Nargisse Benkabbou is kick-starting Britain's modern Moroccan food revolution13th Jun 18 | Lifestyle
It's about far more than just tagines, the food blogger tells Ella Walker.
You might think you know what couscous is, but Nargisse Benkabbou is about to change all that.
“When I came to England and people were eating their couscous completely differently, I was like, ‘This is really weird’,” says the food writer wryly.
“In Morocco, the stuff in the packet, we call it semolina,” she explains. “We have a dish we normally eat on Friday and it’s steamed grains of semolina topped with vegetable broth and meat – and that is couscous. If you order couscous in Morocco – unless you’re somewhere really touristy in Marrakesh – they’ll always bring you the whole dish.”
This is just one of many snippets of information about Moroccan food Benkabbou is hoping to illuminate with her debut cookbook, Casablanca – because chances are, unless you’re actually Moroccan, you won’t really know all that much about it.
“People think it’s something exotic, or they think hummus is Moroccan. They’re excited about it, but they don’t cook it at home because they think it’s very complicated, and it’s not,” says Benkabbou, who was raised in Brussels before moving to the UK, and shared her recipes and food writing through her blog, MyMoroccanFood.com, before penning her book. “My mission is to bring Moroccan flavours into peoples’ homes.”
The Leiths trained cook, who was prestigiously crowned Observer Rising Star In Food 2018, really started her own cookery education as a child.
“My oldest memory of my mum is coming home from school and her writing down recipes in front of the TV, because back then we didn’t have internet,” she remembers. It was Benkabbou’s job to play assistant in the kitchen, peeling and chopping, and to be a fellow flavour interrogator when they ate out. “I would taste with her and she would ask me, ‘What do you think? Is it rosemary? Is it thyme?’ Then we’d go home and try to reproduce it.”
The trouble was, her mum always took the lead, “so when I started cooking on my own, I was like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t know this, I don’t know that’, there were gaps in my knowledge. I started calling my mum…”
Luckily, she had a very good palate, “and that’s how I started reproducing my mum’s recipes over the phone,” she continues. “I could tell if it was a success or not because I knew exactly how it should taste in my memory.” Even now, following a stint training in political science, which gave way to the insistent hunger to pursue cooking professionally, Benkabbou admits with a smile: “I still call her.”
Although her food is informed by the dishes her mother and aunts fed and taught the London-based chef, Casablanca is not a tome dedicated to traditional Moroccan cooking. Although the pages may be scattered liberally with traditional Moroccan ingredients and dishes – from ras el hanout and harissa, to tagines and (proper) couscous, and woven through with what gives Moroccan food its essence (vibrance, aromatics, spiciness, sourness and the “influences of so many civilisations – Persian, Arab, French, Ottoman, Turkish”) – Benkabbou takes her food heritage and gives it a twist.
“What I aim to do is share traditional dishes and make them more accessible,” explains Benkabbou, who is also a supper club host. “I’ve been eating this food all of my life, and I know how far I can go when I want to tweak a recipe to make it accessible for someone who doesn’t know about Moroccan food, so that’s what I do.”
She also loves to invent fusion dishes – a recent success was Moroccan almond cookies (ghriba), made with Chinese matcha. Do traditional Moroccan cooks mind her playing with classics?
“[Questions] come more from the older generations, but my uncles and cousins will also tell me what I’m doing for our food is really great,” Benkabbou muses. “It’s very emotional and also makes me very proud that I’m able to share my heritage.
“Every time I share a traditional recipe, there’s part of my mum in the recipes and my grandfather – for me it’s a wonderful way to give an homage – it makes me really happy.”
Casablanca: My Moroccan Food by Nargisse Benkabbou, photography by Matt Russell is published by Mitchell Beazley, priced £20. Available now from octopusbooks.co.uk.
© Press Association 2018