By Rebecca Taggart
I first visited Morocco on a shoestring budget in the fall of 1984. The country was stunning, as was the national dish Couscous. I quickly fell in love with the city of Fez for its beauty, its hospitality, and its amazing food. Nonetheless, I was looking for adventure, and soon hit the road east looking to cross the border into Algeria to visit a friend. Despite my visa, I was denied entry at the main border crossing point in Oujda, because I didn’t have a car. Other travelers suggested I try the only other border crossing into Algeria at Figuig, a small town far to the south on the edge of the Sahara, where the Algerian border guards were rumored to be more easygoing.
After an interminable bus ride to what seemed like nowhere, I reached Figuig, a small dusty village on no tourist’s itinerary. When I discovered I would have to walk a few kilometers on a dirt road to reach the border, I opted to spend the night and try the next day. The next morning happened to be my birthday. I walked into the desert and eventually came to the Moroccan border crossing that was manned by a friendly guard who waved as I walked past. Several kilometers farther on, I came to the more imposing Algerian border post where, to make a long story short, I was again refused entry after hours of questioning.
That afternoon found me walking dejectedly back across the Moroccan border, where the friendly border guard stopped me to chat. After hearing my story, he insisted that he make dinner for me. He wanted me to feel safe and said he would bring the food to the rooftop where I had rented a pad to sleep on the night before. It wouldn’t be proper for me to visit his house, as his wife and children were in the capital Rabat while he completed his six months of border duty in the desert.
This chance encounter led to my most memorable meal in Morocco. Under the stars on the rooftop, my new friend lifted the traditional conical cover of a couscous serving plate. Underneath was a feast of vegetables, chickpeas, dried fruits, and mutton in a savory saffron-infused broth. The delicious stew was served over the couscous itself, tiny semolina pasta that resembles grain or polenta. Moroccan tradition calls for friends and family to eat together from the serving plate using their fingers, but my host had thoughtfully provided me with a spoon. There were salads and fruit as well, but my host kept apologizing, saying I would have to visit him in Rabat sometime so his wife could cook me a proper meal.
Ever since that memorable evening, couscous has been a favorite dish of mine. I make it often when guests come over, using my grandmother’s deep iron skillet. I let people serve themselves onto individual plates, but otherwise keep the dish authentic. There are innumerable versions of Morocco’s national dish. Below is my favorite.
MOROCCAN STEW (Serves 4-6 people)
1 whole chicken, cut-up, or 4 chicken breasts with the bone intact
2 tablespoons olive oil
5 carrots, peeled and cut into 2 inch-long quarters
5 zucchini, ends trimmed, cut into 2-3 inch-long quarters (smaller if large zucchini)
3-4 Roma tomatoes, cored and chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups cooked garbanzo beans (chick-peas), canned is fine
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 cups water or broth
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup dried apricots
Large pinch saffron
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
Salt, to taste
3 cups couscous (whole wheat if available)
3 cups boiling water or broth
Salt, to taste
To prepare stew: In a large Dutch oven or saucepan, heat oil over medium-high heat. Brown chicken pieces on one side, turn them to face up, then add chopped onion and garlic and stir. After onions begin to brown, add water or broth, tomatoes, carrots, raisins, apricots, hot pepper, and saffron. Stir to combine and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat, and simmer for 20 minutes. Add zucchini and garbanzo beans, and continue to simmer until chicken is completely cooked, an additional 15-20 minutes. Add cilantro and salt, to taste.
To prepare couscous: Boil water and salt, or broth in a saucepan. Add couscous and immediately turn off heat, and let sit covered for five minutes. Fluff with a fork before serving. Cook’s Note: I like to replace some of the liquid with broth from the stew to give the couscous more flavor.
To serve: If serving from the stove, place 3/4-1 cup couscous in a bowl, and cover with chicken, veggies and broth. If preparing a serving dish, pour stew into a large bowl or platter, make a hole in the center, and pile the couscous in the center. Sprinkle with additional cilantro for color.