A holiday in Morocco inspires Mark Hix to revisit its aromatic, mouth-watering cuisine

Last time I went to Morocco was with the girls. Don't jump to conclusions. I was with my eight-year-old daughters, Ellie and Lydia, and it was strictly family-holiday territory, with camel rides and trawls round the local souks. We saw goats climbing trees to extract the tasty oil from the argan nuts, and adults were rewarded with the wonderful tagines and pastillas. It was a real eye-opener for all of us. At the same age, it was Pontins in Cornwall for me – which wasn't exactly a culture shock. And I don't remember being knocked out by the food.

Last time I went to Morocco was with the girls. Don't jump to conclusions. I was with my eight-year-old daughters, Ellie and Lydia, and it was strictly family-holiday territory, with camel rides and trawls round the local souks. We saw goats climbing trees to extract the tasty oil from the argan nuts, and adults were rewarded with the wonderful tagines and pastillas. It was a real eye-opener for all of us. At the same age, it was Pontins in Cornwall for me – which wasn't exactly a culture shock. And I don't remember being knocked out by the food.

The best Moroccan food, as in many countries, is found in family homes. We didn't manage to wangle any invites so we followed our noses and our instincts to find the best local eateries. We stumbled upon one great friendly little couscous house serving a very good pigeon pastilla and a meatball tagine with baked egg in the middle. I managed to recreate the tagine successfully at home.

Pastilla, or b'stilla, is the north African answer to a pigeon pasty. Layers of pigeon meat and warkha pastry – which is a bit like filo – are spiced with cinnamon and local spices, baked in the oven and coated in icing sugar. Although the girls quite liked some of the briouats – little savoury pastries filled with lamb and sometimes cheese – and other starters, they couldn't quite get used to the idea of sugary pastry with savoury fillings. And if you think some of my recipes recently have erred on the easy side, this week is definitely a challenge. I've given a recipe for warkha, the pastry used for pastillas, briks and for the briouats. It's the simpler of the methods, but even so, it's a hit-and-miss until you've really got the hang of it.

Morocco offers such an array of aromatic and delicious everyday dishes, that though it's not ceremonial, they still make day-to-day eating a significant event. Especially for visitors. I was in a chef's heaven, and although it was a holiday not a fact-finding mission, I just had to keep texting menu ideas back to Brian Scully, our head chef at Pasha, the north African restaurant in South Kensington. Brian, as you can instantly tell when you meet him, is from the west coast of Ireland, not north Africa, and has a disciplined classical training which comes through in his cooking, but he has developed a passion for Berber cuisine.

One day I took the girls to Essaouira, a fishing village where the catch is displayed on the quayside. Behind marble slabs piled high with local fish was a charcoal grill and trestle tables laid for eating. There were cigales, which look like sea insects or flattened prawns, sardines, and red mullet. Our seafood reappeared perfectly grilled within 10 minutes of ordering, along with a bowl of freshly boiled prawns. From somewhere they produced chips for the girls whose rosy cheeks had paled at the prospect of choosing a victim for lunch.

Spice mixes

Moroccans are proud of the spices that are such a major feature of the cooking. Cumin, harissa and paprika are displayed in carefully prepared pyramids in the souks. A couple of important spice mixes are fundamental to Moroccan cuisine.

Chermoula consists of finely chopped onion, garlic, flat-leaf parsley, coriander, sweet and hot red peppers and saffron. Along with additional spices depending on the dish, it can be used for meat, poultry, game and fish as a marinade, spice rub and in a sauce.

Ras el hanout is translated as shopkeeper's blend. This can be bought commercially or made yourself and should contain pepper, lavender, thyme, rosemary, cumin, ginger, nutmeg, mace, cardamom, cloves, fenugreek and cinnamon along with local spices which are difficult to find here. It will vary from shopkeeper to shopkeeper, but these are the basic spices. A simple version to make at home is as follows:

1 1/2tsp black peppercorns
1tsp each of powdered ginger, cumin, cinnamon and coriander
1/4tsp each of ground nutmeg and paprika
4 cardamom pods
4 cloves

Grind all of the ingredients using a pestle and mortar or a spice mill. Use as a spice base for meat, fish and vegetable dishes. It keeps for a month or so in a sealed jar.

Warkha pastry

Warkha pastry is traditionally used for the briouats (recipe below). This is Robert Carrier's so-called simpler version. It's more like a batter, whereas the traditional dough is a real challenge, and he suggests using an electric crêpe pan. Even this isn't a cinch, I have to admit, but if you want to have a go, here it is. It's best to use the pastry sheets immediately as once they dry they may be too brittle to work with. There's no shame in buying ready-made warkha (if you can find it) or filo for the briouats, though.

300g plain flour
150g strong flour
1tbsp salt
700-800ml warm water to mix
4tbsp vegetable oil plus some extra for brushing or spraying

Sieve the flours and salt into a bowl and make a well in the centre. Add 700ml warm water and the vegetable oil. Mix into a thick batter – if it's too thick add a little more water – and strain through a sieve into another bowl. Heat a non-stick crêpe or frying pan – the largest you have as you'll need the pastry strips to be 30cm long – on a low heat and pour a very thin layer or brush the batter as thinly as possible on to the pan. Allow it just to dry out for a minute or so, don't let it get crisp, then slide it on to a plate. Either spray with a mist of oil or brush very gently with oil. Repeat the process with the rest of the mix and stack them on to the plate. Use immediately. Storing them in the fridge, even covered in foil or clingfilm, may not prevent them hardening.


