Note on 15/01/2014: Sigh. In true Dubai transient fashion, Tagine al Fassi has vanished as quickly as it arrive on the Dubai restaurant scene. Sucks, I do miss these guys.
When I go through multiple days and weeks of not discovering a spectacular food experience, then I sort of start to…wilt.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy a rerun of a great meal at a beloved restaurant. I do. It’s not that I cry when a first-time experience at a restaurant isn’t as breakthrough as I’d hoped it be. Nope, I don’t cry (most of the times.) I appreciate it all, but I live for that extraordinary discovery that sprouts up every now and then. Two weeks of a food discovery winter, and the corners of my smile will gradually start to droop, the excitement in my chomping cheeks fades to a discoloured hue, and the core of my food-loving heart starts going limp at the thought of another meal gone, another opportunity to discover something new lost. My body switches into sustenance mode, eating to live rather than my usual hedonistic modus operandi. I repeat, I’m grateful for every morsel of food on my plate [hello mom. I know you’re vehemently disagreeing at that declaration.], but the sunshine of my life is really those food discoveries where there are chunks of surprise and ethnic wonder that have rooted themselves on my dinner plate.
Thank God the Moroccans gave me my dose of savoury sunshine last week.
To appreciate the twisted relationship of chicken, sugar and cinnamon, eat a chicken bastilla.
I think I’ve barked enough times about why you have to treat your tastebuds to this row of streets in Deira called Hor Al Anz. Maybe I should include that hidden area on my food tours and drag people out there because it would be SO worth it. Look at this steaming hot savory chicken bastilla I had at the Marakesh Restaurant [that is called ‘pelletized’ on the menu for some unfathomable reason.]
The happy stuffed belly of a chicken bastilla.
Look at it. CLOSELY. Do you see the chewy-crispy pastry skin blush with powdered sugar and cinnamon? Do you see the swab of chickeny strands inside the pie? Do you see the layer of brown sugar (and was it almonds?) under the chicken stuffing? Do you see that piping hot morsel that I savagely forked away from the pie, before Alex discreetly moved the plate away from me, sliced the pie down the centre and parted the halves open so I could photograph it more respectably for my civilized readers?If you’ve never tasted Chicken Bastilla from Morocco before, this whole mixture of sweet and savory sounds pretty ridiculous. But you’ve got to try it. If you can enjoy sweet and sour chicken, or chocolate mole enchiladas, or sweet mango curried prawns, you can definitely try this. And God it’s good. The flavors synchronize in a way that you’d just never expect of chicken and sugar.
I’ve tried a flakier, crispier sample of bastille pastry from Almaz by Momo once at Taste of Dubai. I remember that pastry being more delicate than the one at Marakesh, which of course comes at the price of eating at a fancy pants place at the top of the Mall of the Emirates. But for a more down-to-earth rugged experience that’s equally fulfilling, the kinds that nourish my decidedly unglam taste buds without obliterating my live savings, Marakesh is perfect.
The salad section of the menu was quite…intriguing. If you enjoy proof-reading, this one's for you. Enjoy.
We got a carrot salad (even though the mystical 'Let us pepper fried' salad may arguably have far greater potential to revolutionize our perception of salads altogether.) And it was a shockingly good carrot salad at that. Boiled discs of carrot, with some sort of heavily cooked-down leafy green—maybe coriander, maybe parsley?—and tons of lemony acidic flavor.
Carrots are boring hm? Eat this.
I honestly didn’t care to dissect every last spice in that salad at the time, it knocked me out with this crazy tangy punch, more so because I wasn’t expecting anything spectacular out of a boring old carrot salad. But since that meal, my personal Google search engine has dredged up multiple Moroccan carrot salad recipes. I’ve read ingredient lists containing cumin, paprika, garlic, cinnamon, cayenne and lemon, and I’d reckon it really would take all that to make carrots the celebrities of a salad.
For a weekday lunch, that bastilla with our side of carrot salad would have been an ideal light meal for two.
But when you’re the frying pan on a foodie discovery mission...you don’t have light meals.
Sooooo, we dipped bread topped with crunchy microscopic semolina into a saucer of fiery red sauce...
...munched on olives, and then proceeded to order a tagine, because anyone who walks out from a Moroccan restaurant without tasting a tagine should be…stared down at so harshly that they sheepishly turn around and walk right back in to order the sacred dish.
Now the last time, I ordered a chicken tagine at Marakesh’s next door neighbour, Wajda Moroccain Restaurant. But I realize now that chicken tagines don’t really do justice to the conical claypot cooking technique. If you’re going to slow cook a dish to the point that all the fleshy fibres melt into gooey strands of pulpy meat, then chicken really isn’t best choice. The best choice is what we had at Marakesh: lamb with caramelized onions and a generous heap of sweet zbib (raisins) that had swelled into plump pellets of sweetness.
There was probably more hefty bone than meat in the tagine, but gluttons would be silenced if they saw how smoothly the meat slips off the bone, how the slivers of cartilage emulate butter, and how every forkful drips with primal lamb juices as you separate a chunk from its meaty siblings.
Would you imagine that there was brain tagine? Yep, I know it sounds crazy, and I promise I will order it and tell you all about it at some point. There was also a tagine with meat and prunes, one with the shin of beef, and another with kofta. I have yet to try the couscous too, and the other dishes like Rafisa or Meat Mbakhar that were alien to me. I’m hopping with excitement to go back and figure out what they are. Oh did I mention they serve spleen and barbecued heart too? [...on that note, I’ve just lost every veggie reader I ever had. And maybe a couple of disgusted non-veggie ones too. Come back please, don't go! I didn’t try those dishes!]
