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M’hammar in Moroccan Cooking

Moroccan chicken m'hammar topped with onion sauce, preserved lemons, purple olive and fried potatoes
A version of Moroccan chicken m'hammar. Photo: Nada Kiffa | Taste of Maroc.

M’hammar is a traditional Moroccan cooking style which gives meat or poultry a deep mahogany color. The accompanying sauce also has a reddish hue.

M’hammar, mhammar or hammer (Fr: roussi, Ar: مْحَمّر) is one of the cooking styles that codify Moroccan cuisine. It’s a slow-cooking method with two different cooking stages—stovetop in a pot followed by roasting or frying—and it always has a savory flavor profile.

In its classic form, a m’hammar dish is rather heavy due to the amount of smen (or butter) and oil used to cook it. And, if preparing chicken this way (djaj m’hammar), the skin is normally left intact, so that will add to the “heaviness” as well. We do have a a modern way to roast poultry with the skin removed, which can help reduce fat and calories. This light version is not as good as the traditional but it’s a close second.

Although practices might differ from one area to another, this article will explain what Moroccan m’hammar is all about.

What is M’hammar?

The name m’hammar comes from ah’mar, which is the color red in Arabic. (Do not confuse this word with h’maar, which means donkey.) In traditional m’hammar recipes, we are looking for a mahogany-red color to meat or poultry which is achieved with the following two-step process:

  • We use paprika in a marinade to give a first layer to the red hue; the meat then cooks according to the recipe with a predefined mix of spices.
  • We fish the meat out of the sauce and oven-roast it, fry it or roast it rotisserie style over charcoal; this gives the second layer of the red hue.

M’hammar or M’qualli?

It is worth mentioning that the cooking styles of m’hammar and m’qualli are commonly confused, especially among the young generation of cooks or foreign amateurs of Moroccan cooking. There are a few reasons for that, but mostly it’s due to the proliferation of blogs and YouTube channels showcasing home Moroccan cooking where we see a loss of old traditions and the rise of new ones.

You can actually cook a bird m’qualli style, fish it out of the sauce, then roast it for about 20 minutes from all sides while you reduce the sauce to desired thickness. Although the chicken is finished by roasting, the dish will still be m’qualli and not m’hammar as some call it. The general use of the term m’hammar for any type of roasted chicken can be misleading, because a classic chicken m’hammar will be made as described here.

In definition, the major difference between a m’hammar and a m’qualli remains in the use of paprika, which may be paired with harissa or chili cayenne for a kick, and the amount of smen. In Fez, m’hammar is decorated with almonds while m’qualli welcomes the use of preserved lemon and olives whether in the cooking or as garnishing.

Before, the rules were very strict but now these frontiers are becoming blurry. Recipes get exchanged  and adapted and regional differences that used to make a rich palette in Moroccan cooking are either merging or slightly fading away.

How to Make M’hammar

M’hammar is most likely to be served at special events and gatherings due to the time involved in making this traditional dish. As example, m’hammar with lamb is widely associated with Eid al Adha; in Fez it’s one of the main recipes made during this festive season.

Meanwhile, m’hammar of chicken has always been part of wedding celebration menus and is usually served just after pigeon bastilla. Such dishes are usually left to the capable hands of tabbakhates, professional cooks who specialize in traditional Moroccan food. Their reputations must be impeccable when it comes to cooking, and many were former dadas or inherited dadas’ recipes.

M’hammar is easy but lengthy to prepare.

  1. In the case of chicken, brining is the first step. Lamb doesn’t need it.
  2. Next comes the marinating stage, when we should allow at least a few hours for the meat or chicken to infuse with spices.
  3. The first stage of cooking follows, preferably a day ahead of serving, to allow the meat another chance to absorb the spices.
  4. The last cooking step of roasting or frying is done just before serving at a late lunch or late dinner.

Types of M’hammar

In Sephardic cooking, m’hammar refers to a thick fritatta or tortilla with vegetables called meguina. It looks like a savory cake dotted with chopped vegetables. Although it looks easy to make, it requires a skillful cook to get it right. This recipe stands out from typical Moroccan usage of the term m’hammar.

Apart from this exception, m’hammar dishes across Morocco will call for meat or chicken and come in the following variations:

  • A regional m’hammar or am’hammar that does not call for onions. It calls for a generous amount of olive oil which will be used to start the dish and in the end to “fry” it (a bit like the other versions). Chili, paprika, ginger and garlic are the main spices used.
  • A rather interesting m’hammar brings the Muslim and Sephardic versions together as the chicken cooks in a tagine rather than in a deep cooking pot. The spices used are cumin, paprika and garlic. After the chicken has cooked to a dark amber color in a generous amount of smen and olive oil, the cook finishes the dish by cracking a few high quality free range “beldi” eggs on top. Preserved lemons may be served as condiments on the side; guests use them to complement the dish at their discretion.
  • Rbatis (people from Rabat) call m’hammar dishes “tagines with paprika” and they have a whole category of their own.
  • Some m’hammar dishes will only have fried potatoes served on top or on the side, although the general rule is to have no vegetables at all. The absence of vegetables is the reason why these dishes are served with a variety of raw and cooked salads.
  • The Fassi m’hammar follows a strict recipe and it is usually topped with fried almonds and hard boiled eggs before serving.

Whichever recipe of m’hammar you have on hand, give it time and love when making it. It is one of the most unforgettable ways of serving a lamb or a chicken and it may become your show-stopper. I serve it as Sunday roast every now and then and it never fails to impress.

Nada Kiffa

Nada Kiffa is partner and Editor at Taste of Maroc. A native of Casablanca with strong Fassi roots, she writes extensively on Moroccan and international cuisine at Fleur d'Oranger, Masala & Co.

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