Road to Jewish Morocco
The interplay of spices, colors, and flavors lends an allure to a Jewish cuisine that is esteemed from Fez to Brooklyn to Tel Aviv.
By Jayne Cohen
Brooklyn-based food company NY Shuk opened its Rosh Hashanah event last year with a flourish of edible “spoon sweets,” a rainbow of seven shimmering jams, each prepared from a different autumn fruit or vegetable, among them eggplant, carrot, apple, and Concord grape with walnuts.
Ron Arazi who, with his wife Leetal, owns the company, drew on his mother’s roots for inspiration: such jams are a Jewish specialty of Essaouira (also known as Mogador) on Morocco’s southwestern coast.
Even the simplest holiday meal of Sukkot fava bean soup and homemade flatbread that Arazi grew up eating at his Moroccan grandparents’ home in Beersheva was memorable. So it’s not a surprise that the Arazis, Israeli-born professional chefs, would pay homage to that culinary heritage when they developed their product line of artisanal flavorings, including the family harissa recipe.
“It is in Morocco,” writes Claudia Roden in The Book of Jewish Food, “that one of the most prestigious styles of Jewish cooking developed.” Even today, home-cooked Moroccan-Jewish food is renowned in Muslim Morocco, where only about 2500 Jews remain, from a peak of perhaps 300,000 around 1950.
In Israel, where Moroccans form the second-largest ethnic group, food writer Janna Gur tells me, “There is a joke in the industry that to become a famous chef in Israel, it really helps to have a Moroccan grandmother. And if you don’t, you’d better invent one.”
And in France, distinctive, colorful, and aromatic Moroccan-Jewish dishes, Roden writes, “are so appreciated that they have been adopted by other Sephardi communities for grand events like weddings and bar mitzvahs.”
But, as Ron Arazi notes, “Saying ‘Moroccan food’ is like saying ‘French food’. Everywhere you go, the food is different.” And, Leetal adds, “Every family has its own story.”
Liora Kushner’s food story begins in Fez, where her parents were born. She grew up in Israel, but her culinary mother tongue was Moroccan. For the former attorney, now owner of Liora’s Catering in the Boston area, that is still the medium she cooks and improvises in. Her kosher clients find her stunning Moroccan platters glamorous – and healthful. “I prefer eating healthy foods, and every Moroccan holiday opens with a huge spread of a variety of salads. On Rosh Hashanah, there may be as many as twenty,” Kushner says. Many of these are slow-cooked and prepared ahead – a real boon to a caterer – or a home cook preparing for Shabbat and holidays with little time for last minute dishes. And Kushner enjoys updating Moroccan classics: for vegetable couscous, for example, she boils down the vegetable cooking liquid until it is concentrated with flavor, but only cooks the vegetables themselves until deliciously tender, not melting-apart as in traditional recipes.
Couscous, by the way, refers both to the dish of steamed grain pellets and the soup or stew and accompaniments served with it. If the only couscous you’ve ever tasted was lumpy, gummy or dry as dust, you may not understand how Paula Wolfert, doyenne of Moroccan cookbook authors, could write, “Couscous is a masterpiece of Berber cooking. I consider it magical.” But properly made, couscous is airy, moist, and delicately tender – at its best, what snowflakes would taste like if they were made of grain. On special occasions, couscous may be piled in pyramids, stippled with cinnamon and striped with tart, glistening pomegranate seeds; or presented with a crown of alluring, spicy meat and a border of soft, caramelized onions, raisins, and crunchy, fried almonds – or served with fish, chicken or meatballs.
This is a cuisine of contrasts and surprising marriages that somehow seduce beautifully: a pomegranate and walnut salad, aromatic with orange flower water, for the second night of Rosh Hashanah; sweet oranges paired with sharp radishes; fish stuffed with dates or sweet almond paste. There is a graceful tension between savory and sweet, a subtle flickering of tart and spice. Its brilliance is in balance: taming the sugar and cinnamon in a Sabbath dumpling with salt and a little heat from ground black pepper or playing buttery, tangy olives and salty preserved lemons against tender chicken and herby cilantro.
There is a balance to the meal as well, from homey salads to sophisticated tagines (stews made in a special clay pot that cooks with gentle condensation). Even the simplest salads have heaps of flavor. Dressed with a distinctive mix of cumin, garlic, lemon, and fruity olive oil or nutty argan oil, they pique the appetite and ready it for heartier dishes to come. The lineup of spices reads like a shopping list for a merchant embarking on a caravan. But it’s always a judicious blend, nuanced and never overwhelming. Jews have traditionally prepared custom spice mixes or sought out specially made kosher versions for apparent reasons: The signature Moroccan spice blend, ras el hanout can have more than 25 ingredients, and one may be the decidedly unkosher cantharides beetle, also known as
The spices help make for visually arresting presentations, especially on holidays. During the fall holidays, some cooks mingle saffron, turmeric, maybe a touch of paprika to reflect the colors of a harvest sun, creating a golden “sauce soleil” (sunlight) for fish or a coppery “sauce crepuscule” (sunset) for braised meatballs.
