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Moroccan Diffa: The Mother of all Feasts

posted on: Mar 25, 2020

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab American Contributor Writer

After a mouth-watering Moroccan meal, we sat enthralled as the Berber dancers swayed back and forth stamping their feet in a proud fashion. Their rousing steps, which had been incorporated into the flamenco during the centuries when the Arabs were in Spain, held us spellbound. Our hosts, Muhammad el-Rafaai and his wife Souad, were entertaining us royally at their home in Khenifra – the cedar capital of Morocco. In true Berber hospitality, with food and entertainment, they were doing everything in their power to make us comfortable and happy.

The evening was coming to an end when Muhammad turned to us saying: “It’s time to rest. Tomorrow, my friend, a tribal chief near Khenifra is preparing in your honor, among the cedar trees in the nearby mountain, a diffa“- a Moroccan feast which gave the English language the word tiffin. That night we slept soundly for our bodies and souls were content with the food and entertainment provided by our hosts.

The cool spring breeze, perfumed with the smell of cedar, filled the air as we drove the 20 kilometers to where we were to have our picnic feast. In less than half an hour our auto stopped in front of a huge black tent from which enticing odors filled the air. Soon we were seated around a table-sized platter anticipating the meal to come.

Before we began to eat, a young woman went around with a jug called tass from which she poured a little water over each guest’s hands. After a towel was passed around to dry the hands, the feast commenced. With the invocation, ‘bismillah‘ (in the name of God) our host gave the signal for the meal to begin. In typical Moroccan fashion, we dipped our right hands into the tasty colorful communal dishes as our host urged us on. Dozens of succulent platters, each one more appetizing than the next, appeared before us as if by magic.

In our honor, prepared for the diffa were: a variety of appetizers and salads; harira, a thick nourishing soup accompanied by dates; Bastilla, a flaky pastry pie stuffed with chicken and almonds; mechoui, a savory dish of barbecued lamb; tajine, a scrumptious lamb stew cooked with olives and lemons; and couscous, the king of Moroccan cuisine.

Offering us the choicest of morsels, our host made certain that we partook of every dish. When it was only partially consumed another replaced each platter until the main courses were finished. The leftovers were not wasted. Other members of the household were waiting for their share of the feast.

Accompanied by refreshing mint tea, we ended our fairytale diffa with platters of the most prized of North African sweets: braiwat, an almond-filled honey-dipped pastry, and ka’b al-ghazal, another almond sweet called the ‘king of Moroccan pastry’. It was truly a feast of plenty and a glutton’s dream.

In the same fashion as our outdoor diffa, similar type feasts are served to honored guests in the palaces of the wealthy or the simple homes of the poor. In the villas of the aristocrats, more meat is added to the dishes while in the homes of the toiling masses, the grain and vegetable content are increased.

Strange as it may seem, the dishes of the peasants and laborers are equal if not superior to the meals of the highborn and wealthy. Nevertheless, no matter if a diffa is prepared by the affluent or by the poor, this type of feast is irresistible to the lovers of fine food. In that North African land, it is a symbol of plenty and a sample of that country’s rich cuisine.

The dishes of Morocco can be counted in the hundreds, if not in the thousands. According to P. Wolfert in her book, Couscous and the Other Good Foods from Morocco, there are in Tetuán alone fifty ways in which to prepare chicken. Yet, more numerous than chicken and other meat dishes are the various ways in which fish is prepared. Morocco’s Mediterranean coast from the Algerian border to the Straits of Gibraltar and its Atlantic coast from Tangiers to the Mauritanian border teem with fish. Hence, dishes made from the creatures of the sea abound in all parts of the country.

Each city or area of that exotic land has developed its own culinary art. Fez, perhaps, more than any other town has developed its own special cuisine. There are dozens of dishes unique solely to this colorful medieval city. Many with a rich history that goes back to Arab Spain are exotic and delightful.

It is said that if the victuals of the world are to be judged, the appetizing foods of Morocco will emerge at the top of the list. Sapid and exotically rich, the kitchen of this North African land incorporates the dishes of Arab Spain in its days of luxury, the Arab foods brought from the East, the pre-Islamic Berber fare, and the western dishes introduced by the French and Spanish during the colonial period. In addition, to a somewhat lesser degree, the Jews, Portuguese, and Turks have also left their imprint on the Moroccan kitchen.

This long culinary tradition has given the country one of the world’s exalted cuisines with an international reputation. Characterized by elegance and abundance, it is a delightful kitchen that evolved until it has reached the ultimate in perfection. According to Wolfert, Moroccan cooking is the last of the undiscovered cuisines.

Moroccan food is more often sweet than hot. It is a combination of incredibly tasty flavors that tantalize, then satisfies the senses. Apples, prunes, quinces, raisins, honey and sesame seeds along with the use of the right amount of herbs, especially fresh coriander, garlic, mint, thyme or marjoram and the spices like cumin, cinnamon, ginger, paprika, and ras el hanout, bring out a never-to-be-forgotten taste in almost all dishes. Spicy but not spicy hot, Moroccan foods leave visitors with a deep nostalgia when they return to their native lands. Its mysterious culinary bond between the medieval world and the modern age gives it an exotic and romantic appeal.

