My first taste of Moroccan cuisine made me immediately nostalgic for my mother’s kitchen in India. It felt as though I had travelled a long way for food that turned out to be hauntingly familiar. We were in Fez, exploring the maze of narrow alleyways that make up the ancient city, stopping now and then to gaze in wonder at the many exciting and exotic shops that line them. We were trying to find a restaurant that had been highly recommended to us as it specialised in traditional cuisine.
In spite of being so well known, it was proving very hard to find, as we kept getting lost in the labyrinth of narrow, dark lanes that seemed to lead to nowhere. We finally made our way back to the Riad (hotel) where we were staying and the restaurant sent a guide to fetch us. We were led to a beautifully restored 700-year-old palace and seated in the colourfully tiled courtyard dotted with potted plants, fountains and elegant screens. Soft music played in the background accompanied by the gentle sound of water trickling down the fountain. The food, when it arrived transported me straight back to India as it consisted of chicken kababs on a skewer, sautéed lentils with caramelised onions and samosa like pastry puffs. The aromas, the flavours, and the ingredients were very similar to those used in Indian cooking – ground coriander, toasted cumin, cayenne pepper, ginger, fresh coriander and mint.
The flavours of Moroccan food, and their resemblance to Indian cooking, are a reflection of the great spice trade that has flourished for over a thousand years between the two countries. Merchants carried spices in camel caravans across the vast expanse of the Sahara desert to the far corners of the great Arab empire that stretched across the Middle East and North Africa. Pepper and cardamom from Kerala, cinnamon from Sri Lanka, nutmeg and mace from Indonesia, all found their way into the hands of Moroccan cooks, who used these spices to create the magnificent cuisine we enjoy today.
Kababs are as popular in Morocco as they are in India. Walk through any market place and the aroma of grilling will lead you to small stalls where marinated meats of all kinds are skewered and grilled over open charcoal fires. There are chicken skewers, ground beef skewers, lamb shish kababs and even grilled camel meat! These chicken skewers are my favourite and combine the best of Moroccan and Indian flavours.
MOROCCAN CHICKEN KABABS
If you don’t have all the herbs available, use whatever is at hand. A food processor makes life incredibly easy when it comes to mincing the herbs and garlic. Throw everything in together and make the marinade in the food processor to save time.
The kababs are even more flavourful when left to marinate overnight in the refrigerator. Serve them over a bed of fresh mint or rice pilaf as is traditional in Morocco. Leftovers make a delicious lunch when wrapped in soft flour tortillas.
2 tbsp each: olive oil, lemon juice, white wine vinegar
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp finely chopped onions
1 tbsp each: finely chopped fresh coriander, mint and parsley
1 tsp each: ground coriander, ground cumin, honey
½ tsp paprika
1/4 tsp each: cayenne pepper, ground ginger, ground cinnamon, saffron strands
Salt to taste
1 1/4 lb boneless skinless chicken breasts, cubed into 1 inch pieces
Combine all marinade ingredients together in large mixing bowl and mix well. Add chicken, toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for 4 hours or longer.
Preheat barbecue grill to medium. Lift chicken pieces out of marinade and thread onto skewers, about 4 pieces to each skewer.
Place on grill and cook covered for about 8-10 minutes per side or until cooked through, turning them over once.
If you wish to cook the chicken in the oven, preheat oven to 400ºF. Line a baking tray with parchment. Use a grilling rack if you have one or place chicken directly on the parchment. Bake about 8-10 minutes per side until cooked through. Place under the broiler for 1-2 minutes to char lightly.
Transfer skewers to a platter and serve.
Adapted from Desi masalas get Moroccan makeover, Desi Life magazine, July 10/ 2008