North Africa, Morocco, the Arabian Peninsula - places that bring to my mind Bedouin tribesmen, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, camel trains, oases surrounded by palm trees and sleeping in a Bedouin tent under a dazzling canopy of stars – uninterrupted by the light pollution of the western world. As a child some of my favourite stories were the 1001 Arabian Nights tales – the setting seemed so impossibly exotic and mystical, with genies emerging from lamps and caves full of treasure. There is an otherworldly quality to this particular area of the globe, land of whirling dervishes, belly dancers and endless summer nights where the air hangs heavy with alluring scents of jasmine and orange blossom.
It only stands to reason that a continent brimming with such exoticness would have evolved a similarly exotic taste in food. According to Paula Wolfert, Eastern Cuisine Specialist and Author:
"To my mind, four things are necessary before a nation can develop a great cuisine.
The first is an abundance of fine ingredients from a rich land.
The second is a variety of cultural influences: the history of the nation, including its domination by foreign powers and the culinary secrets it has brought back from its own imperialist adventures.
Third, a great civilisation. If a country has not had its day in the sun, its cuisine will probably not be great. Great food and great civilisation go together.
Last, the existence of a refined palace life. Without royal kitchens, without a Versailles or a forbidden city in Peking, without, in short, the demands of a cultivated court, the imaginations of a nation's cooks will not be challenged.
Morocco, fortunately, is blessed with all four."
Morocco – Land of the Setting Sun
And so we start our journey in what some refer to as a land of extraordinary contrasts – Morocco. One of the most spiritually diverse countries on the planet, Morocco is home to many religions. It has realigned itself as a contemporary, tolerant society that blends Islamic, European, and North African influences. It is a country of spectacle and colour with a rich and satisfying cuisine, and a millennia-old history of conquerors and nomads.
Serious about their food, a Moroccan proverb says: "Mâ kainsh el-kalâm cala ettacâm" - "Where there is food, there is no talking."
The gastronomy of this country is spicy and tasty, incorporating a rich blend of aromatic spices and Mediterranean herbs into the Muslim cooking tradition. Perhaps one of the most famous dishes to emerge from Morocco is the Tagine. Taking its name from the earthenware pot in which it is cooked, the tagine has a conical top so the water and juices aren’t lost during cooking – an important consideration in desert areas where there are few water sources.
Inspired by this notorious Berber dish, we created our own:
A mildly spiced bitter/sweet dish that has many rich textures and contrasting flavours
This dish uses chickpeas as its main ingredient - fibre rich and protein packed, chickpeas are one of the unsung heroes of the superfood world. Their fibre is insoluble, making them great for digestive health and blood sugar regulation. Packed with essential vitamins and minerals, chickpeas have been a part of certain traditional diets for over 7,500 years and are still eaten by some of the healthiest populations around the world today! A 200g portion of cooked chickpeas provides a whopping 57% of your daily intake of Magnesium, a vital mineral that gives the "spark of life" to your metabolic functions and is involved in over 300 enzymatic processes in the body. Not only that, loaded with fibre and protein, they increase satiety and contain a fat burning starch called “resistant starch” making them one of the healthiest foods for weight loss. Adding a sweet contrast to the spicy, savoury taste of the other ingredients are apricots and dates - both fruits are renowned for their rich fibre content, making this delicious meal super easy on the digestive system.
Also using these wonder beans as the main ingredient is our:
A delicious dip with a tangy kick – a perfect snack to enjoy with carrots, roasted garlic and breadsticks
Home to the aforementioned “1001 Arabian Nights”, Arabic cuisine is a combination of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Indian food. An interesting combination to say the least.
With some endearing traditions surrounding food, a charming saying here is “Tafathalo”, meaning “do me the honour”, which is an invitation to come to the table.
The Lebanese are renowned in the Middle East for their “Muzzah” – small dishes that are served before the main meal. The most well-known of these is, without doubt:
A smoky, tangy and refreshing Aubergine dip
Like many ethnic dishes, forms of baba ganoush change depending on location, it is something of a “transitional” dish that has made its way into Greek and other Mediterranean cuisines. Believed to be native to North Africa and the Middle East, the humble aubergine is celebrated in this delicious dip. Low in fat and high in fibre, aubergines are also rich in “anthocyanins” – this is the reason their skins boast a deep purple colour. Powerfully antioxidant, these plant flavonoids have demonstrated the ability to protect against a myriad of diseases and are linked to an amazingly broad range of health benefits. Numerous studies confirm they keep the liver healthy, boost brain function and protect the heart.