I might have walked into Marakesh with taste buds that were somewhat worn out and withered for lack of any new flavour-busting excitement. But four days after unearthing this restaurant, I still feel vibrant and alive and well-watered with the magic of an incredible food discovery.
[Pssst...thanks to Alex for lending me his tummy on this expedition!]
Marakesh Moroccan Restaurant
Behind Canadian Hospital, Hor Al Anz, Deira
Phone: +971 (4) 2654110
By Midnight Biryani Run in Hor Al Anz | I Live in a Frying Pan 12 Aug ’12 at 9:08 am
By Sheermal Kabab at Karama’s tiny Lucknowi outpost: Ballimaran Dilli | I Live in a Frying Pan 10 Jun ’13 at 12:46 pm
Oh! I love that Moroccan chicken pie! Will look for this place in Deira … Another place that offers an exquisite (if more expensive) version is at momo at MoE. Nice ambiance, too. Thanks for sharing.
Do, and let me know if you find the place and how you like it. I have tried the Almaz version at Taste of Dubai, ’exquisite’ is spot-on!
Having savoury and sweet dishes seperately is a relatively modern custom. Pies like this were served in Henry VIII’s court, with spices brought from the Middle East (minced pies did originally have minced meat in them as well as fruit and spice). This is a fantastic discovery and makes me want to run down there immediately to get my own ’dose of savoury sunshine’ (love that phrase).
@writebyte:disqus – love the piece of foodie history! Thank you :) While writing the post, I did feel transported to my ’Enid Blyton’ days for some reason, I couldn’t figure out why. I’m sure I have read her talk about sweet mince pies at picnics or some such very British thing…she was great at talking about food, without even trying. Wonder if Blyton ever considered blogging about food in her heydays ;)
haven’t seen this on any Moroccan menu so far. Maybe I missed it. it looks seriously exotic.
@openid-77086:disqus – well, maybe it was called ’pelletized’ like it had been on this menu and that’s why you missed it! ;) My rule in any Moroccan place is to always ask about tagine and bastilla…I will eventually branch out and experiment with the rest of the menu.
OOOh arwa…your pics and description of the Chicken Bastilla are so appetizing…my experiments of Moroccan cuisine have been limited to tagine…but would love to try this out…Thanks for the reco:))
PS:Congrats on the food tours…looking forward to touring the hidden gems in dubai…
@18d7aac8de19afeffdb21eea8b0d7cae:disqus – thank you for the lovely message! Do drop me a line if you have a chance to find this gem :) And thanks for the food tour wishes, my heart puffs up like a cuddly…erm, some cuddly animal that puffs up….when I hear support the tours. Hope you sign up!
I am intrigued by that carrot salad!
@med0194:disqus – I wasn’t until I tried it. Quite the tangy shocker that one, definitely worth a taste!
Delish! i cant wait to try this place. and btw, the “let us pepper fried” in arabic is actually “Salad with fried pepper and tomatoes.” ha! i love how busted translations are here :)
@418ee53b080fbfa0ac0676192fdc9b47:disqus – hahahaha…I don’t know whether I’m happy to finally know what that salad is, or sad that it’s not as revolutionary as I would hoped!
Reading your article and with lunch time not too far away, I already feel hungry! I have never tried Moroccan food and it is about time that I leave my job and apply to be your assistant. That way I will discover more of Dubai than I have in the past 35 years that I have been here. I have so many places to go to with you and now this will be added to the list. Well written article, keep it up
@9a1d510f1be63443c618f7d241d72ab2:disqus – my assistant! daddy, that’s quite blasphemous…you will be the chief guest on my next foodie trip :)
Ive tasted chicken bastilla when I was in Manila. Now this makes me want to taste if this is similar to the one I had back home. Hmmmm…another Deira trip to be scheduled?
@didipaterno:disqus – DEIRA RULES. Do you think bastilla is portugese inspired?? I’m trying to get at the origins…French and Morocco feature in there, but wondering how it got to the Philippines….
A moroccan expat sold it in one of the popular weekend food markets :) It was sold alongside a chicken tagine….yum!
Ah now that makes sense! So much for my ambitious attempts at trying to draw some dubious connection between the culinary histories of Morocco and the Philippines!
Nice. I first tried chicken pastilla at Taste of Dubai two years ago, and then went to Almaz by Momo a few months back and enjoyed it there too. And at another Moroccan place in the Marina recently.
I really love the mix of sweet and savoury; I know some people don’t like the idea of the chicken dish being “sweet” but I think it just adds to the quirkiness of the pie. And tagine has been a recent discovery courtesy Almaz by Momo…and I’m absolutely in love with it.
@twitter-59809099:disqus – same here, that’s when I tried it! Was the place at Marina Mogador? Heard good things about it :)
Yeah it was Mogador. It was decent overall, but I thought the tagine there was just average.
I’m travelling to Morocco in July and I just can’t wait!! Especially after this post :)
@e50ba63b957573605db9b5b29f384a6a:disqus – *frying pan melts into a green gloopy puddle of jealousy* you’re going to get a taste of the real deal, savour every bit of it!
Phew! If only I had Aladin’s Genie and the magic carpet – Whoosh I would have gone! I am not sure whether I would be able to digest a brain tagine, but the chicken bastilla is calling me:)
@5e8c32b20f4724711dd3c80c2633f364:disqus – don’t diss it until you’ve tried it hun. I have a strong inkling that that brain tagine could rock our worlds ;)
I tried one from Moulay Youssef and it was pretty good. Thanks for introducing us to this dish :)