"Peasant food with worldly influences" is the way chef Bryan Lindsay describes Moroccan cuisine, the result of the many cultures that literally have stirred the pot in this North African country.
If Morocco seems exotic, it is. The native Berbers endured foreign rule for centuries, which layered the country with a diversity of people and their palates. Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Spanish Muslims and the French all left an imprint, along with Turkish and Jewish settlers and African slaves.
All the outside influences made Moroccan food "kind of one and its own," says Lindsay of Le Club Fez restaurant on James Island. The marriage of spicy and sweet flavors is like no other.
Today, the wider culinary world is taking notice. Author Paula Wolfert has called Moroccan cooking one of the last great undiscovered cuisines. That might be changing; the arrival of Le Club Fez locally is one signal.
The restaurant, with Lindsay at the kitchen's helm, opened last fall in the Terrace Shopping Center. Its menu, both French and Moroccan,
offers an exploration in new tastes and techniques.
On the Moroccan side, unfamiliar words only hint at the complexity of the dishes: harira, a velvety, flavorful chickpea and lentil soup; b'stilla, savory chicken and almonds enclosed in phyllo pastry; and tagine, a meat stew slow-cooked in a clay vessel of the same name.
Moroccan cookery is most unique in its use of spices and aromatics, Lindsay says. Large containers of colorful spices are a mainstay in city markets.
Most prevalent are cumin, paprika, dried ginger, saffron, turmeric, cinnamon, anise seeds, sesame seeds and mint.
"It definitely has broadened my horizon on the use of spices," says Lindsay. "Learning how to use them individually and together is a challenge."
The genius of Moroccan cuisine is in the subtleties, Lindsay says, such as the way stews are made. Lamb tagine, Fez's most popular dish, "is so different than the normal lamb dish you would get."
Tagines, along with couscous, are the national dishes of Morocco. Tagines are cooked in shallow clay pots with cone-shaped lids. The lids have a hole at the top that causes a steaming effect, Lindsay says. "The heat rises to the top, and the juices run back down the sides into the dish. ... It's basically their form of a Dutch oven."
The long, slow cooking yields meat that is fall-off-the-bone tender in a fragrant stew of reduced juices. Lamb, chicken, beef and goat all are cooked in tagines.
But couscous is the staple of Moroccan meals, he says. "I would consider it their rice. Like Asian cuisine, couscous is eaten breakfast, lunch and dinner."
Sometimes mistaken for a grain, couscous is a tiny pasta, a granular form of semolina (ground durum wheat). It's also cooked by steaming.
"They mound couscous in a bowl, (making) a giant pyramid with an indention in the top, and you would put the meat in there like you would a pile of mashed potatoes here," Lindsay says.
However, vegetables are as important, if not more so, than meat in Moroccan cooking. The scarcity of meat also led to a greater use of spices in all dishes to maximize flavor.
For celebratory times and holidays, for example, Moroccans will prepare a seven- or nine-vegetable couscous, Lindsay says. Vegetables vary according to the season or what is available, but can include sweet potatoes, chickpeas, lentils, carrots, tomatoes or onions.
Vegetables, as well as fresh and dried fruits, are prominent in a number of other dishes. Moroccans, known for their hospitality, will serve an array of hot and cold salads to start the meal, like a first course. Lindsay says that's true in a restaurant or household. A classic one is a carrot and cumin salad with lemon, which is on the menu at Fez.
Fez also prepares a roasted eggplant salad with honey and harissa, which is a Moroccan condiment similar to chile paste; and a grapefruit, fennel and oil-cured olive salad.
Other hallmarks of Moroccan cuisine include:
-- Preserved lemons. Preserved lemons are whole lemons packed in salt until they are pickled, which takes at least 30 days. Normally, the peel is used and the pulp discarded. They have a distinct, salty-sour taste.
-- Moroccan olives. Olives appear in many salads and entrees. Their black oil-cured olives are similar to Gaeta or Nicoise olives, says Lindsay.
One of the country's best-known dishes is chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives.
-- Rustic breads. A common type is a round disk, similar to an Italian focaccia, which may be sprinkled with cumin seeds and salt, Lindsay says.
Few dishes are eaten without bread, because it's both food and functional: "They use bread to spoon up their food. They don't use utensils."
-- Mint tea. The country's signature drink of hospitality is a strong, sweet mint tea. It's poured from teapots with long, curving spouts. "They pour it really high so it makes a froth" in the glass, Lindsay says.
Fresh fruit juices, almond milk and water infused with orange blossoms also are served.
-- Nuts. Almonds and, to a lesser extent, walnuts are found in many applications from salads to b'stilla and desserts.
Lindsay describes a Moroccan pastry, m'hencha, meaning "snake." Made with ground almonds, orange blossom water, cinnamon and sugar, it resembles a nut strudel but is rolled like a cigar and twisted into a coil.
-- Argan oil. The exotic nut grows only in Morocco. The oil is still pressed and bottled in homes the same way it was 200 to 300 years ago. "It's similar to a walnut oil, a little more pungent. It tastes like itself," says Lindsay, who buys it for Fez by special order. Argan oil is not very stable and is not used for cooking, but is drizzled over the top of foods, like an extra-virgin olive oil.
Lindsay shares recipes for chicken tagine and salads he developed for Fez:
Chicken With Olives, Onions and Preserved Lemon
2 free-range chickens, quartered
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 white onions, julienned
2 bulbs fennel, julienned
8 garlic cloves, sliced paper thin
6 cups chicken stock
3 whole cinnamon sticks
3 tablespoons whole cumin seeds
1/2 cup green olives, pitted and cut in half
2 preserved lemons, pith removed and rind julienned
1 bunch of cilantro, coarsely chopped
Lemon oil for garnish
Season the chicken with the salt and pepper. In a Dutch oven or other large-sided pan, sear the chicken in the olive oil until golden on all sides. Remove the chicken.
Add the onions, fennel and garlic to the pan and sweat the vegetables until translucent. Add the chicken, the chicken stock, cinnamon and cumin and simmer slowly for 45 minutes until the chicken is just cooked. Season the liquid with salt and pepper to taste. Then add the olives and lemon and cook for 10 minutes more. Serve over couscous and garnish with cilantro and lemon oil.
Moroccan Carrot Salad
1 pound carrots, peeled and shredded
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Mix all ingredients together and let stand for 1 hour to let the flavors come together. Serve at room temperature.
Fennel and Grapefruit Salad
2 fennel bulbs, julienned
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup chopped fennel fronds
1 cup oil-cured olives, chopped (see cook's note)
2 tablespoons grapefruit juice
Salt and pepper to taste
2 grapefruits, separated into segments
Cook's note: Moroccan oil-cured olives are preferred, but another type of oil-cured olive may be substituted.
In a saute pan, sweat the julienned fennel in the olive oil until tender. Cool.
Transfer the fennel to a bowl. Add the chopped fennel fronds and olives and mix well. Add the juice and olive oil to taste and season with salt and pepper. Top with the grapefruit segments and serve.