Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and a period of significant religious observance by the globe’s Muslims, begins this year the evening of Thursday, April 23. During Ramadan’s 30 days, among other practices, Muslims fast from dawn until dusk and break their fast with the “iftar,” or evening meal.
On a trip to Morocco in January, I learned that the most common food with which to break the fast is harira, a thick, substantial soup that may be either vegetarian or meat-based, but that always includes hefty portions of legumes and pulses such as lentils or beans, or both.
Harira is assembled during Ramadan daytimes, in order to be ready for the evening meal. Obviously, it is always eagerly anticipated.
Over time, harira became so popular in Morocco that it is now eaten throughout the year and, interestingly, as what we Westerners call breakfast, as a morning potage served with flat semi-sweet crepe-like breads, or dates or figs, or peeled hard-cooked eggs sprinkled with pepper and ground cumin.
It may feel odd to eat a spicy, legume-rich soup in the early hours, but only if you think about it. Make today’s recipe because it is exceptionally delicious and eat it at whatever time of the day you wish. I will, in appreciation of its central role in the Muslim community with whom we share our cooking, eating and dining out spaces.
A key ingredient in Moroccan harira is the spice blend called “ras el hanout” (“best of the shop”), a blend of anywhere from 10 to 30 or more different spice powders, each mixture particular to a given merchant or cook. Most ras el hanout blends are based in the powders of several “warming” spices (such as paprika, cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne, and black pepper), accented with powders of some “sweet” spices (such as cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice).
But, in the end, there are no rules; blending ras el hanout is each merchant’s or family’s special art. It is also difficult to find outside North Africa, although you may run across it in Colorado at specialty shops or gourmet groceries. A simple recipe for assembling a do-your-own ras el hanout is below.
The chile paste called harissa is another harira ingredient, though it is easily substitutable using other countries’ chile pastes. Small cans of North African harissa, however, are readily found in grocery and specialty stores.
From Chef Amina Zarkat, Hotel Ramada, Fès, Morocco. Commonly made with lamb broth, this version’s base is vegetarian. In place of the water stipulated, you may use chicken or vegetable broth or, if you can access it or make it, lamb or veal broth. (Dark brown beef broth will be a bit too burly.) Make 10-12 servings; stores well in the refrigerator or freezes admirably.
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 large onion, diced small
- 3 center stalks celery, with leaves, diced small
- 2 large carrots, diced small
- 4 cloves garlic, minced or slivered
- 1/4 cup packed cilantro leaves, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup packed flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped
- 4 tablespoons ras el hanout
- 2 teaspoons harissa (or other chile paste), plus more for garnish
- 4 cups tomatoes (diced, whole crushed, or 5 cups fresh, peeled)
- 2 quarts or liters water (or chicken, vegetable, veal, or lamb broth)
- 1 cup lentils (red or brown, not green), rinsed, soaked in water for 1 hour, drained
- 1 14-ounce can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained and rinsed, or 1 cup dried chickpeas or fava beans, rinsed, soaked overnight, and cooked, drained
- 1 teaspoon each kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 pound thin long-form pasta (vermicelli, thin spaghetti, or angel hair), broken into 1-inch pieces
- Wedges of lemon and dried dates
Over medium-high heat, and in a heavy-bottomed pot large enough to hold all the ingredients, cook the onion, celery and carrot until soft and getting translucent, about 7 minutes; then turn the heat down a smidge and add the garlic and cook, stirring, for another 3 minutes, being careful not to burn the garlic. Stir in the cilantro and parsley leaves, then the ras el hanout and harissa, cooking and stirring a bit for another 2 minutes.
Raise the heat to medium-high and add the tomatoes, being sure that they are crushed well (use a potato masher if it helps); cook for a couple of minutes until the mix thickens slightly. Add the water (or broth, if you are using), the lentils, and the chickpeas or fava beans. Add the salt and pepper, stir it in well, and bring the soup to a boil, then lower to a solid simmer.
With the lid of the pot slightly ajar, let the soup cook for an hour or more, until the lentils are well-cooked-through, very soft and creamy. To retain a soup-like (and not a stew-like) consistency, add more liquid to the harira while it cooks.
Adjust for salt and, about 5 minutes before serving, add the broken pasta pieces, stirring, and let them cook through. Serve with more harissa, wedges of lemon for squeezing generously over the soup, and the dates for eating, bite for spoonful.
You may tinker with this blend to suit your tastes; after all, that is the idea. For example, using paprika instead of cayenne will lower somewhat the chile heat index. Makes 4 tablespoons; easily multiplied.
- 2 teaspoons each: ground coriander, ground cumin, and ground turmeric
- 1 teaspoon each: ground ginger, ground cinnamon, ground cayenne (or paprika), and ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon each: ground cardamom, ground allspice, and ground mace (or nutmeg)
- 1/4 teaspoon each: ground clove and crushed saffron threads
Mix the powders together well. Stores admirably, away from the light, in a tight-lidded jar. Use in cooking preparations where any savory spice blend is called for, as you would use a garam masala, for example, or a meat or fish rub, or an adobo.