Slow-cooked calves’ or lamb trotters with wheat berries and chickpeas is a traditional Moroccan dish known as El Hergma, Hargma or Fraqesh. It’s a national favorite that can be prepared all year, but many families tend to make it annually at the time of Eid al Adha when trotters are on hand after a home slaughter. As the feet from a single lamb aren’t an adequate quantity for the dish, extended families might pool their variety meat to make one large batch of hergma to eat together or divide to take home.
Other times of the year, calves’ feet or lamb feet can be acquired from a butcher, where the trotters are a cut of meat referred to as kour3ine. It includes the hoof and lowermost portion of the leg. Goat feet may also be used. The feet and lower leg have relatively little meat but the tendons, fat and connective tissue around the joints are flavorful thickeners for the sauce. The hooves are discarded.
Hergma is a dish that goes far back in time across the Maghreb. It’s regarded as a cousin to the centuries old Moroccan Sephardic dish called Dafina or Skhina (Cholent), which is prepared for Shabbat. Moroccan hergma usually includes chickpeas and wheat berries—more wheat can be substituted for the chickpeas and vice versa—but you will also find it prepared with white beans instead of chickpeas or with raisins, sultanas, or figs added for a sweeter, stickier version. Sometimes rice is used as a substitute for wheat berries, but in that case, raisins should not be added.
The best hergma is slow-cooked all day or overnight, preferably over charcoal. In Marrakesh this is traditionally done in ashes with a clay urn-shaped pot called a tanjia. Also in Marrakesh, hergma can be found in specialized eateries as an early morning breakfast. This isn’t unique to Morocco, though; trotters are considered breakfast fare in other countries as well.
Making Hergma at Home
Hergma makes our list of Moroccan street-food to try at least once, but preparing the dish at home is easy enough, providing you allow proper time for slow cooking. Although you can simmer conventionally the traditional way—you’ll need at least six hours for the chickpeas and trotters to come together nicely—pressure cookers are now used in modern homes to shorten the cooking time. The latter method requires overnight soaking of the chickpeas and a shorter soaking for wheat berries and raisins.
The basic spices for a standard hergma are ground ginger, ground pepper, sweet paprika, turmeric and saffron. The additions (depending on the type of hergma to be cooked) could be cumin, cinnamon, abd ras el hanout. Cilantro (coriander) and parsley are also optional and will be decided based on the topping accompanying the dish.
Although not mandatory, we highly recommend the use of a cheesecloth or a cooking bag to contain the wheat berries so they won’t go wandering in the sauce. You’ll also need a deep cooking pot with a heavy bottom such as a pressure cooker, a dutch oven or a deep clay pot.
Hergma is a dish that should always be served warm or hot. The sauce is especially thick and gelatinous so your fingers might get sticky, but that’s part of the charm, especially when eating by hand the traditional way, using pieces of khobz to scoop everything up. It’s highly advised that a hot tea is served right after the meal.
Even if you aren’t into trotters or other variety meat, you need to give the sauce and wheat a try! Two recipes for hergma follow.
Hergma is a traditional Moroccan dish of trotters, chickpeas and/or wheat berries. This classic variation includes the addition of raisins for a layer of sweetness.
Calf or lamb feet (kour3ine) are preferred, but goat may be used instead. The feet and lower leg have relatively little meat but the tendons, fat and connective tissue around the joints are flavorful thickeners for the sauce. It's that rich, sticky sauce which leads to hergma's reputation as a favorite comfort food among many Moroccans.
More wheat can be substituted for the chickpeas or vice-versa. A cheesecloth is recommended for wrapping the wheat. Remember to soak chickpeas overnight.
Note that the cooking time is for a pressure cooker. Conventional simmering requires all-day or overnight cooking.
- 2 calves' feet, cut into several pieces by the butcher (or 8 lamb feet, cut in half
- 3/4 cup dried chickpeas
- 1 1/2 cups wheat berries (wheat kernels)
- 1/4 cup dark golden raisins
- 2 large onions, chopped
- 1 large onion, sliced
- 6 to 8 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 2 or 3 small pieces of cinnamon stick or bark
- 4 tsp salt
- 3 tsp ground ginger
- 2 tsp black pepper
- 1 1/2 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp saffron threads, crumbled
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp smen, or to taste
- 1/2 cup olive oil
Ahead of time, place the chickpeas in a bowl and cover generously with cold water. Leave to soak overnight or for at least 8 hours.
When ready to cook, wash the trotters then make sure they're free of bone fragments and stray pieces of hair, which should already have been charred and scraped off. Wash again and drain. (Discard the hooves; they won't be used.)
