Saffron, Cinnamon, Satisfaction – Dining at El Bahia

Saffron, Cinnamon, Satisfaction – Dining at El Bahia

Exploring the Rich Flavors of Moroccan Cuisine in the Heart of New York City

As I step through the ornate entryway of El Bahia, a Moroccan restaurant nestled in the bustling streets of New York City, I’m immediately transported to the vibrant souks and fragrant spice markets of Marrakech. The warm, earthy tones of the decor and the intricate tile work evoke the opulent riads I had the pleasure of visiting during my culinary adventure in Morocco.

Discovering the Art of Moroccan Cooking

My journey into the world of Moroccan cuisine began in the courtyard of a riad near the Bahia Palace, where I joined a group of ten eager food enthusiasts from around the globe. There, we had the privilege of learning from Chef Laila, a Moroccan culinary maestro with over three decades of experience. As we stood around the long table, Chef Laila began to share the secrets of her craft, guiding us through the preparation of classic Moroccan dishes.

I watched in fascination as Chef Laila skillfully cleaned the raw chicken, scrubbing the meat with a handful of coarse salt, an age-old technique she explained removes any impurities. “In Marrakech,” she said, “each cut of meat bears the stamp of its butcher, a sign of quality you should look for when shopping.”

Mastering the Art of Briouat

Next, we turned our attention to the delicate art of making briouat, a Moroccan pastry that is as much a culinary delight as it is a visual masterpiece. Chef Laila demonstrated the intricate process of working with the paper-thin warqa dough, carefully folding and shaping the pastry around a flavorful vegetable filling. As I attempted to replicate her technique, I quickly realized that the dexterity required was no easy feat. Laughter echoed around the table as we each struggled to produce the perfectly crisp, tightly-sealed triangles that Chef Laila effortlessly created.

Despite our clumsy attempts, the end result was nothing short of delicious. The layered dough offered a satisfying crunch, while the tender, spice-infused vegetable filling had my taste buds dancing with delight. I couldn’t help but reach for a second, and then a third, briouat, savoring every bite.

Simmering Tagines and the Umami Treasure of Preserved Lemons

As the briouat baked to golden perfection, our attention turned to the simmering tagines on the stove. Chef Laila had prepared two Moroccan classics – a chicken tagine with fragrant herbs, briny olives, and the umami-rich preserved lemons, and a lamb tagine seasoned with the complex blend of ras el hanout spices and tart, plump prunes.

I read that lemons should be preserved for a maximum of six months, but these brown, gooey specimens had been curing for a staggering three years. As I took my first bite of the chicken tagine, the flavors exploded on my palate – the tender meat, the tangy preserved lemon, and the briny olives creating a symphony of taste that I couldn’t get enough of.

But it was the lamb tagine that truly captivated me. The lamb, so soft and succulent that it seemed to melt on my tongue, was perfectly complemented by the sweet spices and the sticky, syrupy prunes. I found myself hungrily sopping up every last drop of the luscious sauce with the fluffy bread, unwilling to let a single morsel go to waste.

Chebakia: A Floral Feast for the Senses

As if the savory tagines weren’t enough, we were treated to a delightful Moroccan dessert – chebakia. These delicate pastries, made from a dough of toasted and ground sesame seeds, flour, and a touch of yeast, were seasoned with cinnamon, turmeric, and saffron, then folded into the shape of a rose and deep-fried until golden brown.

Once the chebakia were sizzling hot, they were transferred to a pot of honey, allowing the sweet, fragrant liquid to soak into the dough. The result was a sticky, crunchy confection with a wonderful floral essence from the orange blossom water. I savored each bite, marveling at the complex interplay of textures and flavors.

As we gathered around the table for a final group photo with Chefs Laila and Yassine, I felt a sense of connection and appreciation for the vibrant Moroccan culture that had been so generously shared with us. The cooking class had allowed us to step beyond the tourist’s gaze and immerse ourselves in the heart of Marrakech, and I knew that this experience would forever shape my understanding and love for Moroccan cuisine.

Bringing the Flavors of Morocco to New York City

As I step back into the streets of New York City and make my way to El Bahia, I’m filled with a renewed appreciation for the culinary heritage that this restaurant seeks to preserve and share. El Bahia is a testament to the power of food to transcend borders and bring people together, offering a taste of Morocco’s rich gastronomic traditions in the heart of one of the world’s most diverse and vibrant cities.

The menu at El Bahia is a captivating journey through the spice-laden landscapes of North Africa, with each dish a carefully crafted masterpiece. From the fragrant chicken tagine, with its tender meat and tangy preserved lemons, to the succulent lamb tagine, bursting with the warm embrace of ras el hanout and the sweetness of plump prunes, every bite is a revelation.

And of course, no visit to El Bahia is complete without indulging in the delicate, honey-drenched chebakia, a pastry that pays homage to the country’s rich culinary traditions. As I savor the crunch and the floral notes, I’m transported back to that magical afternoon in Marrakech, surrounded by new friends and the infectious energy of Chef Laila’s kitchen.

Whether you’re a seasoned Moroccan cuisine enthusiast or a curious foodie looking to embark on a flavorful adventure, El Bahia is a must-visit destination. Here, the vibrant sights, sounds, and aromas of Morocco come alive, offering a dining experience that is as much a feast for the senses as it is for the soul. So, let’s raise a glass to saffron, cinnamon, and the pure satisfaction that comes with indulging in the rich tapestry of Moroccan culinary delights.

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