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One of my favorite gastronomic experiences when I return to Morocco, the country where I was born, is to partake in a "diffa." This multi-course feast is usually served during a "moussem" or tribal festival, held in honor of a local saint, or to celebrate a bountiful harvest. Seated on plump sofas encircling low, round tables set inside a rug-lined tent, guests savor a succession of courses, ranging from exquisitely spiced salads to tagines (exotic stews) and couscous, Morocco's national dish.
Most Moroccans will tell you that a home-cooked meal is the best there is. But a handful of renowned restaurants around the country offer a superb sampling of Morocco‚Äôs famed cuisine.
Some of the finest comes from Fez, widely recognized as Morocco's culinary capital, where the city's labyrinthine "medina" (old city) has changed little since biblical times. Fassis (inhabitants of Fez) pride themselves on the authenticity of their dishes, and many point to the Al Fassia restaurant inside the world-renowned Palais Jamai Hotel for sampling some of the most delicious in town. At the Al Fassia, the meal starts with an assortment of delicately seasoned salads of cooked or raw vegetables. Garlic-scented roasted peppers, grated carrots sprinkled with orange blossom water and cinnamon, or tender beets sprinkled with cumin are among the most requested. The restaurant's bestila is widely recognized as one of the best. This, the crowning dish in Morocco's extensive culinary repertoire is an exquisite blend of shredded chicken (pigeon is sometimes used in Morocco), cinnamon, saffron, and herbs encased in a flaky, filo like dough.
Al Fassia is also renowned for its tagines, a word that refers to the finished dish, as well as to the earthenware cooking vessel topped with a conical lid. Tagines combine meat, fowl, or seafood, with seasonal vegetables or fruit, and exotic herbs and spices. Tender cubes of lamb or beef simmer to the melting point with prunes, in a sauce lightly tinged with honey and cinnamon; chicken and preserved lemons take their fragrant cue from saffron and ginger, and as does fish poached in a cumin-accented tomato charmoula. Tagines are served from a communal dish set in the center of the table, with warm chunks "hobz" (bread) to sop up the exquisite sauces. Eating with your fingers is the reason a Moroccan meals begins with a hand-washing ritual. Al Fassia is no exception, though silverware is available as an alternative.
Marrakech, like Fez, prides itself on its regional cuisine. "The Pink City" nestles within a 3,000 acre palm grove set against a backdrop of the High Atlas Mountains. Now overrun with moneyed foreigners and European retirees, Marrakech teems with eating establishments to suit all budgets and nationalities. Many are not worth the expense, nor fighting the city's monster traffic jams. Thanks to the cosmopolitan influx of visitors, however, Marrakech boasts some of the best Moroccan restaurants in the country. Yacout remains the jewel in the local firmament, as a romantic, fairy-tale, hideaway for movie stars and artists. At Yacout, traditional cooking methods prevail: saffron-scented tagines of beef, veal, or chicken are simmered to a melting tenderness over charcoal fires, and here too, eating with your fingers is de rigueur. The lovely Le Tobsil, and famed Stylia, a restaurant run entirely by women, are also worth the detour. Reservations are required at all three restaurants.
For an evening of folklore buses of visitors flock to the Disneyland-inspired Chez Ali, a vast fantasy village in the Marrakech palm grove. Here, waiters and waitresses dressed in tribal costumes double as entertainers. Whole roasted lamb, or mechoui, is one of the specialties, and so is a surprisingly flavorful vegetable-topped couscous.
Couscous is also the dish served on Fridays, the Muslim day of prayer. Every cook treasures her recipe for couscous and dedicates hours to its preparation. Couscous is steamed in a "couscoussier", a tall, pot-bellied pan capped with a tight-fitting sieve. Into the pot go the ingredients for the herb-infused broth, such as lamb, beef or chicken, and fresh vegetables. Couscous Beidaoui, in the style of Casablanca, comes to the table mounded on a large platter topped with a steaming crown of meat and seven kinds of vegetables. In Fez and Rabat, the crown consists of caramelized onions and chunks of lamb simmered in a ginger-accented broth. In coastal regions, fresh fish simmered in a spicy broth serves as a substitute for meat.
Most meals end with trays of fresh, seasonal fruit. In December, tangerines (named for the people of Tangier) appear on every table. In spring, it is peaches, pears, and cherries grown in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. And in summer, nothing beats slices of sweet watermelon. Pastries, platters of them, from fried phyllo triangles doused in honey, to delicate gazelle horns bursting with almond paste, bring a diffa to a close, along with glasses of sweet mint tea.
And no tea tastes sweeter than the one served at La Skala in Casablanca, a unique, alfresco establishment that doubles as a venue for art exhibits and live music. I love to visit the garden setting within the ramparts of the Old Medina, to sip glass after glass of fortifying mint tea. La Skala‚Äôs novel approach to the national beverage is to present a sampling of three teas brewed with mint grown in three different regions of the country. Bismillah! as the locals say before taking the first sip. Bismillah! May you enjoy this meal!
Kitty Morse was born in Casablanca, and is the author of Cooking at the Kasbah: Recipes from my Moroccan Kitchen. She shares her famous couscous beidaoui recipe — you won't want to miss it! Click here: www.kittymorse.com.