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Magic of Moroccan cuisine

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Moroccan Beecken and chicken wrap. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF LOUBNA PIEGA

Halal — food prepared according to Islamic laws — need not be boring. Moroccan-born culinary artist-entrepreneur Loubna Piega has proven that with her native cuisine.

We enjoy her chicken with preserved lemon, simmered for several hours to bring out the flavors. This tasty dish packs a lot of flavors from the tarty home-made preserved lemons, an exotic blend of spices and the thick consistency of the onions with saffron and ginger and a kick of saltiness from the olives.

For nearly two decades, she has been a proponent of Moroccan cuisine, a melding of Arabic, Moroccan, Moorish, French, Spanish, African, Arabs and Sephardic Jewish cultures. The dishes are cooked in tagines, hand-made shallow earthenware pots. They are flavored with her choice spices, homemade preserved lemons, cilantro, harissa paste and, for desserts, honey and rose water and dried fruits and almond nuts.

The Moroccan lady was general manager for Federal Express in Casablanca, Morocco and worked in The bank commercial du Maroc BCM, one of the biggest banks in the kingdom. Twenty years ago, she moved to the Philippines with her Filipino husband, Eduardo Piega, now a retiree from the garment industry.

Back then, Filipinos couldn’t tell the difference between Middle Eastern cuisines from Moroccan. “Middle Eastern cuisine is Arab in influence. Our cuisine is a refinement of the melding of cultures which produces a sweet-savory flavor profile. The cooking techniques are different,” she says, a halal-certified cook who uses only the best ingredients.

Cooking has always been in her DNA. Initially her dishes catered to people who want halal-certified foods. Halal (“lawful” in Arabic) refers to food products and ingredients prescribed in the Qu’ran, the Muslim scripture. When she put up her stall in the Saturday Market in Salcedo and the Legazpi Sunday Market, her food has since been a sell-out. More people are open to international cuisines.

Loubna offers traditional dishes presented in tagines to preserve their freshness, and she still execute each dish the way her ancestors used to from timing to techniques and spice and ingredient selection.

The “beeken” wrap is a mixture of halal-certified beef and chicken marinated overnight in her signature blend of spices served with fresh greens, tomatoes, cheese and own garlic sauce.

An heirloom recipe, the homemade wrap, called m’semen, is made from whole wheat, salt and yeast. The chicken wrap uses marinated breast. She notes that the m’semen is not to be compared with the Indian chapatti which is an unleavened flatbread. The Moroccan wrap is softer and chewier. A vegetarian m’semen tastes like a savory crepe with shredded carrots, onions, clilantro and black olives folded into the dough.

Loubna’s pita bread, the batbout, is unlike the commercial version. “Moroccan pita is fluffier, softer and healthier with whole wheat. It puffs up with a pocket. Nothing can beat the homemade, actually,” she says.

The Moroccan pita makes for mini sandwiches such as chicken and the vegetarian variety with potato patty and greens and tomatoes.

One of the most popular dishes is the Moroccan ratatouille. Like the French stew, it is made of classic eggplants, zucchini, carrots, potatoes and tomato sauce. While the French version is delicate with herbes de Provence, the Moroccan stew is laced with cumin, cilantro and a host of other spices. “The stewing uses a different technique,” says Loubna.

Tagine de kefta is a Moroccan comfort food of pure beef meatballs, cooked in a tangy and spicy tomato base with kalamata olives, paprika and extra virgin olive oil. “It’s dancing in flavors,” she says.

Beef tagine with caramelized prunes apricot and figs sprinkled with toasted almonds.

The Mrouzia Tagine honey-glazed beef is stewed for seven hours for that melt-in-the mouth goodness. “There’s neither bone nor fat,” she says.  The saffron, aged butter and olive oil lend the rich taste. The almonds on top add the crunch.

The fish fillet ala Marocaine sits on a bed of fluffy pilaf. The turmeric, vegetables and olive oil make the pilaf very colorful.

Then there’s the chicken with caramelized onion over couscous, brightened by saffron.

Regular customers ask for the tasty dips which are kept in coolers.

Moroccans end the meal with mint tea and two popular desserts — briouat, cylinders of peanuts and coated with almonds and rosewater and the phyllo pastry triangles with pure almonds, rosewater and honey.

The secret of Loubna’s cooking is the devotion that goes into the cooking. “I don’t make shortcuts,” she says.

While most people have been struggling for jobs since March, Loubna counts herself as lucky. “Since ECQ, we never had a day of rest. The kitchen was in full gear. We have been blessed by Allah.” Call 09178093402; e-mail [email protected]

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