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Sunday , March 21 , 2010
Since 1st March, 1999
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An earthy blend

For some days now, a terrible pun has been ricocheting in my mind. Couscous hota hai, I’ve been saying to myself over and over again. But though the pun is as bad as puns can get, you can’t really blame me for harping on couscous like a stuck needle. I had a very interesting meal in Calcutta some days ago — and couscous figured rather prominently in it.

I was at Mio Amore — which is a new restaurant set up by my friend, Chef Pradip Rozario, in Calcutta. Situated in Mani Square Mall on the EM Bypass, this is a Mediterranean restaurant. I am very fond of Mediterranean food — it’s light, spiced and full of interesting flavours — so I was looking forward to the cuisine. It turned out the restaurant — tastefully done up with hanging lamps — offered everything from Italian and Greek to Turkish and Lebanese. It also had Moroccan food — which is my theme for the week.

Couscous — granules of semolina wheat coated with ground wheat flour — is found in a great many Moroccan recipes, but is equally popular in some other parts of North Africa and West Asia. I like it a lot, and have enjoyed it on several occasions — as a side dish, as a cereal with an entrιe, or just as plain couscous. At Mio Amore, Chef Rozario prepares a couscous chicken stew, with an aromatic stew presented on a bed of couscous.

According to some recipes, couscous is two parts semolina and one part flour. You take a plateful of semolina and lightly moisten it with salted water. You mould it by hand while adding wheat flour to it. You keep shaping it till you get the right size of the couscous, adding a little bit of oil to it. Couscous is then steamed a couple of times to make it light and fluffy. These days, of course, you get it in supermarkets.

I find Moroccan food particularly interesting because of all the strains of influences that it reflects — from Berber and Moorish to African, Arab and Mediterranean. The cuisine actually connects three continents — Africa, Asia and Europe. Not surprisingly, with all the disparate elements that have gone into the Moroccan melting pot, the taste is wonderfully earthy. Spices — especially saffron, cumin and coriander — add to the flavour of a dish, suitably enhanced by chillies, paprika and dried ginger. Chef Rozairo’s spiced chicken with onions and nuts, for instance, is flavoured with sweet paprika, ground cumin and saffron and later enhanced with parsley and basil leaves.

Unlike some Mediterranean dishes, Moroccan food does not have to be mild. The harissa, for instance, is an excellent chilli sauce prepared with red chillies, garlic, coriander, cumin and olive oil. It goes into the choui chermoula, which is a lamb dish that Chef Rozario prepares with a lot of care.

You have to make a marinade out of onion, garlic, parsley, coriander, cumin, saffron, olive oil and lemon juice, and then mix it with some harissa. You smear the mix over a leg of lamb, set it aside for about two hours, and then barbecue it till it’s juicy and brown.

Another one of my favourite Moroccan dishes is the tagine which, again, is popular in many other parts of North Africa. It’s named after the pot that it’s cooked in. Chef Rozario does his fish kebab tagine a little differently. He marinates fish cubes with onion, garlic, paprika, coriander, parsley, chilli powder, olive oil and lemon juice. He keeps the fish aside for at least two hours, if not overnight, and then grills it. He serves it in a pot with a sauce, made out of tomatoes, chillies, spring onions and coriander with olive oil and pepper. The sauce, mixed with a bit of lemon juice and chopped onions, has to be refrigerated for at least an hour before you serve the fish.

I find that sugar and salt do a nice tango in Moroccan food. Take this delicacy of a spring chicken stuffed with a sweet couscous filling, with ingredients such as almonds, raisins, orange water and sugar. The stuffed chicken is then allowed to simmer in a large casserole, and served in a sauce of honey, onion, garlic, ginger, cinnamon and saffron.

Indeed, Moroccan food has a lot to offer. I doff my cap — make that fez — to it.

Harira (serves 4)


•100g red lentils • ½ cup olive oil • 1.5 lt water • 2 finely chopped large potatoes • 2 finely chopped carrots • 2 chopped medium-sized onions • 1 bunch chopped fresh coriander leaves •juice of 1 lemon lsalt and pepper to taste


Cover the lentils with boiling water and leave aside for 15 minutes. In hot oil, fry onions till golden brown. Add water and bring to a boil. Skim and drain the lentils, and add to the onions. Cook for an hour or till the lentil are tender. Add chopped potatoes and carrots and simmer until the vegetables are tender, adding more water if necessary. Process the soup mixture until smooth. Just before serving, stir in chopped coriander leaves and lemon juice. Adjust seasoning and serve hot.

Couscous chicken stew (serves 4)


• 700g cubed chicken • 4tbsp olive oil • 250g chopped onion • 1tsp ground cumin • 500g chopped tomato • 1 chopped red capsicum • salt and pepper to taste • 2 cups water or stock • 500g couscous


Heat oil in a saucepan. Add the onion and cumin and stir for five minutes. Add the chicken and cook for some time. Add chopped tomato and capsicum. Stir for some time. Add water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Put the couscous in a muslin-lined sieve which fits on to the saucepan. Put the lid over the sieve and continue to simmer the stew for 20 minutes more. The steam will cook the couscous. Keep fluffing it with a fork about every 5 minutes. When the couscous is cooked to your liking, remove it from the muslin liner and carefully pile it up into a cone shape in a serving dish. Put the liquid of the stew in a gravy boat. Make a depression in the couscous and nestle the chicken and vegetables of the stew inside it. Serve hot.

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