Serves 4-6 as a starter or more as a mixed mezze or snack

If you're not tempted to try your hand at making warkha, some delis and specialist shops sell it. Otherwise filo will do the trick but is not as flexible to work with. If you are using filo make sure you keep it covered with a cloth as it contains no fat and will dry out very quickly.

4-6 sheets of filo pastry or warkha pastry
2tbsp olive oil
500g minced lamb
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
1/2tbsp freshly grated root ginger
1/2tsp paprika
1tsp ground cumin
1/2tsp ground cinnamon
1/4tsp ground black pepper
15g raisins, soaked in warm water overnight
1tsp tomato purée

150ml beef stock
2tbsp chopped coriander leaves
50g melted butter
1tsp icing sugar mixed with 1tsp ground cinnamon

Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan until almost smoking. Fry the lamb and onions with the ginger, paprika, cumin, cinnamon, black pepper and a good pinch of salt on a high heat for about 5 minutes. Add the tomato purée, raisins and stock and cook on a medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes until the liquid has completely evaporated. Stir in the coriander, remove from the heat and season with a little more salt if necessary before leaving to cool.

Preheat the oven to 200°C/390°F/ Gas mark 6.

Unroll the pastry and cut a 7cm-wide strip down the length – about 30cm – of the sheet. Once you become adept at this you can lay out a few strips at a time but to begin with you should probably do them one at a time so they don't dry out.

Brush the strips of pastry lightly with melted butter on one side, then put a couple of teaspoons of the lamb mixture in the middle of one end of the strip, about 4cm in from the end edge. Fold over one of the corners to form a triangle of pastry over the filling, fold this triangle down over the remaining strip of dough, then fold it across, and then down again, leaving a final triangle of dough to fold on to the parcel which now consists of three layers of pastry.

Repeat with the rest of the meat filling and pastry, placing the parcels on to a lightly buttered baking tray. Brush them with butter and bake for about 15 minutes until golden. Leave to cool for a few minutes then dust them with the icing sugar and cinnamon.

Grilled sardines with Essaouira salad

Serves 4 as a main course

This is typical of the salad served on the quayside in Essaouira. It works really well with oily fish like sardines or mackerel as the acidity of the preserved lemons cuts the oiliness of the fish in that refreshingly tart way. You can buy preserved lemons in larger supermarkets.

8 medium-sized sardines, cleaned
2 large green peppers
3 ripe tomatoes, skinned, seeded and cut into rough 1cm dice
4 spring onions, chopped
6tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2tbsp white wine vinegar
1 small clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
The peel from 1 large or 2 small preserved lemons, cut into small dice
2tsp ras el hanout
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pre-heat a grill to the hottest temperature. Cut the peppers into 4 lengthways, remove the stalk and seeds and put them on a grill tray. Grill them skin-side-up for about 10 minutes until the skin is blistering and blackening. Remove from the tray and put into a bowl and cover with clingfilm and leave for about 10 minutes. Remove the skin with your fingers or by scraping with a knife.

Cut the peppers into a rough 1cm dice and put them into a bowl with the tomatoes, spring onion, olive oil, vinegar, garlic and preserved lemon. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and mix well. Taste the salad and add a little of the juice from the preserved lemons to taste.

Make a couple of diagonal slashes across each side of the fish, brush them with olive oil and rub about 1/2tsp of ras el hanout into the skin and the slashes of each. Season the sardines with some sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Gill the fish for about 3 minutes on each side until the skin begins to crisp. Serve with the salad and some good crusty bread.

Meatball tagine

Serves 4-6

For the meatballs

800g minced lamb
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
2tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2tsp ground cumin
1/2tsp sweet Spanish pimenton or paprika
1tsp freshly grated root ginger
1/4tsp ground cinnamon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
100g fresh white breadcrumbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the sauce

1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1/2tsp Spanish pimenton or paprika
1/2tsp ground cumin
A good pinch of saffron
4tbsp olive oil
300ml beef or chicken stock
400g tomatoes, skinned, seeded and roughly chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

To serve

4 medium eggs

First make the sauce. In a good-size saucepan or cast-iron casserole, gently cook the onion, garlic, pimenton, cumin and saffron in the oil for about 5 minutes until soft. Add the tomatoes and stock, bring to the boil, season with salt and pepper and simmer for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile combine all the ingredients for the meatballs in a bowl, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and mix well. Mould into balls about the size of a 10p and leave to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Heat some vegetable oil in a heavy bottomed frying pan until almost smoking and fry the meatballs a few at a time until nicely coloured, then drain in a colander or on some kitchen paper. Add the meatballs to the sauce and simmer for 10 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 200°C/390°F/ Gas mark 6.

To serve, arrange the meatballs and sauce round the edge of a tagine, ovenproof dish or individual tagines or serving dishes, leaving a gap in the middle of each individual dish, or four gaps in the larger ones. Crack an egg into the gaps, cover the dishes with foil or the tagine lid if your oven is big enough and put them in the oven for about 5-10 minutes until the white is just set.

Serve immediately with the tagine lids on. Offer bread or couscous to mop up the yolk and sauce.