Of course, Moroccan Jews share many holiday foods with mainstream Moroccans. The Couscous with Seven Vegetables that might star in a Rosh Hashanah feast would be equally at home on a Muslim Sabbath table. Both peoples consider seven – the number of days in the Creation – to be lucky.
But Moroccan Jewish cooking has its own signature, and it starts with kashrut. In mainstream Moroccan cuisine, butter – both fresh and a unique kind called smen – are used to sauté, baste, and enrich meat dishes. When possible, Jews simply replace the butter in recipes with oil, and the result is often lighter and more refined. This difference is especially noticeable in the Jewish version of pastilla (a pie layered with elegantly spiced squab or chicken, custardy eggs, and crispy almonds, dusted with cinnamon and sugar), a specialty at Sukkot and grand celebrations. Each flaky, paper-thin pastry sheet is lightly brushed with oil instead of rich butter, so the pastilla turns out subtle and delicate, but still sumptuous.
Throughout the fall holidays, you can taste an understated thrum of sweetness in many dishes. For the New Year, Jews often add dried fruit or an extra dash of cinnamon and sugar to tagines and couscous or sprinkle on the sweetening to caramelize seven different vegetables as they roast, each to be separately blessed at the festive dinner.
And when the last blast of the shofar signals the end of Yom Kippur, Jews all over Morocco sip a unique drink: coffee topped with a frothy blend of beaten egg yolks, sugar and cinnamon, that is “cooked” when stirred into the steaming coffee.Especially on Rosh Hashanah, says Arazi, “We try to eat foods that are not our everyday ones. And we don’t eat sour or bitter foods that taste unhappy and dark ones” (which would evoke evil and bad omens). So golden raisins, and green and purple olives replace black varieties. And white rice – symbolizing purity of heart – was the traditional Rosh Hashanah grain, surrounded by butternut squash cooked with tanzeya, a blend of dried fruit.
Are Jews fonder of rice than other Moroccans? Probably. Encoded in many food preferences and recipes is a Spanish past; rice was the favored grain in Andalusia. And combing through a score of cookbooks, I found an astonishing array of recipes for ground meat and fish, meatballs in every form – a passion Jews picked up in Old Spain and carried throughout the Sephardi diaspora.
Centuries ago, Mercedes Castiel’s family fled from Barcelona to Alcazar. Like many Jews who settled in northern Morocco around Tangier and Tetuan, they kept up cultural traditions from Spain, especially culinary ones. Her book, I Never Thought I’d Taste This Again, a loving collection of her late mother’s recipes, includes Spanish-inflected dishes like flan and fish in adobo sauce, and the recipe names are written in Jaquetia (a once-upon-a-time language unique to Jews of that area that combines medieval Spanish, Arabic, Berber, and Hebrew). “We did things differently from other Moroccan Jews,” says Castiel, a New York gynecologist. “We were Los Nuestros (our people); we called them the Forasteros (strangers).” One of those differences was a more pronounced sweet tooth. “That was definitely from the Spanish,” she adds. In fact, the Castiel family had a special Yom Kippur custom: they broke their fast with a feast of all her mother’s dessert specialties.
Moroccan Jewish history did not begin in Spain. Jews came to the area at least as far back as the first century A.D., escaping their Roman oppressors, and settled peacefully among the indigenous Berber communities. They were joined by Jews from the Middle East who arrived with the rise of Islam in the wake of the Muslim conquering armies.
But the story picks up in Spain in the early Middle Ages, after the Muslims extended their empire there. Jewish scholars and merchants constantly crisscrossed the Strait of Gibraltar – as did refugees, who repeatedly fled between Spain and Morocco when faced with persecution from one side or the other. Then, starting in 1492, when Sultan Mohammed al Shaykh al-Wattasi welcomed to his country Jews expelled from the Iberian peninsula, huge waves of Sephardi and Converso immigrants arrived who would eventually come to overshadow the existing Moroccan Jewish communities.
Some Jews – especially the newer Iberian immigrants – thrived in Morocco: they became valued diplomats, businessmen, professionals, and skilled artisans. Others suffered abject poverty and discrimination. Periods of tolerance and general stability alternated with times of persecution and horrific cruelty. Threatened by violence and riots, Jews appealed to more tolerant rulers, who segregated them from Muslim mobs in mellahs, ghetto-like enclosed Jewish quarters.
But there was nevertheless a strong bond between many Jews and their Muslim neighbors. The unique Moroccan Jewish holiday, Mimouna, created centuries ago, bears testimony to the spirit of friendship between the two communities. At the close of Passover, Jews opened their homes to their Muslim friends for a celebration of sweets. Today Mimouna is not only a national holiday in Israel, but has become increasingly popular in the diaspora as well, where in the spirit of inclusiveness, Jews often widen the circle to embrace guests of all beliefs.
That’s a Moroccan Jewish recipe that tastes sweetest of all.
Jayne Cohen writes and lectures extensively on Jewish cuisine and culture. Her most recent book, (John Wiley), was finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award.