To produce these culinary delights, in parts of the country, the meats and onions are fried when making stews. In other parts, especially in the city of Fez, the inhabitants consider that frying adds heaviness to delicate dishes. Hence, they stew their meats and vegetables without preliminary frying. However, fried or not, all foods are insidiously spiced – just enough to make them appealing in aroma and taste.

Every family prizes its own special dishes, keeping their recipes fiercely secret. Through the years, the new generations become experts in the number of herbs and spices used to prepare their foods. Many family members turn out to be culinary wizards, producing irresistible gourmet delights.

However, for those who are not able to visit that North African land, perhaps, the next best way to sample the mysteries of the Moroccan kitchen is to cook these tasty recipes. If they are all prepared at once, one can have an enticing mini diffa.

Harira

Moroccan Diffa: The Mother of all Feasts

Serves 10 to 12

Harira is served as a daily soup, to begin a feast, or to break the fast in the evenings of Ramadan – the Muslim holy month. Known as the Queen of Moroccan soups, it is made from available vegetables and meats, and spiced to taste. A very nourishing soup, it is at times, for the Moroccan poor, the only meal of the day.

4 tablespoons butter

1/2 pound lamb or beef, cut into small pieces

2 medium sized onions, chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

1 can chickpeas (19 oz. 540 ml.)

2 cups stewed tomatoes

1/2 cup lentils, rinsed

9 cups water

2 teaspoons salt

1 l/2 teaspoons ginger

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1/4 cup rice

4 tablespoons lemon juice

In a large saucepan, melt butter then sauté meat over medium/low heat for 10 minutes.

Add the onions, garlic and coriander leaves, then stir-fry for further 10 minutes. Stir in the remaining ingredients, except the rice and lemon juice, then bring to a boil. Cover and cook over medium heat for 40 minutes. Stir in rice and cook over medium/low heat for further 15 minutes, then stir in lemon juice and serve immediately.

Note: For an exotic taste, serve with an accompanying plate of dates.

Shlada Bil Tacheen – Orange Salad

Serves 10 to 12

Moroccan salads are often prepared from orange or sweetened and spiced cooked vegetables and served as appetizers.

6 medium size seedless oranges, peeled and sectioned, then sections cut in half

1/2 small head lettuce, chopped into large pieces

1/2 cup dates, cut into small pieces

1/2 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted

5 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons orange blossom water

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

3/4 teaspoon salt

Combine oranges, lettuce, dates, pine nuts and lemon juice in a salad bowl, then sprinkle with orange blossom water, sugar, cinnamon and salt. Toss, then serve immediately.

Biesar – Broad Bean Purée

Serves 10 to 12

3 cups large broad beans, soaked for 24 hours and skinned

5 cloves garlic, crushed

2 teaspoons cumin

6 tablespoons olive oil

4 tablespoons lemon juice

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon oregano

1 teaspoon thyme

l/4 teaspoon cayenne

3/4 teaspoon paprika

In a saucepan, place broad beans, garlic and cumin, then cover with water. Bring to boil then cover and cook over medium/low heat for 40 minutes or until the beans are well cooked. Drain, but reserve the water, then place beans with remaining ingredients, except the paprika, in a food processor. Add 1 1/2 cups of bottom part of reserved water with sediment, then purée.

Place puréed beans in a saucepan and heat then spread on a large platter. Decorate with paprika and serve.

Braiwat – Crab Meat Rolls

Makes 24 rolls

1 can crab meat (7 1/2 oz 127 g), flaked with a fork

4 tablespoons finely chopped green olives

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

1 jar marinated artichoke hearts (6 oz 170 ml), finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

12 sheets filo dough

1 cup butter, melted

Thoroughly mix all ingredients, except filo dough and butter, to make stuffing then set aside.

Cut filo dough in half lengthwise then cover with a damp tea towel. Lightly brush a half sheet of filo dough with butter then place 1 heaping teaspoon of the stuffing on one end of half sheet. Roll, making sure to tuck in the edges. Repeat procedure for remaining half sheets then place in a greased baking pan. Brush tops of each roll with the remaining butter.

Bake in a 350° F preheated oven for 20 minutes then serve hot or cold.

Note: These rolls make great snacks.

Bastilla – Chicken Pie

Moroccan Diffa: The Mother of all Feasts

Serves 10 to 12

Bastilla is an exquisite dish made from crispy paper-thin pastry stuffed with chicken or pigeon and almonds. It is considered the most sophisticated and elaborate Moroccan dish. A pillar of that country’s cuisine, this magnificent flaky pie reminds one of the foods found in the Arabian Nights.

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 tablespoon 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 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 remaining 1 tablespoon of sugar and the cinnamon. Serve while warm.

Hout Miqlee – Fried Fish Steaks

Serves 10 to 12

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

1 head garlic, peeled and crushed

2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons ginger

2 teaspoons cumin

1 teaspoons pepper

5 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup lemon juice

4 pounds salmon steaks

cooking oil for frying

flour

Thoroughly combine all ingredients except, steaks, cooking oil and flour then marinate steaks in the mixture for 4 hours, turning them over every hour.

