Upon discovering a Moroccan dish on a restaurant menu in Dublin that she knew from storybooks as a child, food writer Mei Chin, goes on a culinary journey to taste bisteeya for the first time.
In a traditional Moroccan bisteeya, pigeons are braised with saffron, ginger, and about as many spices that can be found between Asia and Europe, layered with softly scrambled eggs, almonds and sprinkled with orange flower water and enclosed in many layers of thin, transparent pastry leaves. When it is finished, it is dusted, quite thickly, with powdered sugar and crisscrossed with cinnamon. The flavour is intriguing, perfumed with centuries of journeys and intrigue. The pie is the essence of opulence itself.
Recently, I discovered there was bisteeya in Dublin. It was raining and I was around the corner from Brown Thomas. El Bahia restaurant was closed and eventually I was pulled away, but nevertheless, the sight of bisteeya on the menu stirred a longing that I had been nursing since childhood. I was twelve years old when I came across it in my mother’s Paula Wolfert. With its many layers, it was about as twisty a creation as you can get.
I have never been to Morocco, but even if I had, I might have never had bisteeya. This is because it is traditionally not a restaurant dish; it is made and eaten at home on special occasions with bare hands. In New York, Paris, and apparently many Moroccan restaurants it is not an item, it is only in Dublin that I have seen it featured. Usually, to eat bisteeya, you must be invited into the family. Another reason why I am so transfixed by it is that it's a dish that I have often imagined and that I have, up until now, never tasted.
Every food tells a story
The plot that bisteeya spins is particularly intricate. The word, “bisteeya,” (which can be spelt in a myriad of ways, including but not limited to b’stilla, bastilla, pastilla, and bestila) comes from the Spanish word, “pastilla” which means tablet, or little pie. Even now, in Grenada, from which my friend Blanca Valencia hails, there are pasteles moracan, although Blanca adds, made from puff pastry rather than the bisteeya’s warqua. Plus, Blanca dryly adds, many pasteles moracan probably still contain pork fat, a hangover from the Spanish Inquisition, when pork products were a test for being a true Christian.
Aziz Khrouch, the head chef of the newest Moroccan restaurant, Marrakesh By Mindo on Capel Street, is a master storyteller. “In Morocco, we are Arabic and also Berber,” explains Aziz, “But the bisteeya comes from the Jews from Spain.” From the 9th century to 1478, Spain was in its golden age and harmoniously ruled by Jews, Muslims, and Christians. The food, including bisteeya, and architecture is a reflection of this. Then the Inquisition happened, and many Jews were forced into Morocco, bringing bisteeya with them.
Aziz began in the iconic restaurant La Mamounia in Marrakesh, and then he did stints in Paris and New York, including at Medina. Aziz’s bisteeya is a time-consuming product saturated with flavours that are carefully staggered. He starts by marinating the chicken (Dublin bisteeyas use chicken in lieu of the harder to find squab) in a chermoula paste of harissa, garlic, and coriander the day before. Afterwards, he rubs the chicken vigorously with saffron, ginger, coriander, cinnamon, ginger, onion and garlic. He adds the seven-spice blend known as ras-al-hanout, which he has carried from Morocco in his suitcase. Aziz explains, there are different ras-al-hanouts and chermoulas for different meats. He adds lemons that he personally preserves in salt and Moroccan vinegar. Then after he has braised the chicken until it is falling apart, he layers the almonds, honey, and orange flower water and wraps it in warqua.
Warqua and China
As far as I know, Aziz is the only chef in Dublin who makes his own warqua, which is the traditional pastry for bisteeya. His grandmother, he tells me, was a warqua virtuoso. Many chefs (and indeed cookbooks) suggest substituting filo, but in fact, the pastries are different. Filo is, like strudel, rolled to a transparent consistency when it is raw. Warqua, on the other hand, is cooked; the ball of dough is rubbed on a hot pan or the bottom of a pot, until the dough yields a thin, filmy crepe which is then peeled off. It is argued that warqua is most closely related to Chinese spring roll pastry.
Aziz makes three bisteeyas at Marrakesh. Rabbit is richly redolent of ginger, saffron, and coriander. Chicken is sweeter. His fish bisteeya – with mussels, shrimp, and monkfish – is briny, delicate, and slightly tart, and according to him and other Moroccans, very much in vogue. Whether it was invented in 1984 as a healthy alternative to the traditional pastry or has been around for centuries, is unclear.
Like all bisteeya, it is time-consuming because each fish and seafood must be prepared separately, as is the Chinese vermicelli and dried black Chinese mushrooms. The bisteeya tastes a lot like the country from where those ingredients hail.
Aziz tells me, “There has always been a link to Morocco and China because Morocco needed China for tea.” Incidentally, Marrakesh on Capel Street is owned by Chinese and next door to the Sichuan stalwart standby Old Town. There are karaoke rooms downstairs, leftover from the Chinese restaurant that once occupied the premises. Many of the waiters are Chinese. Only the night before, they had a party of Chinese from Cork singing until 4am.
