Moroccan cooking is underappreciated, in my estimation. While couscous and merguez have, to a certain extent, become pantry staples, and tagines are far from unknown to even the most novice foodies, the cuisine as a whole is underrepresented in North America.
I’ve taken an interest in Moroccan food for a long time – longer than I’ve been a dedicated cook, in fact – but I’ve never made a point of delving into it as deeply as I might like. Case in point, until recently, I had never made the dish often cited as the most famous one of the Maghrebi repertoire: bisteeya.
Bisteeya (which also goes by a plethora of alternative spellings, such as b’stilla, bastela, pasteeya, or pastila) is a luxurious dish that covers most of the common Moroccan themes, especially the nuanced spicing and sweet-savoury balance atypical of Western cooking. As with all great cuisines, certain dishes have many regional variations, and bisteeya is one of them. The version I made, from Paula Wolfert’s The Food of Morocco, is a traditional style from Fes, albeit with chicken substituted for the more expensive squab.
Cooking the bisteeya is not the hard part. There are three fillings: chicken, stewed with onion, herbs and spices, then shredded; eggs, beaten and drizzled into the chicken cooking liquid, then drained; and almonds, toasted, ground and mixed with cinnamon and sugar. The hard part is assembling the pie, an elaborate process of layering pastry and fillings in a traditional pattern, then sealing and baking it.
Once baked, as a way of gilding the lily, it is decorated with yet more icing sugar, cinnamon, and toasted almonds, then served immediately. (Or, if you’re taking it to a party like I was, baked, transported, reheated, then garnished and served.) I like to think it made a good first impression on the buffet table… and a great second impression in the mouth. I loved the way all the flavours and textures came together, and the pie managed to taste both exotic and exceedingly comforting at the same time. While the assembly is a not-insignificant amount of work, it’s decidedly worth it. This is deeply soulful food. It took me far too long to make my first bisteeya, but it won’t be very long at all until my second.