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A Chicken in Every Tajine

August 11, 1994|ANNE WILLAN

MARRAKESH, Morocco — The city of Marrakesh in central Morocco is an oasis in more ways than one. Above the city tower the Atlas Mountains, rising so high that even in this sub-tropical climate they are tipped with snow for nine months of the year. I drive past produce stalls lining the roadside filled with melons, glistening fresh and dried dates, garlic, onions and wild mint, which adds heady fragrance to the infused mint tea served in North Africa at any hour and on any occasion.

The boundaries of the ancient city, the medina , are marked by massive, rose-red walls. Driving at the pace of a donkey, I negotiate a gateway, then a narrowing lane crammed with people. It's supper time and tempting spices pervade the air. A caftan-clad figure emerges from the dusk: " Marhaban , bienvenue , welcome to Marrakesh," exclaims our host, Mustapha Belkouri, as my husband and I emerge from our car.

Mustapha leads us to a heavy, wooden door. Behind it, there is a second oasis, a tiled courtyard with a fountain surrounded by cool, peaceful rooms. Many such houses in the medina are built on this well-tried pattern of comfort and privacy. In one corner is the kitchen, its noise and smells hidden from the central court. At the door stands Maria, Mustapha's wife and a cook of renown.

Twice a day she goes to the market, where the produce is prime, thanks to the abundant water from mountain streams. Now, in high summer, glowing mounds of apricots, peaches, oranges and the local soft-skinned lemons jostle zucchini and eggplant. Tomatoes are small, pock-marked and incomparably sweet. Maria likes to make salads of cucumber with mint, green pepper marinated with cumin and coriander. She flavors grated carrots with rose water, and sweet potatoes with cinnamon and sugar.

The spice market is a world of its own, shaded, redolent, the merchants sitting cross-legged with hanging scales in one hand. The butchers, too, are apart. The animals--lambs and goats exclusively--must be killed and the meat cooked on the same day, for refrigeration is rare. Chickens are generally tough, well-aged hens from the farmyard, and appreciated as such.

Maria makes bread twice a day, shaping shallow, round loaves of a simple flour and water dough, flavored with salt and raised with a starter from the previous batch. The bread is baked at the nearby wood-fired oven. "It tastes different that way," she says, introducing me to the cheerful baker. He manipulates a 10-foot "peel" (a flat shovel for handling the loaves) with ease. To avoid confusion, each loaf is personalized; Maria marks hers with three fingers. Beside it, there's one in the shape of an hourglass, belonging to a family with twins.

Back in Maria's kitchen, the space is small and the few implements include drum sieves of metal and goatskin; a couscous steamer with its accompanying straw platter for drying the semolina grains after steaming, and two shallow metal drums for cooking warka , paper-thin sheets of pastry dough that resemble filo. To make it, Maria slaps a soft yeast dough on the heated drum, then lets it bounce back again and again to form a thin layer. As you can imagine, this takes time, not to mention skill--Maria allows two hours just for the 20 sheets used in bestila , a flat, savory pie filled with braised pigeon and almonds and flavored with saffron, cinnamon and sugar.

Bestila is almost--but not quite--the national dish. When I ask Maria what she prepares for the family on Friday, the day of rest, a smile lights her face. "Couscous, with lamb, of course, and carrots, turnips, zucchini and white cabbage. I flavor it with ginger, pepper and saffron, and finish with plenty of chopped fresh coriander. But in our family we never allow harissa (the fiery red pepper sauce favored in neighboring Tunisia), as that would overwhelm the taste."

The dish most commonly prepared in her kitchen is tajine , a term referring to the conical earthenware casserole that is the universal Moroccan cooking pot. Almost anything can be baked inside it--lamb, goat, fish, with generous amounts of vegetables and spices. This recipe calls for chicken with eggplant, saffron and lemon juice.

*

Instead of the traditional earthenware tajine, you can use a flameproof casserole; it should be almost filled by the chicken and eggplant.

TAJINE OF CHICKEN WITH EGGPLANT 1 (3 1/3- to 4-pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces 1 teaspoon ground ginger Generous dash saffron threads 1 garlic clove, chopped 1 teaspoon salt, plus extra for eggplant 1 cup water (more if necessary) 3 medium eggplant (about 2 1/2 pounds total) 1/3 cup olive oil Juice of 1 lemon (about 1/3 cup)

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