Dusk falls and the Jemaa el Fna – place of the vanished mosque – in the heart of the ancient walled médina is transformed into a seething mass of tribesmen, Berber villagers, performers and musicians who converge upon Morocco’s ochre-tinted city every evening to tell stories, juggle, bang drums in a trance-like state of bliss, dance, charm snakes, make henna tattoos and then tell fortunes from the lines on your hand – a handsome stranger, money from unexpected sources and a long life are all on offer here. Men roll out carpet after carpet with the flourish of magicians as their women whip exotic fabrics around your shoulders begging you to buy with their imploring eyes and toothless smiles. It is a dance of colour and sound like no other. We buy orange juice freshly squeezed from smiling boys and whirl our way through the frenzied crowds spilling most of it on the warm ground. Hot, dusty, overwhelmed and joyful. Towering over us is the magnificent minaret of Mosque Koutoubia – considered to be the loveliest Islamic monument in all of North Africa – from which the mesmerising call to prayer echoes around the buildings as, finally, the food vendors construct their rickety stalls, light their fires and prepare hundreds upon hundreds of dishes that release their tantalisingly spiced aromas into the warm night air. I buy a bowl of zaalouk, a sumptuous Moroccan salade of cooked aubergines, tomatoes and aromats that sets my mouth – and my mind – on fire. For lunch yesterday, I quietly recreated it and piled on top of a slice of toasted sourdough liberally spread with tangy whipped feta, organic salad leaves drizzled with Kalamata olive oil and garnished it with crunchy pumpkin seeds, mint leaves, lemon zest and pul biber.
2 large aubergines
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
4 very fresh plum tomatoes 4, roughly chopped
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp sweet paprika
Half tsp chilli flakes
1 bay leaf
Half tsp unrefined golden sugar
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1 tbsp rose harissa
Sea salt flakes and freshly ground mixed peppercorns
x4 slices of sourdough
Organic salad leaves
Pumpkin seeds, to garnish
Fresh mint leaves, picked and finely sliced, to garnish
Pul biber, to garnish
200g feta cheese, room temperature
80g light crème fraîche, room temperature
How I make it
Steam the whole aubergines in a colander over a pan of simmering water for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Then halve them, scoop out the flesh and roughly chop it.
Meanwhile, place a large frying pan over a medium heat and add three tablespoons of olive oil. Add the garlic and stir it around for a minute.
Add the tomatoes, tomato purée, cumin, paprika, chilli flakes, bay leaf, sugar and 100ml of boiling water water, Mix well, cover, reduce the heat to low and leave it to gently blip away for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have begun to break down.
Add the chopped aubergines, cover and simmer for another 10 minutes.
Whilst that’s happening, crumble the feta into a food processor and pulse for a few seconds. Add the crème fraîche and purée until the feta is super creamy and smooth. Transfer to a bowl and refrigerate.
Stir the harissa and the lemon juice into the zaalouk mixture. Check the seasoning and set aside to cool.
When you’re ready to eat, toast the sourdough and spread the slices with the whipped feta. Place a few salad leaves on top and drizzle with olive oil. Then pile on a generous amount of zaalouk before garnishing with the pumpkin seeds, mint leaves, the lemon zest and pul biber.
Leftover zaalouk can be kept in a sealed container in the fridge for up to four days – it makes a great relish for burgers or try it topped with griddled halloumi.