This is Paula Wolfert's first book, originally published in 1973, which makes the case that Moroccan food comprises one of the world's great cuisines, on a par with French, Italian, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese. I am not certain she has succeeded, but she has certainly done an excellent job in presenting the case. In laying out her discussion, she contributes a major addition to the dialogue on how great cuisines arise. Her claim is that four conditions are needed:
1. A great variety of local food sources.
2. A wide variety of cultural influences.
3. A great civilization, in this case, the juncture of Islamic Arabs and local Berbers joining to form a group vital enough to conquer medieval Spain.
4. A local palace culture to serve as an impetus to creating new dishes.
Paula claims that Morocco fulfills all conditions and if I believe her presentation is accurate, I am willing to believe her case. My only uncertainty is due to my inexperience in other North African cuisines, so I cannot tell if Morocco stands head and shoulders above, for example, the cuisine of Tunisia or Egypt. Of one thing I am sure. Her contention about the four conditions for a great cuisine make a major contribution to my thinking on the subject. It expands greatly the simpler claim of John Thorne that what you need is the memory of a great civilization. If one applies this criterion to all the cuisines I list in the first paragraph, it is clear this list has the ring of truth about it. My main argument against the case for Moroccan cuisine is that aside from couscous, there are no other distinctive world beating food products, unlike Italy's riches in types of cheese, wine, vinegar, breads, and cured meats.
For the sake of this book, the value of the argument is not so much in the validity of the conclusion as it is in the passion Ms. Wolfert brings to bear in making the case. Every cuisine should have as vital and knowledgeable an advocate as we see here.
The book begins with a brief history of how the mix of peoples created the current Moroccan population and where the centers of Moroccan food culture lie. (I am surprised that Casablanca, the city best known to Americans, seems to play virtually no part in the story of Moroccan history or cuisine. All the real action seems to revolve around Fez, Marrakesh, Tetuan, and many other inland cities.) She opens discussion of Morocco today with a description of the Souks or open air markets common in all Moroccan cities. This includes an enumeration of the spices and herbs most important to Moroccan cuisine. The first thing which surprises me is the geographical distribution of the sources for all these spices. Few are native to the African Mediterranean or Atlantic coast. This chapter has some of the few items which date the book. The first observation is the use of the term 'salad oil', common in the US through the 60's, but probably quite foreign to labels in today's supermarket. A second oddity is the statement that the reader may have a hard time finding cilantro (in 1973). In 2003, with the popularity of both Mexican and Southeast Asian cuisine, you can hardly miss it in the most modest supermarket. The opening chapter includes general discussions of other basics such as oil, eggs, butter, chickpeas, honey, preserved meat, and couscous grain. Detailed chapters cover:
Salads and Vegetables
Next to couscous, the star of this book is an extremely elaborate dish named Bisteeya which for all the world appears to be the model for the song line 'Four and Twenty blackbirds baked in a pie', as it includes the bodies of many pigeons plus exactly 24 hens eggs! But this is just a footnote to the real drama surrounding Wolfert's discussion of this dish. Others have suggested that Bisteeya originated in Andalusia, as if so complicated a dish must originate in Spain, on European soil. From both linguistic and culinary arguments, Ms. Wolfert makes the case that the dish is purely Moroccan, with the pastry, warga, while very similar to strudel dough and Phyllo dough is actually derived, probably through the Arabs contact with Persia, from the method for making Chinese Spring rolls. Who knew! The technique for making warga is not for the uncommitted so, thankfully, commercially available strudel or phyllo dough will work just fine.
The recipes in this book do not require a lot of hard to find ingredients in today's markets and they do not require a lot of special tools except for a couscouserie, which can be improvised from a colander and a stockpot. Also, while Paula does all that is needed to make the recipes at home in an American kitchen, I almost believe that one should not dip into this book casually. The best approach to cooking from this book would be to invest in a real couscouserie and track down a source for some of the more obscure ingredients and a good source of organic free range poultry and prepare several different recipes over the course of a few months. One warning is that most recipes tend to be written for a relatively large number of servings, based on the Moroccan style of eating from a central plate with your fingers and the famous Moroccan hospitality of plenty.
This book is a treasure, if you have the least scintilla of interest in the subject. Without even that, being exposed to Ms. Wolfert's passion about food in its full flower is worth the price of admission. I can only wish I would know someone with her feelings about food.