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In order to make certain Moroccan dishes that call for broken vermicelli or broken angel hair pasta—seffa and seffa medfouna are the most popular—you’ll need to steam the pasta several times. It’s not a difficult process, but you will need to allow at least two hours total to complete the various steaming steps. How long depends on how thick the pasta is, as well as how much water it absorbs in each step.
The Pasta – Chaariya
The pasta of choice for steaming is chaariya, a Moroccan term referring to broken vermicelli or broken angel hair pasta. Similar products are fine fideos noodles or cut spaghetti, although each will vary in thickness. In general, you want a fine or very thin pasta. If you can’t find the broken vermicelli or an equivalent (outside of Morocco you can look in Middle Eastern or halal markets), just break regular vermicelli, angel hair pasta or very thin spaghetti into small pieces.
The Equipment – A Couscoussier and Large Bowl
A couscoussier is traditionally used to steam the broken vermicelli. A large, good quality couscoussier is a practical investment for your kitchen as you can use it to steam couscous, chaariya, rice, meat, poultry and large quantities of vegetables. As an alternative, you can fit a large metal colander or universal steamer over a stockpot.
In either case, be sure that no steam escapes from the joint where the steamer inserts into the pot. If it does, seal the joint by draping a long piece of folded plastic wrap over the rim of the pot and nestle the steamer snugly on top. The plastic can be left in place throughout the various steaming steps and replaced only if necessary.
You’ll also want a very large mixing bowl or plastic basin for working with the vermicelli. The photos in this tutorial show the chaariya in a gsaa (or kesariya), a large, shallow ceramic dish used for both mixing and serving.
Steaming Broken Vermicelli
Steaming broken vermicelli is similar to steaming couscous except that the pasta usually requires more steaming sessions. With each steaming, the vermicelli will become progressively plumper and more tender. The tutorial suggests four or five steaming sessions, but some cooks use more or less, depending on their method and how much water the pasta absorbs in each step. The type and brand of pasta, as well as its thickness and starchiness, all play a role in determining how many steaming sessions are required.
Steaming is preferable to boiling because it allows the individual strands of pasta to cook without becoming soggy or wet. Done properly, the chaariya will be free of clumps and each strand will be light, spongy and not sticky.
To steam chaariya, follow the steps below, adjusting the quantity of oil and water according to how much pasta you use. The tutorial shows measures for 2 lbs. (or 1 kg) of broken vermicelli or angel hair pasta.
Step 1 – First Steaming – Add Oil to the Dry Pasta
Only oil is added to the dry chaariya for the first steaming. This step prevents the individual strands of pasta from sticking together.
- Fill the base of your couscoussier at least halfway with salted water and bring it to a simmer. Maintain a simmer over medium-low to medium heat.
- Lightly oil the steamer basket.
- Empty 2 lb. (about 1 kg) broken vermicelli into a large, wide mixing bowl. Add 3 to 4 tablespoons of vegetable oil. Toss and mix the pasta by hand until each strand of pasta has been coated with the oil. The pasta will look oily but that’s okay.
- Transfer the oiled pasta to the steamer. Handle the pasta lightly and do not pack it. Place the steamer on top of the pot and be sure no steam escapes from the joint. If it does, seal it by draping a long piece of plastic wrap over the rim of the pot.
- Steam the broken vermicelli for 20 minutes, timing from when you first see the steam rise from the vermicelli. By this time some of the strands of pasta will be poking up rather than resting horizontally.
Step 2 – Second Steaming – Add Water
For the second and subsequent steaming steps, water will “tossed” into the broken vermicelli before it’s returned to the steamer. This is done by hand in the same way that couscous is tossed.
- Transfer the steamed, oiled vermicelli back to your bowl and break it apart.
- Add about 1 1/4 cups (300 ml) water. Distribute it by lightly tossing and turning the pasta by hand; most if not all of the water should be absorbed by the noodles. Break up any clumps you find and do your best to make sure strands of pasta aren’t sticking together.
- Return the vermicelli to the steamer (again, no packing) and place over the simmering water. Be sure no steam escapes from the joint.
- Steam the vermicelli for 20 minutes, timing from when you see the steam appear above the noodles. Again look for the vermicelli to be poking upright.
Step 3 – Third Steaming – Add Salted Water
- Turn the steamed vermicelli out into your bowl and break it apart.
- Stir 2 teaspoons of salt into 2 cups (475 ml) of water. Add the salted water to the vermicelli, tossing and working with the pasta as in previous steps.
- Return the vermicelli to the steamer, place over the simmering water (seal the joint if necessary), and steam again for 20 minutes, timing from when the steam appears over the noodles.
Step 4 – Fourth Steaming – Add Water (or Milk) and Raisins (if using)
- Repeat the same tossing process as in the previous steps to incorporate 1 cup (236 ml) of water. (If making a sweet dish, you can use milk in place of water.)
- If your dish calls for steaming raisins with the chaariya, add them now. Toss the noodles to evenly distribute the raisins throughout the pasta.
- Steam the vermicelli again for 20 minutes, timing from when the steam appears over the vermicelli.
- Taste the steamed vermicelli. If it’s tender and to your liking, it’s ready to use in your recipe. If it still feels a bit too firm, move on to the next step.
Step 5 – Fifth Steaming (Optional, if needed)
Depending on the thickness of your noodles, a fifth steaming may be required. If the vermicelli is not tender after the fourth steaming, work in only as much water (or milk) as needed—up to another cup—and steam the noodles for another 20 minutes before serving or using in another dish.