Food treasures of the Medina - Fried eggs with Lentils Moroccan-style

Middle aged and Middle Eastern I was invisible in the streets of Rabat, able to stroll unperturbed. I set out early to the Medina, the old city enclosed within earthen walls.  
As I stepped across the studded door I was struck by the vibrant displays of colour, the lingering aromas of scents and spices as well as by the simmering activity. A dizzying moment, which lasted until I reached the wider lanes and I was able to get a better view.
The alleyways were lined with shops and pavements awash with peddlers. Leather goods, rugs, clothes, pottery, musical instruments were side by side next to a bicycle repair yard and cheap kitchenware.
Children with their backpacks and uniforms were on their way to school. Men seemed to conduct business as they walked across town. Mothers scolded their offspring. Young girls were out on a shopping spree. Tourist ogled and took furtive pictures. But what struck me most amidst the hustle bustle was the food. 

There were rows of bakeries, their breads neatly stacked and groceries with intricate displays of olives, pickles and oils. The patisseries piled mounds of sticky sweets and sugar coated biscuits. Women dressed in djellabas comfortably sat on the curb and offered coconut ghoreibas – a type of orange blossom flavoured macaron.
Down the road, a woman was peeling the stalks of a thistle-like herb much like Gundelia. She sat close to another who was selling bundles of herbs and greens. People stopped, stooped, checked the merchandise, and haggled.

The displays of spices were so perfectly arranged that you wondered if anyone touched them. Piled in domes they looked like the colourful Moroccan  tajine serving dishes. I went from stall to stall and tasted ras el hanout a yellow blend with cumin and turmeric flavours used in tagines. The mixtures ranged from hot with marked cardamom and chilli zest to mild and sweet tasting with hints of star anise, rose and allspice. Each merchant claimed his mix was best. Someone even whispered in my ear that up to 40 different spices went into their combination, although no one offered to reveal the secret.

A fisherman walked past with his fresh catch in a basket.

It was lunchtime and tempting aromas began to drift. Every turn revealed modest diners with makeshift tables. Men carrying trays or wheeling carts would stop on street corners to offer their speciality.  An old man filled large sandwiches with freshly fried sardines, grilled green peppers, aubergines, potatoes topped with a fried egg. A little way down, another man cooked spicy merguez sausages and onions on a griddle. People pushed and shoved at the smoky grill opposite, to get a couple of kefta skewers – a mix of minced lamb, onions and spices. And tucked between CDs and women’s wear, a butcher had finished boiling a cow’s head. The brew diffused sweet and spicy aromas.

I settled for lentil soup. 

In the afternoon I watched a man swiftly turn out dozens of warka, the Moroccan filo pastry.  With the side of his palm, he spread the sticky batter onto a flat hot griddle; within seconds he peeled it off, brushed it barely with oil and placed it on a tray. Warka is used to make pastilla or bistilla, a sweet and savoury layered pie, traditionally filled with ground almonds, sugar, cinnamon and pigeon meat - sometimes replaced with chicken. It is a festive dish that Moroccans like to serve at the beginning of a meal. The following day when I dined at a friend’s house she served me her modern pastilla with fish, vermicelli and shredded lemon comfit.

The sun was setting, calling an end to the day, yet more food stalls were appearing. Boiled snails, cooked chickpeas and broad beans in a paper cones, fried donut-like pastries strung on green twine, spiced peanuts and roast chestnuts.

As the stalls were packed away for the day the general hubbub slowly faded but only for a while. In the evening different food stalls would appear to serve new crowds come to get a whiff of the Medina’s atmosphere and stroll in the lit alleyways.

Fried Eggs with Lentils Moroccan Style

Inspired from Morroccan cuisine, this comforting and filling dish makes a perfect one-course meal.

Olive oil
2 small onions, chopped
4 garlic cloves, crushed to a paste
1 small knob of ginger, grated
2 carrots, finely chopped
3 vine tomatoes, peeled and seeded
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon, turmeric
1 teaspoon, ground coriander
1 teaspoon, hot paprika
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
250 g Green lentils
900 ml water
2 tablespoons tomato paste
30 g coriander, finely chopped
20 g flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
6 small eggs
4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt

Cooking time: 1 hour
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Serves 6

  1. Heat a dash of olive oil in a deep saucepan and gently fry the chopped onions on medium to low heat until soft. 
  2. Add garlic and ginger and sauté for about 2 minutes more. 
  3. Add the chopped carrots and keep sautéing until the carrots become a deeper orange colour.
  4. Add the chopped tomatoes and cook for a couple of minutes. When the tomatoes begin to turn mushy it will be time to add the spices.
  5. Stir to combine the flavours. Rinse the lentils and add them to the onion and tomato base together with the water.
  6. Dilute the tomato paste and add to the mixture.
  7. Bring to a boil then reduce the heat. Keeping the lid on, leave the stew to simmer for about fifty minutes, stirring and checking the consistency from time to time. Five minutes before cooking ends, add the fresh herbs. This dish should have the consistency of a thick and heavy stew. If it looks too runny, boil briskly for about 2 minutes in order to reduce the cooking liquids. Stir a couple of times to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pan and burning.
  8. Cooked the eggs just before serving. Fry the eggs 2 or 3 at a time, in a heavy based pan with a dash of olive oil. Cook on medium to low heat.
  9. Serve the stew in individual bowls topped with one egg each. 
  10. Garnish with chopped herbs.

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