FLAVORS OF MOROCCO
September 14, 2005
"There's nothing made in Morocco without tomatoes," says Moroccan-born chef Mourad Lahlou, who is only slightly overstating the case. At his acclaimed San Francisco restaurant Aziza, Lahlou updates Moroccan cooking, but tomatoes, peppers and eggplants -- the Moroccan cook's produce touchstones -- remain his kitchen's foundation.
"If you take them out of Moroccan cooking, you're left with not much," says the chef.
All three vegetables are at their best right now, making it a perfect time to try Lahlou's inventive dishes. The recipes he suggests, like the offerings at his restaurant, marry old ways and new, with the traditional Moroccan spice palette but modernized presentations. When Moroccans come to Aziza, says Lahlou, they recognize the flavors but not the dish.
Raised in Marrakech, Lahlou came to San Francisco in 1986 at the age of 18. He earned a master's degree in economics from San Francisco State University and was headed for a doctorate when his brother, Khalid, asked him to help out temporarily at a Moroccan restaurant he was opening in San Rafael. Unexpectedly, Lahlou found himself behind the stoves at the restaurant, Kasbah, and having too good a time to return to his studies.
Kasbah was a hit -- The Chronicle named Lahlou a Rising Star in 1997 -- but the brothers lost their lease in the late 1990s and decided to reopen, under another name, in San Francisco. Aziza opened in 2001 with Mourad in the kitchen and Khalid in the dining room, but their partnership quickly faltered. Khalid now works at Jeanty at Jack's.
"I never would have thought I would come to America to cook for people," says Lahlou, a slim man with a dark, close-trimmed beard. "I was going to go back and get my Ph.D. My professors still come here and nag me about it."
An admirer of Alice Waters -- he cooked her birthday dinner once -- the chef visits four farmers' markets a week for organic produce. Even so, the peppers don't taste like they did in Morocco. "A flavor is missing," he laments, but he makes do.
Using a mixture of colorful Gypsy peppers and mild green Anaheim chiles, he creates one of the iconic salads of Morocco, roasted peppers with preserved lemons. Visit any home in Morocco, and the host is almost certain to offer it, says the chef. The lemons, made at the restaurant, are preserved for weeks in salt and spices and develop a pungent fermented flavor. The slivered rind (the pulp is discarded) gives the peppers a citrusy lift, with a salty, sourish note.
Roasted peppers also figure in a popular seafood dish on his menu, flavored with saffron and served with seared sea bass and chive aioli. You would have to look hard to find Morocco in this composition, but it's a perfect fit with California sensibilities.
With plump bell peppers, Lahlou makes meat-stuffed peppers in a tomato sauce that is fragrant with cinnamon and cumin. In Morocco, the filling is always tough and dry, says the chef. To avoid that fate, he chooses ground meat that is not too lean. Briefly deep-frying the peppers before peeling and stuffing them helps the peppers soften before the filling overcooks. Alternatively, and more easily, you can boil the seeded pepper casings before filling them, or simply peel them before stuffing to reduce the cooking time.
In Morocco, the versatile eggplant is "everybody's best friend," says Lahlou. It is the meat of the poor in a country where real meat is costly; Lahlou recalls boyhood sandwiches of fried eggplant between two pieces of bread.
Moroccan cooks pickle eggplants with vinegar and sugar for long keeping, then dress them at serving time with olive oil, garlic and cilantro. Often they braise eggplant with tomatoes and peppers, then break an egg over the surface of the stew.
Lahlou likes to use the small lavender and white Rosa Bianca eggplants when available; their flesh is firm and mild and their seeds unobtrusive. The elongated, nearly seedless Asian eggplants are a good second choice for his creamy mousse, made by deep-frying the peeled vegetable, then pureeing it with olive oil, garlic, spices and cilantro. At the restaurant, he serves it as an appetizer with other Mediterranean spreads and wedges of grilled house-made flatbread.
His velvety eggplant soup tastes like something a French grandmother would make, notwithstanding the spicy crouton and sumac garnish. First, he grills the sliced eggplant to give it a smoky edge, then he simmers the vegetable briefly in stock with sweated onions. After pureeing the contents of the pot, he strains the soup to make it silky and enriches it with cream. A crisp crouton seasoned with za'atar, a Middle Eastern spice blend, and a final sprinkle of tart sumac give the soup an Arab inflection.
In summer, the flat roofs of Moroccan homes are blanketed with tomatoes, halved and drying in the hot sun. They will be stored in olive oil and used throughout the winter. In some homes, the tomatoes are cooked down with sugar, ginger, lemon and spices to make a concentrated, chutney-like jam that keeps for months. The sweet-hot preserve might be used in a lamb tagine in Morocco, says Lahlou. He serves it in more contemporary fashion, as a condiment for grilled chicken or lamb.
Last year, Lahlou's mother came for a visit for the first time since he left 19 years ago. Although he hoped she would make some dishes from home, she refused to cook at all once she saw how far her son had advanced in the kitchen.
"She really got intimidated," says Lahlou. "She had been making the same thing for 50 years, and she saw that I had made a big jump."
To his California-trained palate, traditional Moroccan food seems almost too ornate, with too many layers of flavor. It is the result, he believes, of the Moroccan cook's effort to introduce variety when faced with a limited range of ingredients.
"When zucchini is in season, everybody eats it for weeks," says the chef, "so you need to find ways to make it taste different. Spice becomes a main ingredient, and you lose the zucchini."
As with so many of his California contemporaries, tradition is just a launching pad. Lahlou deconstructs the dishes he grew up with and reassembles them with lighter flavors, fewer layers and a greater emphasis on primal tastes. When he was cooking more traditionally at Kasbah, he says, no one could tell that he bought high-quality meat. "I've had to take the layers out to really expose the lamb," says the chef.
A devout Muslim, Lahlou serves no pork and observes the month-long fast of Ramadan. "That's when I become a better cook," he says. "I have to rely on smell." At sundown, when he can check what he made during the day, he almost always finds the food properly seasoned.
Lahlou admires the way Chez Panisse's Waters shifted the focus of good cooking to ingredients by purchasing the best and handling it simply.
"If I can do that with Moroccan food," he says, "I'd die happy."
Aziza is at 5800 Geary Boulevard (at 22nd Avenue), San Francisco. (415) 752-2222.