Living in northern Africa taught me many valuable lessons. Among these is the taste of camel meat, the permutations of falafels, and the uniqueness of Moroccans with their distinct dialect of Arabic, and their cuisine. While we classify European cuisines separately — Spanish, French, Italian and German, for example — Moroccan cuisine is lumped into the Middle Eastern gastronomic category, which is really too broad to have meaning.
Moroccan dishes are centered on tagines and couscous, the slow foods of the country's first inhabitants, the Berbers. These dishes depend on intricate spice blends highlighted by anise, cinnamon, cumin, ginger, white and black pepper, saffron, sweet paprika and turmeric, together with chilies, preserved lemons, dried fruits, olives and meats.
It is this food, owner Hamza Seqqat, a native of Fes (Fez), serves at Ajbani Moroccan Cuisine, a small, recently-opened, take-out only shop in Plaza Midwood. Recipes are from his ancestral family files and Seqqat is happy to expound on his native cuisine. In fact, I heard the cashier explaining to the folks at the head of the line how the Turks [Ottoman Empire] never conquered Morocco and thus Moroccan cuisine did not have the same culinary influences as the majority of Middle Eastern foods.
Ajbani's dishes are served from a steam table since the business is geared towards quick-service takeout. Hopefully, with popularity and turn over, dishes won't sit in the steam table too long.
On a short roster, entrees are divided into couscous dishes and tagines, slow cooked stews. The lamb tagine is a hardy rendition of familiar fare with okra, carrots, and apricots tricked up with searingly spicy small peppers. The Berber-roasted chicken is thoroughly permeated with spices and paired with fluffy couscous and an olive and orange salad. Other specialties include briouats, Moroccan samosas. These are crispy Frisbee-light cylinders of either lamb or vegetables. And who doesn't like finger food?
On the accompaniment list is a vibrant chermoula — chimichurri's brother from another mother — an enlivening sauce for chicken and couscous (and great with fried sardines not offered here) consisting of cilantro, parsley, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and chili peppers. As with all sauces and spice blends in Morocco, there is no one recipe for chermoula or the ubiquitous Moroccan spice blend el ras hanout so don't quibble about "authenticity."
Home cooks, spice vendors and chefs put their spin on blends just as barbecue rubs vary in the QC. Also try their amlou, a thick paste made with ground almonds, honey,and expensive argan oil (the less refined version is used in hair products). Argan oil, often compared to hazelnut oil, is made from pressed kernels of the argan tree, a tree endemic to Morocco. Amlou is best with warm bread at breakfast or with mint tea.
Dessert is a bit of a letdown. The baklava is heavily doused with honey and rose water. I prefer — okay addicted — to the flavor texture taste combo of crisp buttery layers of Lebanese baklawa (yep — no "v" is Arabic). But this baklava is similar to Greek — so if you like that version, you'll love this.
Ajbani is not the first Moroccan restaurant in town, but Seqqat hopes to dish up bubbling potfuls of traditional food that is guilelessly faithful to ancient homespun Moroccan gastronomy. This may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.