Begin beautiful friendship with Casablanca ...
Writer Nargisse Benkabbou’s interest in cooking began as a young child when she watched her mother at work in their kitchen. Now she wants to make Moroccan food accessible to everyone, she 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.
“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 people’s homes. 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,”
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, 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. I could tell if it was a success or not because I knew exactly how it should taste in my memory”.
Benkabbou admits with a smile that even now she still call her mum.
Although her food is informed by the dish-