By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
With a marriage of Mediterranean and African flavors, intermingled with ancient Arab cooking traditions and Spanish and French culinary arts, there is a lot more to Moroccan cuisine than couscous and tagine.
And this month, the Presidente InterContinental, in cooperation with the Moroccan Embassy in Mexico, has set out to prove that fact with a tantalizing Moroccan food gastronomic festival inside the hotel’s upscale Café Urbano restaurant.
The two-week festival, aptly titled Path to Moroccan Flavors, was inaugurated by Presidente InterContinental Hotel Group Latin American director of operations Julien Debarle along with Moroccan Ambassador to Mexico Mohamed Chafiki on Wednesday, Oct. 8, and will run through Sunday, Oct. 26.
The festival’s a la carte menu includes a selection of more than 20 different varieties of haute cuisine North African dishes expertly prepared by Moroccan chef Essaid Mahboub and highlights the diverse nature of one of the world’s most versatile and delicious cooking styles.
“With influences from so many other nations and cultures over the centuries, Moroccan cuisine has been subject to Berber, Moorish and Arab influences, as well as European and central African cooking,” explained Mahboub during the lavish inaugural cocktail reception that included a live performance of Moroccan jazz and traditional folk music.
“The chefs in the royal kitchens of Fez, Meknes, Marrakesh, Rabat and Tetouan refined Moroccan cookery over the centuries and eventually created the basis for what is now known as Moroccan cuisine.”
Indeed, the food of North Africa – also known as the Maghreb (composed of Morocco, Algeria and Tunis) – is a delicate blend of tastes and flavors that has incorporated hints of the region’s extraordinary past.
The very word Maghreb comes from the Arabic for “the land farthest west,” and 2,000 years ago, the three countries were in fact one.
The cooking styles of this modern trio of North African nations were certainly influenced over the centuries by the parade of civilizations that tried to conquer them – including the Persians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, Spanish, British, and French – but the harsh geographic conditions that inevitably ensured at least their quasi independence also guaranteed that the bulk of their diet was composed of local ingredients.
Consequently, Maghreb food is primarily focused around simple, natural fruits and vegetables and freshly cooked mutton or chicken, usually accompanied by a steaming bowl of couscous (semolina pasta made from durum wheat).
The early Romans proclaimed the region the breadbasket of their empire, and the Maghreb supplied the realm with more than 60 percent of the wheat and other grains it needed to feed its people.
The Moors brought citrus and olives to North Africa from Spain, forever leaving a Mediterranean imprint on the cuisines of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.
Dried sausages were introduced by the Phoenicians, and the Arabs, along with their religion, gave the Maghreb people cinnamon, saffron, cumin, ginger, cloves and nutmeg.
Europeans, particularly the Spanish and Portuguese during the 15th and 16th centuries, also left their mark on Maghreb cookery, with the addition of tomatoes and chilies.
“In a way, you can savor the taste of Maghreb history in our food,” said Mahboub, who for the last six years has taught Mediterranean cooking at the Mexican Culinary Institute.
“Perhaps that is why it is so intriguing and so highly appreciated throughout the world.”
Mahboub went on to say that Maghreb cuisine is still evolving, incorporating new flavors and cooking styles every day.
There even are now some Moroccan chefs who are experimenting with Mexican flavors, preparing nopal couscous.
But the menu during the festival includes primarily more traditional Moroccan fare, such as couscous dishes, pastillas (flaky pastries stuffed with meat and spices and dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon) and tajines (heavy stews) comprising the extent of the main course options.
The classic seven vegetable couscous, piled high with potatoes, carrots, turnips, zucchini, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and garbanzos – is undoubtedly the star of the festival, although there were several other variations on this Maghreb favorite to choose from.
Couscous is usually served in a platter, garnished with steamed raisins and fresh mint, with a separate bowl of simmering broth and vegetables and a tray of whatever meat you have chosen.
The broth, made from rancid butter, infuses the couscous with its delicate flavor of spices and seasoning when poured over the tiny kernels of pasta.
Pastillas, on the other hand, are made of shredded meat generously laden with cumin, paprika, ginger and saffron and then baked in a tender crust doused with confectioner’s sugar and cinnamon.
The sweet and salty contrast of this North African delicacy may be a bit overwhelming for the unindoctrinated palate, but is considered to be one of the great delicacies of Maghreb cuisine.
Tajines are actually soups, but are considered a main dish in North Africa, and are particularly popular during the holy month of Ramadan, when the faithful are expected to fast from dawn to dusk and a hardy bowl of this spicy crock-pot specialty is seen as a wholesome meal that will stick to the ribs throughout the long hours of fasting.
A fragrant mutton tajine is served with a profusion of braised almonds, stewed apricots, prunes and browned sesame seeds.
Maghreb desserts are almost always homemade and all dripping in honey.
The princess’ finger is a sumptuous blend of nuts in a thin role of pastry that definitely imparts a royal heritage, and fresh fruits in orange blossom syrup are another regional favorite.
The Moroccan food festival is being held at Café Urbano, inside the Presidente InterContinental Hotel, located at Campos Elíseos 218 in Mexico City’s posh Colonia Polanco neighborhood.
The festival includes both lunch and dinner offerings and will run through Oct. 26.
Reservations are advised and all major credit cards are accepted.
Valet and personal parking are available at the hotel.