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 seeds, mint leaves, lemon zest and pul biber.
2 large or 4 medium aubergines, cut lengthways into quarters
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp sweet smoked paprika
Half tsp chilli flakes
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 tsp unrefined golden sugar
6 fresh plum tomatoes, peeled, cores removed and roughly chopped
1-2 tbsp rose harissa
2 lemons, zested and juiced
Sea salt flakes and freshly ground mixed peppercorns
4-6 slices sourdough
Organic salad leaves
Pumpkin and sunflower seeds, to serve
Fresh mint leaves, picked and finely sliced, to serve
Pul biber, to serve
600g feta cheese, room temperature
240g light crème fraîche, room temperature
How I make it
Heat an oven to 220C and line a large baking tray with baking parchment.
Cut the aubergines in half lengthways, drizzle with olive oil and season generously. Roast until the flesh is soft and slightly charred, around for 20-30 minutes. Remove the tray from the oven and set aside to cool.
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. Then add the spices, the tomato purée and sugar. Stir around for a further minute until deliciously fragrant. Add the chopped tomatoes and 200ml of boiling water. Stir and, cover with a lid. Reduce the heat and leave it to gently blip away for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until the tomatoes have begun to break down.
Remove the skin from the cooled aubergines, roughly chop the flesh and add to the tomato mixture. Simmer – uncovered – for further 10 minutes until most of the liquid has evaporated.
Whilst that’s all going on, crumble the feta into a food processor and pulse for a few seconds. Add the crème fraîche and whip until super creamy and smooth. Transfer to a bowl and refrigerate.
Remove the bay leaf, stir in the harissa and lemon juice and set aside to cool. Check the seasoning, stir in half the lemon zest and chill.
When you’re ready to eat, toast the sourdough and spread with whipped feta. Place a few salad leaves on top and drizzle with olive oil. Then pile on a generous amount of zaalouk. Sprinkle over the pumpkin and sunflower seeds, mint leaves, the remaining lemon zest and pul biber.
Leftover zaalouk can be kept in a sealed container in the fridge for up to four days.