In Malden, savory flavors from Morocco
We’re in a big rush. It’s a Friday night during Ramadan - couscous night - and the crowds will descend on Moroccan Hospitality Restaurant for Iftar, the meal to break the sunup-to-sundown fast. We’re looking for couscous, of course, and also for harira, the multi-grained saffron-based soup that’s so nourishing you could live on it.
Alas, hardly any customers are in the little storefront. Only one man with a handlebar mustache is sitting near the window. He is obviously enjoying the soup (if it’s possible to smile while you slurp hot liquid, that’s what he’s doing). Beside it, a tagine, tucked under the traditional conical top, is hiding something aromatic.
When our own soup arrives, we’re too busy smiling and slurping to see what our neighbor is dining on. This harira ($2.50) is simmered with bits of lamb, lentils, chickpeas, rice, ginger, fresh cilantro, and saffron. As more customers come in, many for takeout, we watch co-owner Nouzha Ghalley ladle out many bowls. She makes the meat version only during Ramadan, she tells me later on the phone, and a vegetarian version the rest of the year.
Ghalley owns the restaurant with her sister, Amina Ghalley McTursh. The sisters ran a small restaurant in Rabat, Morocco. Their mother, Fatima El Haddad, 75, is also cooking here, along with some other women.
This is labor intensive cooking. One night, we ask for something besides fries with a sandwich and Ghalley sends out beautiful, velvety, roasted bell peppers bathed in olive oil. She roasts them on a flame, just several at a time.
And the couscous ($11.99), which comes in a tagine: The grains are feathery, each one tender, but separate, deliciously moist, but not saucy. Lamb, rutabaga, potatoes, carrots, and chickpeas sit on top. We did not eat better couscous in Morocco.
Chicken is roasted with preserved lemons ($11.99), and the lemons mixed with onions, saffron, and turmeric forms a crust on the skin. The stunning dish arrives with handfuls of very crisp, slender fries on top. A melting lamb shank with prunes ($11.99) is cooked in a deliciously nutty sauce, which comes studded with almonds.
Pastilla ($11.99), a big, incredibly flaky little pie sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, is filled with chicken and almonds.
Dinner comes with two homemade breads, one golden slices from a semolina loaf, the other heartier slices of a whole-wheat loaf (whole loaves to go are $1.50 each).
We fall hard for sfous (also called selloh, $14.99 a pound), which is a powdery ground mixture of toasted flour, sesame seeds, aniseed, honey, walnuts, almonds, and cinnamon, mixed with butter, and eaten with a spoon. When the cooks add more honey to the powder, it turns moist like a pudding and tastes exactly like halva.
A group of men come in one night for Iftar and waiting on their table is a plate of plump dates and some hard-cooked eggs. A thoughtful touch.
This is a barebones outfit. It looks like the owners turned around the large white plastic menu board over the counter so the clear side shows. Some unlit decorative Moroccan lamps hang from the ceiling. In this former pizzeria, white cotton curtains block the view into the kitchen. Most patrons help themselves to cutlery and paper towels serve as napkins. Brown felt-back plastic cloths cover tables. Don’t come for the aesthetics.
An adorable 6-year-old boy is a constant presence, dashing in and out of the kitchen. One night his mother, who is cooking, takes him out of the restaurant and they return with a brown bag. She sits him at a corner table and out comes a large slice of pizza.
Extraordinary tagines are an arm’s reach away. He wants pizza. Only in America.
Sheryl Julian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.