I was in Casablanca and I was ravenous. It was not Ramadan—and I am not Muslim—but when I saw harira on the menu—the nourishing soup, both homely and sublime, that many eat to break the Ramadan fast—I couldn’t dial room service quickly enough.
In Morocco, harira is traditionally eaten right after sundown during the holy month of Ramadan. The ninth month of the Islamic calendar is a time for prayers, spiritual reflection, and acts of generosity. It is also a time for fasting. From dawn to sunset, not a morsel of food or drop of drink passes the lips of observant Muslims. The fast is a form of self-discipline, a stepping away from the material world in order to follow an inner path that takes one closer to God.
Naturally, as soon as the sun sets, everyone rushes to break the fast, first with a light meal and later with a more elaborate dinner. In Soup Song, Patricia Solley has written fondly of harira and her memories of Ramadan in Casablanca. As she observes, the tradition of eating soup may have begun with Muhammad who ended his own daily fast with water, dates and barley broth. Harira takes broth to an altogether different level: “..it’s hugely refreshing and nutritious—a quick shot of thirst-slaking liquid with hunger-relieving solid nutrition that prepares the body and soul for the prayers that follow, before the proper evening meal is taken.”
There are many, many recipes for harira—but the basic formula is meat, usually lamb, simmered with lentils, tomatoes and other vegetables, temptingly perfumed with cinnamon and green herbs, thickened with flour and thin noodles, and enriched with beaten eggs. It is the proverbial meal in a pot and the wonder is that the version below can be prepared in not much more than an hour.
This especially delicious recipe for harira comes from Bahija, sous chef in charge of Moroccan cuisine at the Amanjena in Marrakesh. Amanjena is Morocco at its poshest—fountains strewn with rose petals, elegant hammams or steam baths, lectures on Islamic art–but one of its endearing qualities is that you can eat this homely soup every day of the year there. (There is one guest, I’ve been told, who orders it every night.)
Bahija’s slightly untraditional version is made with beef rather than lamb—either way it’s very good, so the choice is yours. She also uses refined tomato coulis instead of the usual chopped tomatoes–again, you can go either way. I‘ve added a little ginger, and as Patricia Solley suggests, a squeeze of lemon juice to the beaten egg, making the soup a bit spicier, with a touch of sourness to complement all those rich and hearty flavors.
Recipe: Harira or Lentil and Chickpea Soup with Cinnamon, Saffron and Coriander
(adapted from Bahija, sous chef at Amanjena resort in Marrakesh)
To serve 6
1/2 pound beef or lamb, cut in 1-inch dice
1/2 cup lentils
3/4 cup fresh tomato coulis (see below)
1 small bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped, about 1 cup
1 small bunch fresh coriander, chopped, about 1 cup
2 stalks celery, finely chopped, about 1 cup
1 large onion, finely chopped, about 1-1/2 cups
3-inch stick of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
A generous pinch of saffron threads
1 cup chickpeas, soaked in water overnight, or 1 cup canned chickpeas, drained
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
2 ounces angel hair pasta, broken into 2-inch pieces, about 1 cup
juice of 1/2 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
Harissa paste (see note)
1. Into a large pot, put the diced meat, lentils, tomato coulis, parsley, coriander, celery, onion, cinnamon, ginger and saffron. If you are using soaked chickpeas, add them now. Add 8 cups of water, stir and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the chickpeas are tender. (If you are using canned chickpeas, add them after the 30 minutes are up.)
2. Whisk the flour and 1 cup of water until smooth and add the mixture to the soup. Raise the heat to high and when the soup has just begun to boil, add the angel hair pasta.
3. Whisk the egg with the lemon juice and briskly stir the mixture into the soup. Reduce the heat so that the soup bubbles gently and allow it to cook partly covered for an additional 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
4. To serve: Ladle soup into individual bowls. If desired, sprinkle with a little chopped coriander and serve with lemon wedges and harissa paste.
Note: Harissa is a mildly spicy Moroccan paste made of red chili peppers, garlic and olive oil. Order Mustapha’s Harissa from www.chefshop.com or look for Le Cabanon brand in Middle Eastern grocery stores.
Recipe: Fresh Tomato Coulis
This is just a simple fresh tomato puree.
Makes 3/4 to 1 cup
4 medium plum tomatoes
1. With a sharp knife, cut an “X” at the bottom of each tomato.
2. Bring a pot of water to boil. Drop the tomatoes into the boiling water for 15 seconds. Drain and allow to cool slightly.
3. Core the tomatoes and peel off the skins. Cut them in half and squeeze out the juice and seeds into a bowl. Strain the juice and discard the seeds. Add the juice to the tomatoes.
4. In a blender, whirr the tomatoes until very smooth.