A Chat with Chef Mourad Lahlou, author of Mourad: New Moroccan

Mourad: New MOROCCAN

Mourad Lahlou would feel right at home in Vancouver. Despite running one of the hottest kitchens (Aziza) in the San Francisco Bay area—with a Michelin star, no less (the only Moroccan restaurant in North America to be so honoured)—and having his own show on the Food Network, Lahlou is a down-to-earth, gregarious sort whose passion for his craft drowns out any preconceptions about super-star egos. I got to meet and chat with him while he was in Vancouver promoting his first foray into publishing.


Lahlou is an “accidental chef.” He never went to cooking school. In fact, he moved to the U.S. from his native Marrakesh in order to complete a doctorate in macroeconomics. Homesickness—and hunger—led him to recreate the dishes of his childhood, first for himself, then for friends, and, finally—deciding to let the doctorate fall by the wayside—for a paying public at Aziza, where he turns out modern interpretations of Moroccan cuisine, tempered heavily by local ingredients and Lahlou’s own childhood experiences.


He’s proud that there are no belly dancers, no Night at the Casbah trappings, to detract from his food—whether at the restaurant or in the book. “I realized that Moroccan food was not evolving. It was stuck. Someone figured out a formula in the 70s for opening a Moroccan restaurant and how it should be, with the belly dancers and sitting on the floor and the beaded Casbah look, and it’s been like that ever since,” says Lahlou. “I wanted to strip all of that away. Moroccan food was never discussed seriously, in the way that French or Italian food was discussed. And I wanted people to become comfortable with Moroccan food, to start using good-quality spices, to start using harissa instead of ketch-up.”


For those with certain dishes firmly fixed in their minds when thinking about Moroccan food, the cookbook does include a traditional basteeyah, yes (because Lahlou states he gets hate mail when he tries to change it up), but there are also recipes for roast chicken with preserved lemons and olives, chicory salad with anchovy vinaigrette and goat’s milk yogurt panna cotta.


Lahlou starts the book by offering seven “master classes” in Moroccan cooking. An entire chapter is devoted to preserved lemons, in fact, which grace everything from chicken and lamb to mezze and desserts. “They’re so easy to make, and give such an amazing flavour,” says Lahlou. “You can cut the rind for salad or puree an entire preserved lemon to use with anything.”


Other master classes cover spices, tagines, and the many uses for harissa. “This isn’t a chef’s book,” says Lahlou. “Anyone can make these recipes, you don’t have to be experienced in the kitchen.” That being said, Lahlou hasn’t dumbed anything down. The recipe for his own version of ras el hanout (every Moroccan has their own version of this popular spice blend), has 23 ingredients, most of which involve whole spices—some hard to find—which you must toast and grind yourself. “Ground spices can take up to three years to reach the shelves,” explains Lahlou. “So when you open the container of ground cumin, you smell nothing.”


That dedication to quality and authenticity of ingredients was evident during our conversation, and, later, as I studied what makes a good beldi (check out page 226 if you’re curious). There’s likely little chance that Lahlou will open a satellite in Vancouver, but, until my next visit to Bay City, I at least have a recipe for lamb shanks with spiced prunes and brown-butter farro that will (sorry, Mourad), let me have a little of that Casbah magic at home.


Mourad: New Moroccan by Mourad Lahlou (Artisan Books, 2011). $46 at Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks.



Written By:

Anya Levykh was born on the shores of the Black Sea, in what was formerly the USSR. The cold, Communist winters were too much for her family, and, before she was four feet tall, they had left for warmer climes in the south of ...

Comments are closed.