By Kitty Morse
At the Tuesday souk, an open-air market on the edge of the old city of Azemmour in Morocco, I stroll through aisles packed with the bounty from surrounding fields. Vendors greet me by name as I fill baskets with tomatoes ripened on the vine, butter-colored turnips the size of golf balls, white onions with clumps of dirt still clinging to their roots, eggplant and baby okra. Before I head home I visit the area where fishermen gather, to find glistening fillets of swordfish, and a sea bass still swimming in a bucket of seawater from the nearby Atlantic. I choose the sea bass and decide on making t’faya, a succulent tagine (stew) of fish simmered with onions, raisins and almonds.
T’faya is a traditional Moroccan recipe handed down from mother to daughter, and in my case, from Tita, my great-aunt and culinary mentor. Tita was a passionate cook, descended from Sephardic Jews who fled Spain during the Inquisition in the 1500s and settled in North Africa. I was born in Casablanca to my French mother who met my British father when he was stationed there with the Royal Air Force during World War II. Growing up, I spent many hours in Tita’s kitchen watching her cook all the specialties of the region.
Morocco, like the rest of the Mediterranean, has a mild climate that supports a year-round supply of gorgeous locally grown produce. In fact Northwest Africa, including Morocco, has been known for its productive agriculture for centuries. When the Romans took over the Carthaginian empire, which spanned Northern Africa, around 146 B.C., they found wheat and olives growing vigorously. The Romans introduced grapes and wine production. Eventually so much olive oil, wine and wheat was exported from Northern Africa back to Rome that the area became known as “the breadbasket of Rome.”
It’s not just fertile land and a tradition of farming that shaped the cuisine of Morocco, it’s also a long history of outside conquest and influences. After the Roman empire fell, Arabs swept in from the East in the 7th century and introduced a taste of Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus—rich spices, crescent-shaped pastries and the use of fragrant rose and orange-blossom waters. When Moors and Andalusians from Spain sought refuge from the Inquisition after 1478, they brought potatoes, tomatoes and chile peppers. Portuguese spice traders left their mark with the generous use of spices like cumin, cinnamon and cloves that they brought from around the world.
Today exotic spice blends, such as ras el hanout, are a trademark of Moroccan cuisine. I’ve been buying ras el hanout for decades from the same spice vendor, Brahim in the central market in Casablanca. His version has more than 20 ingredients, including cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, turmeric and even dried rosebud powder. (You don’t need to visit Brahim for ras el hanout. It is easy enough to approximate at home.)
Ras el hanout is the seasoning that perfumes t’faya. As I start gently caramelizing the onions along with raisins and ras el hanout for my t’faya, I am quickly wrapped in a cloud of cinnamon-scented steam that fills my airy riverfront kitchen. Slow cooking is the essence of any tagine, whether in the eponymous earthenware dish capped with its cone-shaped lid or in a heavy-bottomed pan. Today, I opt for the stove rather than cook the tagine over a bed of glowing coals, which is the traditional method.
I stir the t’faya until the onions are velvety soft, and then I tuck the fish into the moist tangle. As I put the finishing touches on it, I can almost hear Tita whispering in my ear. “Don’t rush the process: the longer the onions cook, the sweeter they will taste. Cut the fish in small chunks so they are easier to eat. And be liberal with the almonds. You know the Arab proverb: ‘First you eat with your eyes!’”
“Yes, Tita! I haven’t forgotten the presentation!” I say to myself, as I garnish my dish with a final sprinkling of toasted slivered almonds.
Kitty Morse was born in Casablanca and now splits her time between Morocco and San Diego. She is the author of nine cookbooks, five of them on Moroccan cuisine. She is at work on a memoir of Morocco with recipes. Visit her website: kittymorse.com.