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A Master of Spices

india Updated: Oct 12, 2012 02:11 IST
Debasmita Ghosh
Debasmita Ghosh
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Remember the Prince of Morocco, who failed to woo Portia in Shakespeare’s iconic play, Merchant of Venice, by choosing the wrong casket? Well, his charm might not have worked on the Italian lady, but Moroccan chef Lahcen Bechchar did manage to woo Indian foodies on his recent visit to the Capital. Not with priced fortunes or the Moon and the stars, but with simple aromas of rich spices from Marrakesh — known as the Land of God, creating lip-smacking gastronomic wonders.

Slow and steady
Flavoursome! That’s how Bechchar describes Moroccan cuisine in one word. And indeed, that’s possibly the best thing about the cuisine of this North African nation, and also what makes it a hit in India. In fact, the biggest similarity between Indian and Moroccan cuisine is the spices, confirms Bechchar as he sprinkles a dash of freshly-grounded cumin and chopped cilantro over an appetising potato salad. However, the visiting chef at the Hyatt Regency clarifies that loading a dish with exotic spices is not a shortcut to enhance flavours. The secret lies in the cooking process. “We follow a slow cooking standard that helps bring out the best of every ingredient, retaining the fresh aroma of the spices as well as the texture and taste, thus enhancing the flavours,” he says.

Spicy yet healthy
Yes, spicy can be healthy too, says Bechchar. “Moroccan cuisine is quite healthy, as most of the dishes are cooked in olive oil. And yes, we do use spices, but never in abundance. It’s all about variety and not quantity,” he says.

Popular choice
Turkey skewers in Moroccan style is a hit in India due to it’s resemblance to the Indian tandoor style preparation. “Indians love chicken as much as the Moroccans do, so the chicken tagine with lemon confit is also loved here,” says the chef. So, the next time you head out for a Moroccan feast, you know which dishes to go for.

Grounded delights
Moroccans believe in grinding their spices fresh just prior to cooking. Though they do use a variety of spices, the four main ones — ginger, turmeric, salt and pepper — rule their basic dishes such as stews, meat and tagines. Other spices that feature in the Moroccan kitchen are cumin, paprika, cinnamon and white pepper - much like the Indian kitchen. Two distinctive spices, saffron and Ras El Hanout are however a speciality. Ras El Hanout, which means “head of the shop” in Arabic, is a mixture of ground spices. Made of cardamom, nutmeg, anise, mace, cinnamon, ginger, various peppers and turmeric, it’s quite similar to the Indian garam masala with a rich aroma, and is hence often regarded as their best spice mix.

Potato Salad
Salads are one of the most loved Moroccan dishes, usually served on special occasions. Typically light and fresh, containing lentils, veggies, couscous or chickpeas, the flavours come from spices such as cumin and cilantro, often with a dash of lemon and olive oil. Sometimes even chopped garlic and pepper is added to make it zesty and flavoursome. These salads may include both raw and cooked ingredients, and the same salad may be served both hot and cold.

INGREDIENTS
1 kg firm-fleshed potatoes, 1 tsp ground cumin, 1 lemon, 4 garlic cloves, one bunch fresh cilantro, 1/2 cup, (10 cl) extra virgin olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.

Preparation
Peel and roughly chop the garlic cloves. Squeeze the lemon to
extract all the juice. Remove the stalk from the cilantro and chop finely.
Peel the potatoes and cut them into large pieces of the same size. Bring a large saucepan of water to boil on high heat.
Now, add the pieces of potato and the garlic. Let it cook for 15-20 minutes until the potatoes are cooked but still firm. Now drain the potatoes and put them straight into a large pan on medium heat. Pour in the olive oil, lemon juice, cumin and chopped cilantro and stir well. Add salt and pepper to taste. Leave on the heat for about two minutes.
The salad is ready and you can serve it either warm or cold.

Chicken Tajine
Tajines are are slow-cooked stews of tender meat and aromatic veggies, cooked in a traditional tajine pot that has a conical cover with a knob handle. In the process of slow cooking, the the lid can be lifted to inspect the ingredients or add braising liquid.

INGREDIENTS
2 cloves garlic, chopped , 1/2 preserved lemon, rinsed and thinly sliced, 2 onions, chopped, 1/2 birds eye chilli, 1 tbsp sweet paprika, 1 tbsp ground cumin, salt to taste, 2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander, 2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley, 1/2 tsp saffron threads, soaked in a little water, 1/2 cup olive oil, 2 bay leaves, torn in half, 1 whole chicken, size 10 or 12,
1 tomato and onion chopped, 2 large potatoes, cut into wedges, 1 onion, sliced, 1 tomato, sliced, 150gm pitted green olives, a bunch fresh coriander, chopped, 1 cup water, 1 preserved lemon, cut into 6 segments

Preparation
Marinade: Process all ingredients together in a food processor until finely chopped and thoroughly combined. Leave for 30 minutes before using. Wash and dry the chicken and remove backbone, wing tips and any excess fat. Cut into pieces. Rub all over with 1/2 of the marinade and refrigerate overnight. Combine the tomato and onion with a little more marinade and spread into the base of the tajine. Arrange chicken pieces in the centre of the tajine on top of the tomato mixture. Coat potato wedges with chermoula and arrange around chicken. Top with onion and tomato slices and olives in between the potato wedges. Mix chopped coriander with remaining chermoula and water. Pour over mixture. Decorate top with preserved lemon wedges. Cover tajine with lid and cook on a very low gas heat for 45 minutes. Serve the tajine directly to the table.