The big pie is the best
“I don’t think,” says Jalal Bel Maati, the head chef of Dada Restaurant on South William Street, “that you can really truly know Morocco until you have actually been to someone’s house.” Jalal is from Tangiers and is boyish, with a twinkle that belies his quiet, cultured manner.
Deftly, with a napkin, a bowl and a plate, Jalal demonstrates different ways in which one encloses a bisteeya. Bisteeya, he explains, is a food that is very much made by hand. You shred the filling with your fingers and even use your palms to rub melted butter and egg yolk into each layer of pastry. Even the warqua crepes are traditionally made with no utensils.
“Bisteeya,” Jalal tells me, is all about the “touch.” That is to say that you can give the exact same recipe to five different chefs, and, he smiles, “the flavour changes, not because of the spices, but because of the differences in touch.”
Jalal’s bisteeya at Dada is less complicated than Aziz’s, and perhaps slightly more perfunctory. Chicken filets are used for convenience, mixed with quail for richness, and ready-made spring roll pastry is used in place of warqua. However, neither Jalal or Aziz make genuine bisteeyas for their restaurants. Although exquisite, the bisteeyas at Marakkech and Dada are portioned for one person, whereas real bisteeyas are as big as a bedside table and serve a crowd.
Missing from the restaurant bisteeyas, but crucial to the real thing is a layer of eggs that have been slowly scrambled with the chicken juices. Both Jalal and Aziz agree that the big bisteeya is the best.
At home, explains Jalal, he spreads his pastry with butter that has infused for a month with thyme, an ingredient typical in Tangiers. Also, he adds wistfully, Tangiers bisteeya contains chicken livers, and at home, he would only use whole birds. “Perhaps,” he suggests, “before you go to Morocco, you can come to my house and my wife and I will make you a real Tangiers bisteeya.”
Which is why, two weeks later, I find myself at Jalal’s house in suburban Naas with his vivacious wife, Ghizlan, in their kitchen that is filled with the fragrance of chicken simmering in spices. “Of course I am the better cook,” she laughs, although today, she is letting Jalal demonstrate the bisteeya. “But I made the chicken for the filling. It’s why it will taste better.”
Unlike her husband, who remembers haunting the family kitchen as a boy, Ghizlan didn’t learn to cook until after she was married and moved to Ireland because her mother was simply too good a chef (“Her mother” nods Jamal “is the best”). “But after a while,” she said, “I got sick of eating cookies from Tesco.”
The bisteeya that Jalal makes for me is leisurely and lovingly assembled. My friend Blanca Valencia —whose family is from Grenada, across the strait – and I watch as Jalal scrambles ten eggs with the juices in which the chicken has cooked. The juices are also mixed with the thyme-scented butter, which Jalal then applies lavishly to the pastry with his palms. The filling is sprinkled with almonds that have been toasted until they have taken on a dark caramel complexion. When the bisteeya is baking, Jalal makes us tea, a careful, complicated ritual involving simmered Chinese gunpowder tea with camphor leaves, sugar, and a large bunch of mint that he wrings in his fist.
This bisteeya is, so far, the most delicious bisteeya that I have had. We eat it with our hands, chatting, between sips of gunpowder and mint tea. Jalal and Aziz are correct, the big pie is the best.
For one, it is less sweet because the proportion of sugar to pie is less in a big bisteeya. But what makes the bisteeya is the eggs that have been softly scrambled with the spices and sauce that has been marinating and simmering for a day. There is the sauce that is mixed with the butter, giving each layer of pastry intensity and depth.
“Why are you so fascinated by bisteeya?”
Jalal and Aziz have both asked me separately what my fascination is and I confessed that it probably started with 1001 Nights, a book I read as a girl. What began for me as just one thing, has evolved into a compendium of history, ingredients, and people. Each bite contains another thread – whether of medieval spice routes or current day mothers.
Aziz has promised to show me how he makes warqua with a ball of dough and the bottom of a heavy pot. Meanwhile, I hope to persuade them to make large bisteeyas available at the restaurants where they work, and then perhaps to tackle the daunting task of making a bisteeya of my own. I had thought that Jalal’s bisteeya would be the final chapter in my journey, but now I know it is just beginning.
Marrakesh by Mindo, 121-122 Capel Street, Dublin 1. Tel: +353 (0)1 878 8988
Dada, 45 South William Street, Dublin 2. Tel: +353 (0)1 617 0777
[All photos by Blanca Valencia]
Author: Mei Chin
Mei is from New York and Connecticut. She has written for Saveur, Lucky Peach,
New York Times, Irish Times, the Sunday Times, Gourmet, Fiction, Bomb, and is the
recipient of the James Beard MFK Fisher and two IACP Bert Greene awards. She is
currently collaborating with editor and writer Georgia Freedman on a new
magazine, Ampersand: Eating at the Cultural Crossroads. Now based in Dublin, Mei
spends much of her time obsessing about Caesar salads, tacos, and martinis.