Moroccan cuisine is a rare find in the Philippines. With its blend of Arabic, Moorish, French, Spanish, African, and Sephardic Jewish influences, this North African cuisine offers a wide repertoire of dishes flavored with such ingredients as preserved lemons, harissa or hot chili pepper paste, cilantro, olive oil, nuts, dried fruits, honey, rosewater not to mention complex blends of spices.
While there is a dearth of Moroccan restaurants in the Philippines, thankfully there is Loubna Benfraiha Piega who has been championing her native Moroccan cuisine to Filipinos for the last 20 years, from her stalls in the Saturday Salcedo Market and Sunday Legazpi Market.
Born and raised in Morocco, Piega used to serve as general manager for Federal Express in Casablanca, and worked at the Banque Commerciale du Maroc, one of the biggest banks in the kingdom. Then 20 years ago, she moved to the Philippines with her Filipino husband, Eduardo Piega, now a retiree from the garment industry.
It was natural for Piega to transition from the corporate world to the food world as cooking has always been part of her DNA. Initially, she would cook for people looking for halal-certified foods. Halal (or “lawful” in Arabic) refers to food products and ingredients prescribed in the Qu’ran, the Muslim scripture. She eventually set up her stalls to introduce her Moroccan dishes to Filipinos and expats who frequent these popular Makati-based weekend markets.
In the beginning, Piega recalls that Filipinos couldn’t tell the difference between Middle Eastern and Moroccan cuisines. She explains, “Our cuisine is a refinement of the melding of cultures which produces a sweet-savory flavor profile. Middle Eastern cuisine is Arab in influence and the cooking techniques are different.” Since then, her food constantly sells out, showing that people are becoming more open to international cuisines such as hers.
Piega offers traditional dishes cooked with the same time-honored techniques passed on through generations. She customizes her own blend of spices, and chooses only the best ingredients she can source. Her menu is extensive, featuring wraps, dips, breads, tagines (or dishes cooked in handmade shallow earthenware pots, also called “tagines”), and desserts, among many others.
One of these traditional recipes is for M’semen, a flatbread made from whole wheat flour, salt, and yeast. She notes that it is softer and more chewy than Indian chapati which is unleavened flatbread. Her Vegetarian M’semen tastes like a savory crepe with shredded carrots, onions, cilantro, and black olives folded into the dough.
Piega also makes pita bread, called Batbout, which, she stresses, is quite different from the commercial variety. “Moroccan pita is fluffier, softer, and healthier, thanks to the whole wheat flour. Nothing can beat homemade, actually,” she says. She uses her pita as mini sandwiches, with either chicken or vegetarian stuffing, and a potato patty, greens, and tomatoes.
Perhaps most distinctive among Morocco’s traditional dishes are tagines, cooked in handmade shallow earthenware pots with cone-like tops (also called “tagines”). One of them is her Saffron Lemon Chicken Tagine with homemade preserved lemons, simmered for several hours to enhance the blend of spices, the tartness of the lemons, and with a thickened gravy of onions with saffron and ginger, plus a kick of saltiness from the olives.
Considered comfort food by Moroccans, Kofta Tagine highlights pure beef meatballs cooked in a tangy and spicy tomato base, punctuated with Kalamata olives, paprika, and extra virgin olive oil. “It’s dancing in flavors,” she describes.
Yet another tagine is Mrouzia Tagine, honey-glazed beef that is stewed for seven hours for that melt-in-the mouth goodness. “There’s neither bone nor fat,” Piega says. Saffron, aged butter, and olive oil adds necessary richness to the dish, while a topping of almonds gives it crunch.
One of Piega’s most popular dishes is Moroccan Ratatouille. Like the classic French vegetable stew, her version uses eggplant, zucchini, carrots, and potatoes, which are cooked in tomato sauce. While the French dish is delicate, flavored with herbes de Provence, her Moroccan version is more flavor forward, laced with cumin, cilantro, and a host of other spices.
Of course, one can’t talk about Moroccan cuisine without mentioning couscous, grains of semolina wheat similar to pasta. Piega’s featured couscous dish includes chicken, caramelized onions, lots of vegetables, brightened by saffron.
Moroccans usually end the meal with mint tea and desserts. Piega offers two popular ones: cylinders of peanuts coated with almonds and rosewater, as well as Almond Briwat or phyllo pastry triangles filled with pure almonds, rosewater, and honey.
After 20 years, Piega remains just as devoted to cooking the way she learned it in Morocco. “I don’t make shortcuts,” she asserts. Even during the current pandemic, Piega continues to cook tirelessly to share her heritage. “Since ECQ, we’ve never had a day of rest. The kitchen is in full gear. We have been blessed by Allah.”