Morocco’s rich savoury cuisine is best antidote to cold weather

Harira is a rich lentil and tomato soup served with pancakes or bread.
Thursday 15/03/2018
Bissara soup served at a small restaurant in the heart of Casablanca’s medina. (Saad Guerraoui)
Special taste. Bissara soup served at a small restaurant in the heart of Casablanca’s medina. (Saad Guerraoui)

CASABLANCA - People line up to get a seat in a small restaurant in the heart of Casablanca’s medina for dried broad bean soup during one of the coldest winters in Morocco’s recent history.

“Can I get more olive oil, please?” a customer shouted to one of the waiters, wishing to add the oil to the bissara, the smell of which overwhelms the restaurant.

“Bissara shields you against the flu and cough,” said another customer talking about the soup’s health benefits.

Bissara is often eaten on cold days. The touch of cumin and olive oil gives the soup a special taste. It was traditionally eaten at breakfast by people living in the mountains and countryside to keep them going until lunchtime.

Hussein Bentechehit, one of the people running the restaurant, said they serve an average of 800-1,000 bowls of bissara a day at 4 Moroccan dirhams ($0.43) each.

“We sell three big cooking pots a day. Bissara is very popular in the winter,” said Bentechehit. “Baked beans are also popular among our customers, especially during lunchtime.”

Winter dishes are known for being rich in calories. The recent cold wave forced many Moroccans to look for ways to keep warm because the overwhelming majority lacks heating for their houses. Morocco has seen an unprecedented cold wave in the last three months amid heavy snowfalls in the Rif and Atlas Mountains, which closed roads and isolated villages.

A tiny shop 30 metres from the restaurant is crammed with people waiting to be served harira, another popular soup.

“Can you make some room for this customer, please?” shop owner Najia Salim asked other customers trying to squeeze in the small space that also had a sink for washing dishes.

Harira is a rich lentil and tomato soup served with pancakes or bread. It is the most common soup served in Morocco during Ramadan.

“Tonight, I’m closing earlier than usual because I have run out of harira. It’s Sunday and people are out after rainy weeks,” said Salim.

Far from the noisy medina, Malika Mountassir prepared rfissa at her home in central Casablanca.

“It is a special day. The whole family and friends are gathering around rfissa. I hope they will like it,” said Mountassir.

“It is mouthwatering! Can I have a takeaway, please?” a friend teased Mountassir.

Popular dish. Rfissa served at a small restaurant in the heart of Casablanca’s medina. (Saad Guerraoui)

Rfissa is made with savoury free-range chicken, onion, lentil, a blend of spices, saffron and fenugreek seeds. It is served on a bed of shredded pastry called msemen, creating a delicious dish.

At night, cars make a quick stop at one of the dozens of snail vendors’ well-maintained stalls not far from Morocco’s biggest shopping mall in the upscale neighbourhood of Ain Diab.

Snails are simmered in a broth seasoned with aniseed, liquorice root, thyme, spicy pepper, mint and bitter orange peel. They are low in fat and high in protein and magnesium. Snails are served in a bowl for 20 dirhams ($2.17) and the soup costs 10 dirhams ($1.08).

“I come here almost every night. Sometimes I just get the soup when I’m full up,” said one customer.

“People say it’s an aphrodisiac,” smiled 35-year-old Driss.

“Demand for snails is very high when it’s cold. I have regular customers as well as those who want to try them for the first time,” said Khadija.