My sister Aida and I spent Saturday evening enjoying the cuisine of Loubna Benfraiha Piega.
She is Moroccan, born in Casablanca and lived there for 25 years until she met Filipino Eduardo Piega. The couple married in 2001 and immediately moved to the Philippines.
Loubna started cooking at age 12. “In Morocco,” she says, “young girls are expected to perform well in the kitchen by the age of 18. By then, I had to shoulder the full responsibility of running our kitchen since I was the eldest.”
Gladly it was not such a difficult task as she had a mother (Touriya Chami Benfraiha) and grandmother (Aisha Chami), both excellent home cooks, to guide her. It is that style of home cooking that Loubna aims to capture—from the tools, to the spices, to the timing of cooking each dish.
“Moroccan cuisine is one of the best in the world,” she says, adding that it’s a combination of different cultures—Moors, Arab, Jewish, African, Spanish and French, the flavors enhanced by fragrant spices such as saffron, cinnamon, ginger.
For best results it requires the use of olive oil, olives and preserved lemons. (Loubna makes her own preserved lemons.) Walnuts, almonds, dates, apricots and prunes are also added.
A typical Moroccan meal, she says, consists of salads for starters; the main dish, usually meat buried under vegetables, is cooked in an earthenware pot called tagine.
A meal would not be complete without freshly baked bread.
Fresh fruits in season, or almond honey pastries with a good cup of mint, end the meal.
For us, Loubna prepared chicken saffron tagine, a celebratory dish served at weddings and special occasions.
It was perfumed with saffron, spices, with hints of citrus from the preserved lemons, Kalamata olives, and generously drizzled with olive oil.
The tagine was slow-cooked, until the chicken meat almost fell off the bones.
The couscous was steamed above the stew made of either chicken, beef or lamb. Loubna opted for chicken that she topped with caramelized onions and sultanas. I love couscous, so this was a treat!
Tagine de kefta, an everyday comfort food of beef meatballs cooked in a tangy, slightly spicy tomato base with virgin olive oil and olives, with fresh eggs on top. It was served with batbout, a Moroccan pita-like bread.
B’stilla is an 18-inch phyllo pie filled with a choice of pigeon meat or chicken, almond and eggs. It served as an entree or a snack.
Mroozia, tender beef glazed in honey with almonds and sultanas, was served with saffron rice.
Almond Briwat (delicate phyllo pastry with almond paste, rose water and honey), paired with mint tea with a bouquet of fresh aromatics, capped the meal.
When Loubna first came to Manila, her dream was to bring a taste of Morocco to the Philippines. I believe she has done it in her own special way.
She shared a recipe of her chicken, potatoes and olives cooked slowly over coal, as a tribute to the Berbers or Moroccan natives who lived around the Atlas Mountains and cooked their daily meals in tagines.
Chicken Atlas Tagine
(Good for six people)
1 whole free-range chicken, cut in 8 pieces
4 medium potatoes cut into quarters
1 red onion big, chopped
2 tomatoes, chopped
½ c coriander fresh chopped
½ c Kalamata olives with seeds
½ preserved lemon skin only
3 tbsp good quality olive oil
1 tsp of turmeric
Sea salt and pepper to taste.
Heat your tagine on low fire. Add olive oil.
Add chopped onions and sauté till golden. Add tomatoes.
After 5 minutes, add chicken.
At this point you can season the tagine with salt and pepper.
Add turmeric and a cup of water and let the mixture cook slowly over low fire.
Once the chicken is halfway done, add the potatoes, arranging it clockwise. Put the Kalamata olives over the potatoes. Add the preserved lemon and coriander leaves.
Add a little water if the mixture has dried up. (But Moroccan tagine shouldn’t be too watery.)
When the potatoes are tender, serve with a good crusty bread.
Loubna also sells beautifully handmade table and tagine ware, serving dishes, ottomans, bags, baboush (traditional slippers), Argan oil, kaftans—all from Morocco.