Moroccan cuisine with Najat Kaanache
and her recipe for bastilla

Spices Morocco v2

Morocco

Najat Kaanache has worked at some of the world’s very best restaurants, including Noma in Denmark and El Bulli in Catalonia (which closed in 2011). A conversation with Najat covers not only food for physical sustenance, but provides food for thought as well. Her message: the cuisines of Africa are not to be underestimated.

What role did food play when you grew up?
“Food for me was a magical thing to have. People nowadays have Nike and Apple products – for me food played that role. A good piece of bread, fresh olive oil, a delicious black olive, homemade butter: those were the highlights of my daily life. We never cooked from cans or anything – everything was made from scratch. I grew up in Orio, a small town in Basque Country, Spain. I’ve always lived with the idea that we were the ‘poor Moroccans.’

“I would envy kids who had a Nutella sandwich or vanilla ice cream. My father would always make sfenj [Moroccan doughnuts] on Sunday but to me those weren’t actual doughnuts. The ones I saw others have, that cost 25 pesetas, those were the ones I wanted. You start valuing things other people have.

“Later I came to realise that we, in fact, were rich. When the kitchen filled with warmth from our wood-fired oven, with wood that we collected from the mountains ourselves, to bake bread with fresh yeast... The other kids might have had baguettes they could buy down the street but I had bread that my mother made. Who has that these days? It took me a long time to understand that that is richness.

”A rich soul is not one that has a lot of money and a poor soul is not one that has almost nothing. My mother would always make couscous on Friday and share it with the neighbourhood. At the time, I thought it was embarrassing to give food away because I was the different one, the foreigner. Now I see the kindness, the love and the passion.”

Was it difficult as an immigrant family in Spain?
“You’re Dutch and you live in Italy; are you an immigrant or an expat?”

I haven’t really thought about that actually.
“You are white, you have blue eyes. You can call yourself an expat. Wherever I go, with my black hair and brown eyes, they call me an immigrant. In this world, people get underestimated because of the colour of their skin.

“My father walked barefoot to Spain when he was only 13 or 14 years old. When my siblings and I were born, my father wanted us to become champions so that he didn’t cross the border in vain. We couldn’t watch TV – we had to read, go to the library. He made us run every day, even though I didn’t like running.

“The challenge was to survive, and to be accepted and loved by the neighbours.”

Najat's plating

Do you have the feeling that you’ve become a champion?
“I’ve always said to myself: I was born a champion so I will become one. Muhammed Ali and Rocky Balboa have always inspired me to get back up whenever I went down, and I’ve been down many times. I think of Rocky every day when I wake up at 4:15; he motivates me every day.

“People look at me and think: she’s a Moroccan Muslim, and they have their image made up but I take the best of all cultures to be the best person that I can be. I meditate every day, and draw much inspiration from the Japanese concept of ikigai, meaning a reason for being. But am I a champion? There’s no way of measuring that. But I’m a super happy human, and that’s the most important thing.”

Do you have dreams you have yet to fulfill?
“We didn’t have a roof to sleep under, so I would look up to the stars and the moon from my bed and always wondered what was up there. My biggest dream is to cook on the moon together with Elon Musk. There’s a Moroccan genius from Fez, Kamal Oudrhiri, who works for NASA – who knows what’ll happen!”

But your philosophy is to cook with local ingredients only – that might be a bit challenging on the moon!
“Every problem has a solution. If we can survive there, the food can as well. We just need to find the way. Matt Damon grew potatoes on Mars in The Martian, remember?

Atlas mountains, Morocco

“But yes – I love working with local ingredients and we have the very best products here in North Africa. The quality of produce in Morocco is amazing. We can be a bit cocky about it – everything has to be the best of the best. When we cook lentils, we spread them out on the table and look for tiny stones to filter them out. I could be anywhere in the world, but I chose to live in Fez because the flavours and the taste of the ingredients are unlike anywhere in the world.

“Many think that most mushrooms come from France, Italy or Spain, but they get exported from Morocco in huge containers to all over the world. My aunt would feed white honey truffles to the donkeys! Chefs from all around the world just pick up the phone to order products from wherever, but here we can just use our local products and I think that’s amazing. Do you think that other countries don’t use Moroccan olive oil?

“My job as a human being, who found freedom in the kitchen, is to express that Moroccan cuisine is so much more than couscous and tajines. My grandfather has never seen a tajine!

“The land has so much beauty and so much to offer.”

What is essential in Moroccan cuisine?
“The turmeric, the cumin, the garlic, the herbs, and the fact that Moroccans feel, express and create from the soul. It’s something very personal, very emotional. The bread, the meat: it’s almost melancholic.

“And we love our bread and olive oil. A glass of mint tea on the side and we’re happy.

“North African cuisine is important and often misunderstood. History is important. When someone says shakshouka [eggs poached in tomato sauce] is an Israeli dish, I get upset. It’s a dish typical for North African and Arab cuisine. It was brought to Israel by the Jews who left North Africa after 1948. We cherish the Jewish community in Morocco; I wish they never left.

Moroccon lemons

"I love working with local ingredients and we have the very best products here in North Africa. The quality of produce in Morocco is amazing."

Najat Kaanache

“When someone purees beets and calls it hummus I get frustrated – ‘hummus‘ in Arabic just means ‘chickpeas’! If you want to make ‘hummus’ of beetroots, call it beetroot puree.”

Is there something else you’d like to share?
“The more you travel, the more freedom you have to be this magical piece of meat walking the earth, understanding and respecting other human beings. That’s what gives us capacity to respect and understand people.

