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Interview with Nargisse Benkabbou, author of Casablanca: My Moroccan Food

Brussels-born and now London-based, Nargisse Benkabbou has used food to stay close to her roots. She tells us about her first cookbook, Casablanca: My Moroccan Food, and the inspiration behind her recipes

Interview with Nargisse Benkabbou, author of Casablanca: My Moroccan Food
Roasted grapes. Image: Getty

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You grew up in Brussels — did you spend much time in Morocco as a child?
My mother was so homesick for Morocco, she’d take me to Fez, where my grandparents lived, four or five times a year — all my summers were spent there with my aunts, uncles and cousins until I was 16. I have so many happy memories of Fez. It’s one of the oldest cities in the country — Morocco was founded there. It’s beautiful. I went back to my grandparents’ riad a few weeks ago with my two-year-old daughter — I hadn’t been there for 20 years; it was so emotional.

Were your family in Morocco involved with food?
Meat is very important in my family. My grandfather was a butcher, and had a shop in the Fez Medina. He was well-known for having the best mrouzia (lamb tagine). My father didn’t go to high school, because he had to work with his father — there were nine sisters and two brothers, so the sons had to work, and the girls went to school. At 16, he went to Belgium to look for new opportunities. He’s an entrepreneur at heart, and has become a successful one, selling halal charcuterie. My brother went to butchery school, and now they work together.

Who taught you to cook?
I was very close to my mum as a child. I’d help her in the kitchen, peeling prawns, potatoes. She was the chef and I was her sous chef. Mum stayed at home, and her passion was food; she used it as a medium to stay close to her roots. I remember coming back from school and finding her in front of the TV with a notepad, writing down recipes. When I left my parents’ place and started cooking for myself, I realised there were huge gaps in my knowledge, so I called my mum — after all, she was the one in charge, the head chef.

How did your interest in food develop?
After studying in Paris, I came to London to do a master’s degree. I wanted to work for a charity or an NGO to do with women’s rights, but ended up doing office jobs. It was a bit disappointing, as I’d studied for six years. I started cooking more and more at home, and I soon realised how much I loved it. So, I decided to go to Leiths School of Food and Wine. I was so happy, I was in my element. It was stressful and exhausting but I looked forward every day to going in. I started my blog (My Moroccan Food) when I realised no one was really talking about Moroccan cuisine. In the beginning, I had three visitors, but my last blog post had 20,000 — it’s crazy to see it evolving.

What’s distinctive about Moroccan food?
There are so many different things I’d love people to know — it’s a cuisine all of its own. It’s not from the Middle East, it has its own way of cooking and ingredients that are different from Levantine cuisines — it’s much more spiced, fragrant and fruity — and a lot of dishes combine sweet and savoury. It’s also influenced by so many cultures, especially Persian; we use all the Persian spices, like turmeric, saffron, ground ginger.

How did you develop the recipes for your book?
I wanted to make traditional Moroccan dishes easier for the Western world. A lot of it is based on my mum’s recipes. She doesn’t speak English so my husband translated the recipe titles, and the acknowledgements — she cried when she read them. I love cooking on a daily basis, but I’m a bit lazy and I can’t spend hours in the kitchen. So, I’ve included 90% easy recipes and 10% more complex ones — from my blog, I know that’s what people want.

How did you make the dishes accessible?
In order to make a cuisine more popular, you might have to change things if you want to share it with the rest of the world. Having eaten Moroccan food all my life, I felt I had a good idea about what I could tweak and what I couldn’t. I’m a big fan of fusion food; as long as it tastes good there’s nothing wrong with mixing influences — that’s evolution. For example, bastilla (chicken pie) is traditionally made with almonds, but I like to add pistachios and lemon zest. My mum is a traditionalist and was rolling her eyes — then she tasted it. Ultimately, I like to focus on food that’s packed with flavour.

Check out Nargisse’s recipes:
Berber breakfast eggs
Bakoula-stuffed Romano peppers
Harissa and lemon chicken

Featured in Issue 2 of National Geographic Traveller Food.