FÈS, Morocco — Each day here, the newspaper Le Matin posts the date as it appears in four calendars: the Jewish or Hebrew calendar; the Arabic or Islamic calendar; the common or Gregorian calendar; and the Amazir calendar of the Berber people, the Amazighs, the people indigenous to Morocco.
For example, the weekend edition of Le Matin for “17-18-19 janvier 2020” (in American English, January 17-19, 2020) is the Gregorian listing, and “21-22-23 joumada al ouda 1441” is the Islamic, and “22-23-24 Tévet 5780” is the Hebrew. (The Berber font resembles Greek, but just, although one can read that the Berber year this year is 2970.)
These calendars are a good introduction to the food of Morocco, influenced greatly as it has been by these four important cultures.
Many Jews settled here, for example, pushed out of Spain centuries ago (especially the region of Andalusia in southern Spain) just to Morocco’s north. You see Sephardic cuisine in Morocco’s fish dishes, in its lavish use of cumin and cilantro, or its use of lamb and chicken in place of pork (the latter choice it shares with Arabic cooking).
About the only truly unique or indigenous aspect of Moroccan cooking is that the foodstuffs, protein and flavorings grown here are the beneficiaries of some of the wilder diurnal temperature swings of any agricultural place on earth. Early mornings all over the country hover near freezing, while afternoons, even in wintertime, easily climb into the 70s Fahrenheit. Of course, in summer, it can be as hot as the hinges of hell; after all, it’s Africa.
Such temperature variances, combined with extraordinarily fertile soil along both the coastal plains and in the country’s midsection, allow for the raising of all manner of (terrifically delicious) crops of grain, vegetable, herb and fruit, and diverse animals (save for the pig). Indeed, a main resource of the Moroccan economy is agriculture.
We have come to know Moroccan cuisine in two foods: couscous and the tajine (sometimes spelled tagine). The latter is both a dish and, well, a dish, in the same way that, for us, the word “casserole” is both a cooking vessel and a finished preparation. Tajines are ubiquitous in Morocco, whether of vegetables only or vegetables mixed with various meats or of meats alone. The food is cooked over searing temperatures on the thick plate-like bottom, as with fajitas, while the heat is captured by the cover.
But you’ll see the tajines — the implements — everywhere, large and small, even wee ones as keychain tchotchkes. A Denverite easily can grasp exactly what a tajine pot looks like: Just look at one of the tent-spires of the main terminal of DIA.
As for couscous, Mohamed Menai, a guide here, says that “on Fridays (the Islamic Sunday), 80 percent of Moroccan families make couscous. In fact, they make more than they need so that they can send the extra portion to the mosque as alms for the needy people.”
And you see couscous everywhere as well, festooned with foods from sweet to savory — or, indeed and commonly, for it is another mark of Moroccan cuisine, combined sweet-savory — that well may have been cooked as and in a tajine.
Today’s recipe comes from a young chef, Amina Zarkat, at the Hotel Ramada here. You see it sometimes spelled “baba ganoush,” which is a mispronunciation of its original sounding “baba ganouj,” the spelling in Roman letters that Chef Zarkat prefers.
In Arabic, “baba” means “daddy” and “ganouj” signifies “pampered” or “spoiled.” Its origins may have come from a particularly skilled cook in a sultan’s harem, she who whipped up this silken eggplant mash to please her man.
The French, who had an outsized influence on the cooking here, call it “caviar d’aubergines,” another very fitting name.
Unlike many recipes for baba ganouj throughout the Levant, Chef Zarkat uses no tahini, or sesame seed paste, in hers. And the ample measurements for the ingredients are hers as well; it is a lavish dish made of simple things.
Baba Ganoush (Baba Ganouj)
From Chef Amina Zarkat, at Hotel Ramada, Fès, Morocco. Makes about 3 cups. You may use any sort of eggplant, from the thick-skinned, purple-black bulbous one common to French cooking, to the small and long bishop’s purple eggplants of Japanese cooking. Include or strip off the skin as you choose; its thickness will help you decide. Roast the eggplant(s) whole.
- 1 pound eggplant(s), whole (equivalent to 6 cups cubed raw)
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
- 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/2 cup fruity extra virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Prick the eggplants in several places so that steam building up inside of them will not burst them. In a 400-degree oven, roast the eggplants until they are very soft and beginning to collapse, anywhere from 20-35 minutes depending on size. Remove to a deep bowl and let cool enough to handle, covered with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap.
Strip out the flesh from the eggplants, discarding firm seed sacks (and thick skin) if present, and chop or mash the flesh into a rough paste, mixing in the other ingredients. Let sit to integrate the flavors for at least 1 hour, or longer in the refrigerator.
Serve at room temperature with lemon wedges, blackened Moroccan oil-cured olives, and, if desired, swirls of more olive oil.
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