India's love affair with Morocco is nearly 700 years old, from much before the country's cuisine gained international repute, if one considers that a North African nobleman named Ibn Batuta's account of life in the Delhi Sultanate is a primary source of information for studying the culture and customs of that period. This Moroccan scholar and judge came to Delhi to join the Sultan's service and lived in India from 1334 to 1341.
Located on the southern rim of the Mediterranean, Morocco was on the Spice Route from Kerala to the Middle East and Europe and, therefore, acquired a number of spices, while there is a lot of Indian influence in Moroccan food, Ambassador to India Mohammed Maliki said at a preview lunch for the Moroccan Food Festival that got underway here on Friday.
The Mediterranean diet is considered among the healthiest in the world and Moroccan cuisine has a "wide variety of food for every kind of palette", the Ambassador said, unveiling choice dishes in the ambience of Ottimo at West View, the Western restaurant at the ITC Maurya.
Spices, therefore, are used extensively in Moroccan cooking and there is a centuries-old art to their careful mixing. Common spices include saffron, mint, olives oranges, lemons, cinnamon, ginger, paprika and coriander. Ras el hanout is a commonly used dried spice mix that can combine anywhere from a dozen to 100 spices.
The buffet consisted of traditional Moroccan salads and of spiced meat and vegetable dishes slow cooked in a distinctive earthenware dish with a tall, conical lid called a tajine.
The chicken tajine is a classic Moroccan recipe using preserved lemons, olives and onions. It can be cooked in an authentic tajine or roasted in the oven. The secret of its exquisite taste lies in marinating the chicken for five-six hours with lemon, onion, garlic, cilantro, parsley, ginger, pepper, turmeric, salt and the Ras el Hanout spice mix. Moroccan food has become globally famous for its use of spices.
Among the various salads on offer was the Zaalouk made of cooked tomatoes, aubergine and eggplant, which is a popular vegetable used in Middle Eastern cooking. The salad is enhanced with garlic, olive oil and spices and is a common side dish to Middle Eastern meals.
The assortment of salads included the Taktouka, made of green bell-peppers, tomatoes, garlic and olive oil, which is another dip commonly used for eating with various types of Moroccan bread.
The lamb dish on offer was the classic sweet and sour tajine with prunes that combined dried prunes and lamb meat with the ginger, saffron, cinnamon, and pepper. It's popular as a traditional offering at holiday gatherings, weddings, and other special occasions.
Another very tasty main dish laid was the nutrient-rich Rfissa made of chicken and lentils - again slow cooked with spices.
The unique Moroccan flaky bread called Msemmen forms the base for the dish with the lentil stew acting as a sauce for the pancakes.
There followed a range of Morroccan desserts like the Briouat pastries filled with fresh almond paste flavored with orange flower water and cinnamon. Once fried, the pastries are then given a short soaking in hot honey for flavor and sweetness.
The Chebakia is a sesame cookie made by folding dough into a flower shape, frying it and then dipping it in hot honey flavoured with orange flower water.
Sellouf is an unbaked sweet also served at special occasions like Eid and weddings and is made from toasted unhulled sesame seeds, fried almonds and flour that has been browned in the oven.
Hospitality is a very important part of Moroccan culture, the Ambassador explained. On entering a Moroccan home, guests are typically offered food and tea within seconds, and the meal here ended with the refreshing green tea with mint. The Moroccan tea ceremony is sacred and pouring of the tea is considered something of an art form.
The food festival is on till March 30
(Biswajit Choudhury visited the Moroccan Food Festival at the invitation of the Moroccan embassy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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