Another common ingredient used in this part of the world is the rose petal. Rose petals are high in vitamin C, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. Typically brewed into a delicate tea, we took this one stage further and gave it a deliciously interesting twist:
Sweet, moreish, delectable and delicious blend of flavours
The rose is a prominent flavour here – roses have been prized for centuries for their aromatic nature and ability to soothe and calm the mind. They are in fact a staple in Ayurvedic medicine to detoxify and calm. A further nutritional boost also comes from the pomegranate seeds - one of the healthiest fruits on earth, they contain some powerful plant compounds which have potent medicinal properties. Pomegranate contains a unique and powerful antioxidant called punicalagin, the most abundant antioxidant in pomegranate - not only will it easily quell free radicals, it is strongly anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial.
Egypt – Home of the Falafel
Yes it is the country of Pharaohs, pyramids and mummies that lays claim to the invention of this well-loved spicy snack. The name falafel is thought to have come from the Arabic word for spicy - “mefelfel”.
With a history stretching back 1000’s of years, the Ancient Egyptians left evidence of their love of food in the form of well-preserved wall paintings and carvings discovered on tombs and temples, depicting large feasts and a variety of foods. Whilst they loved their spices, the staples of the Ancient Egyptians were bread and beer – and not the beer we know and love today – with a gruel like consistency it was very cloudy and contained solid chunks. Highly nutritious, Egyptian beer was an important source of protein, vitamins and minerals and deemed so valuable that beer jars were often used as a measurement of value.
However, back to the falafels – although the Egyptians traditionally use fava beans, we used a mixture of cannellini beans and good old chickpeas to create these gently spiced falafels with a superfood twist:
Sweet and spicy snack with a slight after kick – scrumptious in a wrap with salad
The sweetness of this dish owes thanks to the addition of Beetroot Powder. Beetroots are super healthy and popularly known to be an exceptional food for the blood, with a specific effect in the lowering of high blood pressure. This benefit likely comes from the naturally occurring nitrates in beetroots, which are converted into nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide, in turn, helps to relax and dilate blood vessels, improving blood flow thus lowering blood pressure. Beets are also a unique source of betaine, a nutrient that helps protects cells, proteins, and enzymes from environmental stress. It's also known to help fight inflammation and protect internal organs. These fabulously spicy/sweet wraps will make a tasty, healthy addition to your lunchbox or summer picnic hamper.
Continuing on the Egyptian theme, hibiscus, especially from Upper Egypt, is highly prized and the dried calyces used to make hibiscus tea have a beautiful pungent, tart odour. Hibiscus tea was a beverage of choice for pharaohs in ancient Egypt. To round off our North African journey of tantalising tastes, try our:
Zingy and refreshing with a fruity kick – summer in a cup!
Hibiscus flower tea is made from the dried calyces of the hibiscus flower. The calyces contain high levels of antioxidants, specifically quercetin and anthocyanins – these important alkaloids will seek out and destroy free radicals, protecting the body from oxidative stress. It has been traditionally used in North Africa to support upper respiratory health and is used to normalise blood pressure in Iran. Rich in vitamin C, minerals and antioxidants, hibiscus tea has been recognized in both early tradition and modern science as a remedy to calm nervous disorders, decrease inflammation and speed up metabolism.
The North African/Arabian Peninsula is not only home to some of the tastiest dishes - it is home to some of the healthiest too. Morocco, with its spice markets, souks and delicately spiced dishes, Arabia and the Middle East - with some of its foods dating back to the cradle of civilisation, went on to produce an incredibly rich cuisine. All of these wonderful continents we've explored in this Global Kitchen series make their own unique contribution to our understanding and appreciation of how food has influenced each culture. Not only that - they have always contained a wealth of natural superfoods and herbs which have been included in their dishes for millenia. Thankfully the Western world is finally catching up!