France, Spain, West Africa and the Arab world have all played a part in the development of the country's culinary traditions. A stroll through one of Morocco's souks (markets) reveals the heart of the cuisine: aromatic fresh herbs, vegetables and citrus; glistening olives; a vivid array of lentils and dried beans; golden semolina grain for couscous; and a multitude of fragrant spices, including cinnamon, ginger, paprika, cayenne, saffron, coriander and cumin.
Modern Moroccan master
Many classic Moroccan dishes are slow simmered. Most famous is couscous, a savory mixture of lamb, chicken or fish cooked with vegetables until everything forms a flavorful albeit mushy stew that's served over fluffy, steamed semolina. Tagines are another typical one-dish meal; a combination of meat, vegetables, preserved lemons and olives cooked in a domed, earthenware pot. And there's spicy harira, a lemony lentil soup eaten during Ramadan.
At Aziza in San Francisco, chef-owner Mourad Lahlou, a Moroccan by birth, takes these and other traditional dishes and reproduces them with a contemporary sensibility. "The flavors get lost when you cook everything for hours," he explains. "I start with the same foundation but buy local produce and free-range meat, game and poultry, then shorten the cooking time and use different techniques so the results taste fresh and light."
Couscous Aziza is a good example. This best-selling menu item ($20) features crisp vegetables, grilled chicken and prawns, spicy beef sausage and stewed lamb. The Prawn Tagine ($18) is modernized with fresh herbs, seasonal vegetables and house-preserved meyer lemons. These are an indispensable Moroccan ingredient made by steeping local lemons in sea salt; preserved lemons can also be purchased in jars. Couscous is prepared on premise too, by a dedicated cook who rolls it fresh every morning.
Lahlou goes to the farmers' market four times a week to patronize Bay Area producers and get the best seasonal, sustainable ingredients. For Moroccan condiments and spices that are difficult to find in the States, including Spanish fly, queens of paradise and argon oil (pressed from a native nut), he works with a specialty importer.
The mother sauce and others
The fiery red condiment known as harissa is to Morocco what salsa is to Mexico. The standard harissa familiar to most Americans is a puree of hot chilies, garlic, cumin and coriander. But there are as many variations of harissa as there are of salsa. At Aziza, a version is made with roasted tomatoes, blackened chili peppers, cumin, coriander, paprika, cayenne, garlic, olive oil and argon oil. The prepared sauce is available in cans and jars from purveyors who import Moroccan and Tunisian products. Offering a dollop of harissa along with herbed roast chicken or grilled fish can instantly impart a North African accent.
Prepared spice blends are another convenient way to bring Morocco to the plate. Ras el hanout is a flavorful mix of 21 spices and herbs that has recently become commercially available. Included in the mix are cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, thyme, lavender, coriander, fennel, green cardamom, dill, caraway, saffron, cayenne and orange root. This multi-purpose seasoning can be used in rubs, marinades, sauces, dressings, soups and stews.
Sourcing the exotic
Since 1937, surfas has been a destination for chefs and operators shopping for ingredients that are a bit out of the ordinary. The Culver City, California, restaurant supply house has recently doubled its size and stocks an inventory of 14,000 products to keep up with the demand for spices, condiments and other products necessary to create a global menu. And all things Moroccan are selling briskly.
"Demand is driving our supply," says Diane Surfas, an owner of the company. "About 80 percent of our clientele is foodservice, and they are looking for authentic, high-quality ingredients." Surfas cultivates relationships with exporters all over the world; they can go direct to Moroccan sources for items like preserved lemons, harissa, ras el hanout, couscous and other essentials. Recently, Surfas introduced Berber Spice, a blend of salt, coriander, onion, chilies, ginger, garlic and paprika inspired by the nomadic Berbers of the country. "We like to stay ahead of the curve," says Diane Surfas.