Place the trotters in a pressure cooker or deep, heavy-bottomed pot. Add the onions, garlic, spices and oil.
Add enough water to just cover the ingredients, then bring the liquids to a simmer.
Cover and cook the trotters with medium pressure for 1 1/2 hours (or simmer over medium-low heat for 3 hours). After this time, interrupt the cooking to stir and taste for seasoning, adding more salt if desired.
Drain the chickpeas and them to the pot. Drain the wheat berries, tie them in a cheesecloth, and add them to the pot as well. (The cheesecloth is not mandatory but it makes for easy removal and nicer presentation of the wheat berries at serving time.)
Cover and cook with medium pressure for 2 1/2 hours (or simmer for 5 hours), until the wheat is tender. (You can open the cheesecloth to sample a kernel, then close and return the wrapped wheat to the pot.) During this time, keep an eye on the liquids, adding water if necessary to avoid burning the ingredients.
When the wheat is tender, drain the raisins and add them to the sauce. Cover and continue simmering without pressure until the liquids have reduced to a very thick sauce. Remove from the heat and serve warm.
To serve, arrange the trotters on a platter and the sauce, chickpeas and raisins all around. Spread the wheat berries over the trotters as a garnish.
- Hergma can be made in advance as it will keep in the fridge for several days and several months in the freezer.
- Consider freezing the hergma in small portions rather than as a single batch; this works well when everyone in the family doesn't enjoy it.
- Tradition is to gather round and eat communally from the serving platter, using pieces of bread for scooping everything up.
- Moroccans always prefer the flavor and texture of dried chickpeas over canned. However, if you do opt for canned, wait until the final stage of cooking to add them, allowing only enough time to heat them through and absorb some flavor from the sauce.
There are many variations to this dish but this is how I like it, simple, slow-cooked, not heavily spiced but most of all, I like to see that purse-looking (kemmoussa) cheesecloth hiding the cooked wheat just unraveling before my eyes before we spread it on top the hergma. It never fails to draw a smile on my face.
Slow-cooking method is best and especially on charcoal if at all possible. In my London kitchen, I use a dutch oven and place it in the oven for a couple of hours. It saves me from the hassle of a sticky bottom due to direct heat especially at the end of the cooking process when the sauce has reduced.
We prefer to use calf trotters rather than lamb; there is not much to eat in a lamb trotter whereas calf trotters are richer and highly glutinous.
- 3 lbs calf or sheep trotters, cut into 3 each and washed thoroughly preferably the ones form the front,
- 2 yellow onions, medium-size, finely chopped
- 2 to 3 cloves of garlic chopped
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp saffron threads
- 2 tbsp sweet paprika
- 1 tbsp ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp cayenne, optional
- 1 1/2 tss salt, to taste
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 6 oz chickpeas, pre-soaked overnight
- 6 oz wheat berries, pre-soaked for a couple of hours
Optional step: A few hours before cooking, soak the calf or sheep feet in cold water mixed with a tablespoon or salt and a tablespoon of vinegar. Rinse thoroughly before you add them to the cooking pot.
In the pressure cooker or a Dutch oven or deep pot, add 1/2 cup of water, the spices except for the cayenne and paprika, the garlic and the trotters. Stir and place over medium heat for 10 minutes.
Add enough water to cover the trotters, about 6 to 8 cups. Add the cayenne and paprika to the pot and stir. Put the lid on or lock the pressure cooker.
Cook on medium heat for about 1 hour (pressure cooker) or more if you are using a slow-cooking method (from 2 to 6 hours depending on the method of cooking). The trotters should be nearly cooked before you add the other ingredients. Trotters from young lamb and calf tend to cook faster. If this is the case, fish them out and keep them covered while you carry on with the other steps of the recipe.
Place the washed wheat germs in a cheesecloth and tie it up. Place it in the sauce along with the chickpeas. If the level of liquids is low, add enough water to cover the added ingredients.
Cover loosely and cook for another 30 min or until the chickpeas are tender and trotters are easily falling of the bones. The sauce should be thick and reduced.
Retrieve the cheesecloth with wheat berries. Open it and spread the mass out on a plate, using a fork to break up any lumps.
In a warm serving dish, place the trotters, followed by the chickpeas and the thick sauce. Top with the wheat berries.
Always serve the hergma warm. Should you have leftovers and want to reheat them, add a bit of water to loosen the sauce.
- Most of butchers sell the feet cleaned and hair-free. However, if you happen to have a gas cooker/stove, you can hover them over flames and rotate them to burn any left hair.
- Ask your butcher to cut the calf or sheep feet for you as a regular kitchen knife won't be of much help.