

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon paprika.

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

2 tablespoons chopped roasted peanuts

Heat in oil in a saucepan, then fry chicken legs over medium heat for 6 minutes stir in onions and garlic and fry for a further 5 minutes, stirring often.  Add water, tomato paste and peanut butter then bring to boil.  Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 20 minutes. Add remaining ingredients, except peanuts, and cook over low heat for 50 minutes or until chicken and vegetables are done, Garnish with peanuts and serve with cooked rice.

Chicken Mqualli

Serves 4

I enjoyed this dish at La Munia Restaurant in Casablanca, Morocco.

1 chicken (about 2 kilos), cleaned and washed, then cut into 4. pieces

4 medium onions, chopped

1 cup finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

1 cup finely chopped parsley

5 cloves garlic, crushed

1/4 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon ginger

pinch of pure saffron

1 lemon, quartered

1 1/2 cups green olives, pitted

Place all ingredients except the lemon and olives in a saucepan then thoroughly mix.  Sauté over medium heat for 10 minutes.  Add just enough water to cover, then cook over medium heat for about 45 minutes or until the chicken is almost done and there is only a small amount of the liquid left.  Add the lemon and cook for a further 10 minutes, then stir in the olives and cook for another 5 minutes.

Note: In Morocco, instead of the fresh lemon, a pickled lemon is used.  If this is available, add the lemon with the olives, during the last 5 minutes of cooking.

Chicken Mulukhiyya

Serves about 8

In Egypt where the consumption of mulukhiyya (Jews mallow), per capita, is perhaps the highest in the world, it is considered to be the national dish.

1 medium-size chicken, cut into large pieces

3 medium onions, peeled and finely chopped

1 large potato, peeled and chopped into small pieces

5 tomatoes, chopped

salt to taste

1 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon allspice

8 cups of water

leaves of 1/2 pound of fresh mulukhiyya, very finely chopped, or 1 cup dried finely crushed mulukhiyya

2 tablespoons lemon juice

4 tablespoons butter

1/2 head garlic, crushed

1/2 cup fresh coriander, finely chopped

l/4 teaspoon cayenne

Place chicken, onions, potato, tomatoes, salt, pepper, allspice, and water in a pot and cover then cook over medium heat until water boils.  Lower heat and simmer over medium-low heat for 1 1/2 hours or until chicken is very tender.

Remove the chicken from stock and de-bone, then place the meat on a serving platter with a little of the stock.  Set aside, but keep warm.

Add the mulukhiyya and lemon juice to stock, then cover and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding more water if necessary.

In the meantime, melt butter in a frying pan then add garlic, coriander, and cayenne and sauté over medium-low heat until the garlic turns brown.  Add frying pan contents to stock then cook for a few minutes before serving.  Adjust seasoning if necessary.

Serve mulukhiyya as a soup with cooked rice and the reserved chicken on the side.

Note: Beef, lamb, rabbit, or any other meat may be substituted for the chicken.