“And because you’re Dutch: in The Netherlands, I have found my profession and started my culinary career. I lived in The Hague, Rotterdam, Amsterdam and I have great friends all over the country. My first book was published there. The Netherlands has given me a great opportunity and there has never been a Dutch person who has treated me bad. It really gave me the opportunity to walk the path I did.”

Bastilla

© Javier Peñas

The Dish

Why did you pick bastilla?
“They’re easy to make and delicious! I don’t know anyone who has had a bastilla but didn’t like it. It’s made for moments of celebration, like weddings, ceremonies, baby showers. It’s a dish to be shared as a pie, not an everyday dish.”

Is there a vegetarian alternative?
“Roasted cauliflower with saffron instead of the chicken filling is delicious! Or if you eat fish: a salty version with fish/seafood without cinnamon and sugar.”

The Ingredients

Tools
35 cm
baking tin
Filling
2
onions, finely chopped
3
cloves of garlic, finely chopped
60 g
butter
1
chicken or 2 pigeons (around 1 kg/2.2 lbs)
1 tbsp
ginger powder
2 tsp
salt
1.5 tsp
white pepper
3 tsp
ground cinnamon
2 tbsp
parsley, finely chopped
2 tbsp
coriander, finely chopped
10
saffron threads
4 tbsp
olive oil
500 ml
water
Almond topping
4 tbsp
olive oil
250 g
white almonds
1
organic orange
125 g
powdered sugar
1 tbsp
butter
Scrambled eggs
6
eggs
4 tbsp
honey
1 tbsp
cinnamon
1 tsp
ginger powder
Bastilla
120 g
butter
500 g
warqa or filo/phyllo dough
1
egg yolk
1-2 tbsp
olive oil, to brush
60 g
powdered sugar
2-3 tbsp
cinnamon
Tools
13 "
baking tin
Filling
2
onions, finely chopped
3
cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 oz
butter
1
chicken or 2 pigeons (around 1 kg/2.2 lbs)
1 tbsp
ginger powder
2 tsp
salt
1.5 tsp
white pepper
3 tsp
ground cinnamon
2 tbsp
parsley, finely chopped
2 tbsp
coriander, finely chopped
10
saffron threads
4 tbsp
olive oil
2 cups
water
Almond topping
4 tbsp
olive oil
1 ¾ cups
white almonds
1
organic orange
1 cup
powdered sugar
1 tbsp
butter
Scrambled eggs
6
eggs
4 tbsp
honey
1 tbsp
cinnamon
1 tsp
ginger powder
Bastilla
5 oz
butter
1.1 lbs
warqa or filo/phyllo dough
1
egg yolk
1-2 tbsp
olive oil, to brush
½ cup
powdered sugar
2-3 tbsp
cinnamon

The Recipe

Total preparation time: 2 hours | Yield: 1 large bastilla | Category: main

Filling

  1. To make the chicken filling, melt the butter in a casserole and add the chicken or pigeons. Add the onion, garlic, spices, herbs, saffron, oil and water and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and cook for about 1 hour: the meat has to be very tender and should detach from the bones easily. Regularly check to see that nothing sticks to the pan and burns – that might ruin the dish!
  2. Extract the chicken or pigeons from the pot and let cool on a plate. Cook the sauce on medium high heat until it thickens. Stir regularly and adjust the temperature if needed. Meanwhile, separate the meat from the bones. Add the meat to a bowl and mix with 2 tablespoons of the onion mixture from the pot. Cover the bowl and set aside. Don’t discard the rest of the onion mixture.

Almond topping

  1. To make the almond topping, heat the oil in a deep pan. Deep fry the almonds until golden brown. They will continue to colour once you take them out of the pan, so don’t fry them too dark. Take them out using a slotted spoon, drain on a kitchen towel and let cool completely.
  2. Grind the almonds in a blender. Add to a bowl, zest the orange and mix with the sugar and butter. Set aside.

Scrambled eggs

  1. To make the scrambled eggs, transfer the onion mixture from step 2 from the casserole to a non-stick pan. Whisk the eggs and add to the pan. Cook the eggs on low heat, as you would with scrambled eggs. Be patient, it can take up to 10 minutes for the eggs to fully set and cook. Mix in the honey, cinnamon and the ginger powder.

Bastilla

  1. Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Grease the baking tin. Try to make the bastilla as round as possible. Put 4 to 6 sheets of dough in the baking tin, in such a way that they overlap in the middle and are hanging over the edge of the tin – make sure that the overhanging part of the dough will reach the middle once you fold it in. Brush every sheet of dough before adding a new one.
  2. Add another sheet in the middle of the baking tin and brush with butter. Add the chicken/pigeon filling, but leave 2 cm at the sides. Put the scrambled eggs on the meat mixture. Brush 1 or 2 sheets of dough with butter and add the eggs. Add the almond topping to the top sheet of dough.
  3. Fold the overhanging sheets of dough to the middle to close the bastilla. Level the dough smooth. Brush the sides with butter. Add 3 more sheets of dough and don’t forget to brush every sheet with butter. Every time you add a sheet, gently press it down to keep the bastilla level and round.
  4. Whisk the egg yolk and brush the top and sides of the bastilla. Do the same with some olive oil. You can bake the bastilla straight away, or leave it (unbaked) in the fridge for up to a day or up to 2 months in the freezer (also unbaked).

Baking

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Bake the bastilla in the middle of the oven for 30-40 minutes until golden brown and crispy. Watch out: if you take the bastilla from the freezer, it takes up to 1 hour.

Decorating

  1. Generously sift powdered sugar over the top of the bastilla and sift the cinnamon on top as decoration.
< Ecuadorian Ceviche Jipijapa Sudanese Agashé >