Place about 1/2 inch deep cooking oil in a frying pan, then heat.

Roll fish steaks in flour then fry over medium heat until they turn golden brown, turning them over once. Steaks may be fried in two or three batches, adding more oil if necessary.

Note: Excellent when served hot, but they can also be eaten cold.

Lamb Tajine with Prunes and Honey – Tajine Fes

Serves about 10 to 12

Tajine is both the name for a vast number of stews found on the menus of every Moroccan eating-place and the utensil in which they are cooked. Prepared from fish, chicken, lamb or other meats and a wide variety of vegetables, they are fragrant, tart, spicy and sweet. Stewed with fruits, olives, lemons, herbs and spices, and simmered to produce tasty sauces, they are a perfect answer to a hungry man’s dreams.

6 tablespoons olive oil

4 pounds lamb, cut into 1-inch cubes

2 medium onions, finely chopped

1 cup fresh coriander, finely chopped

5 cloves garlic, crushed

3 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon ginger

1 teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon tarragon

1 teaspoon cinnamon

4 cups water

2 cups small prunes, pitted

4 tablespoons honey

2 teaspoons orange blossom water

2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

Heat oil in a saucepan then add lamb cubes, onions, coriander, garlic, salt, ginger, pepper, tarragon, cinnamon and water. Cover then bring to boil. Lower heat to low, then simmer over medium/low heat for 1 hour or until the lamb is well cooked, adding more water if necessary. Stir in prunes and honey then simmer over low heat for 15 minutes, stirring frequently. If more sauce desired, add more water.   Stir in orange blossom water then bring to boil. Remove from heat and place on a serving platter, then sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds. Serve immediately.

Chicken and Almond Couscous

Serves about 10 to 12

This Moroccan type couscous is one of my favourite. 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 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 couscousiére or double boiler with a perforated top. Thoroughly break up the lumps in the couscous and set aside.

In bottom part of the couscousiére 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 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.

Roasted Lamb – Mechoui

Moroccan Diffa: The Mother of all Feasts

Serves 10 to 12

Mechoui, in Morocco is made by slowly roasting a whole lamb basted with herbs and spices over red-hot charcoal.  Crisp on the outside and tender inside, it is a succulent dish fit for any feast.  In this version, even though oven-cooked, its blend of spices retain the original flavour of the traditional method of cooking. Its taste epitomizes the best of Moroccan cuisine.

1 leg of lamb, about 5 to 6 pounds.

1/2 head of garlic, peeled and crushed

2 teaspoons ground coriander seeds

1/2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons cumin

1 teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon thyme

1 teaspoon dried mint

1 teaspoon ginger

1 teaspoon paprika

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

1/2 cup butter, melted

2 lemons, sliced (optional)

Fresh mint leaves (optional)

Trim excess fat off leg of lamb, then make half a dozen deep slots in meat and set aside.

Make paste with remaining ingredients then rub leg of lamb inside the slots and all over the exterior, utilizing all the paste.  Place in a baking pan, then bake in a 350F preheated oven for 2 hours, basting every 20 minutes with the juices in the pan, turning over once after 1 hour.  Place under the broiler for 5 minutes on each side. Transfer to a serving platter and decorate with lemon and fresh mint leaves if desired. Serve immediately.

Note: If a well-cooked leg is desired, increase the baking time by 30 minutes.

Ka’b al-Ghazal – Gazelle Horns

Moroccan Diffa: The Mother of all Feasts

Makes from 30 to 35 horns

Many of the Moroccan pastries are made with generous amounts of almond as is attested to by this delightful sweet.

1 1/4 cups blanched almonds

1 cup sugar

4 tablespoons butter

3/4 cup flour

2 teaspoons vanilla

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

2 eggs, beaten, then placed on a plate

1 cup sesame seeds, placed on a plate

In a saucepan, place almonds, then cover with water. Bring to boil then cook over medium heat for 20 minutes. Drain and allow to cool, then place in a food processor with remaining ingredients, except eggs and sesame seeds, then process into dough. (If too soft add a little more flour; if too hard, add a little water).

Form into about 1inch in diameter balls, then roll in the palm of the hands to about 2 inches long with tapered ends. (Be careful, as the balls tend to crumble). Roll in egg, then in sesame seeds. Form into crescent shape, then place on a greased cookie tray. Bake in a 350° F pre­heated oven for 35 minutes or until the horns just begin to turn brown.

Atay – Moroccan Mint Tea

Serves 10 to 12 in small glasses

Tea was introduced into Morocco by English merchants during the Crimean War, hence the name, atay is the English pronunciation of tea.

4 teaspoons green tea

8 sprigs fresh mint

8 cups boiling water

2 tablespoons sugar

Place tea and mint in a teapot, then pour in 1 cup of the boiling water and allow to stand for 10 seconds. Discard water in pot then add sugar and the remaining 7 cups boiling water. Allow to steep to desired strength then serve.

Note:   If a further batch of tea is desired, add an extra 1 teaspoon tea, 1 tablespoon sugar and a few new sprigs of mint and 7 cups of water, then allow to steep.