Offal is not regarded as bizarre food in Morocco, where the brain is one of the highly prized organs of a slaughtered animal. Just as the French say, “Tout est bon dans le cochon (everything is good in a pig),” Moroccans say, ” Tout est bon dans l’agneau et le veau (everything is good in a sheep and calf).”
One of the most popular times to serve brains is during the Feast of the Sacrifice (Eid al Adha), when the traditional Moroccan dish of El Mokh Mchermel is likely to be prepared. This dish of marinated brains in chermoula can be cooked with or without tomato sauce. In both cases, the recipe starts the same way. The recipe here is for the tomato sauce version.
Many Moroccan families serve mokh mchermel as one of the side dishes at lunch on the first day of eid. In Fez, however, the dish might also be served at family gatherings, so we do not necessarily wait for eid to enjoy it.
This dish relies on a good marinade with vinegar (not lemon) as an important ingredient. As with other Moroccan recipes for offal, the vinegar adds an acidic note and is also believed to help digest organ meat.
Moroccan Lamb or Calf Brain in Chermoula - El Mokh Mchermel
- 2 sheep brains (or 1 calf brain)
- 1 tsp salt
For the sauce
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and grated
- 3 tbsp fresh cilantro, finely chopped
- 1/2 tsp salt, or to taste
- 1 tsp sweet paprika
- 1/2 tsp ground cumin
- 1/8 tsp cayenne, or to taste
- 2 to 4 medium-sized tomatoes, seeded, peeled and pulp grated or finely chopped
- 1 tbsp tomato paste (optional)
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 cup water
- 1 tbsp white vinegar
Preparing the Brain
- Cover the brains with boiling water mixed with salt for a couple of minutes then drain and pat dry. Unlike sheep's brain, the veal or calf brain needs the outer transparent membrane delicately peeled off. This hot bath will make this step easy.
- Discard any coagulated bits of blood as well as large veins. Rinse thoroughly.
- Cut each sheep brain into 4 pieces (or cut a calf brain into 6 pieces).
Marinating the Brain (optional)
- Marinating the brain is optional. If you have time to allow for this step, mix half of the herbs and spices with a few tablespoons of water. Delicately coat the brain pieces with the marinade. Cover with plastic and place in the fridge from 1 to 12 hours.
Cooking the Brain
- In a pot or tagine over medium-low heat, add the water, tomatoes, tomato paste, oil, spices and garlic. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Add the cilantro and pieces of brain to the sauce; stir delicately to ensure all sides have made contact with the sauce. Add a bit of water if you notice there isn't enough liquid to cover the brain.
- Cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes over medium heat; the sauce should have reduced and thickened by then.
- Add the vinegar just a few minutes before you turn off the heat. You may also add a bit of mild red harissa to the sauce while its cooking.
- Usually the brain is served with a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil but the recipe here can be served as-is for a lighter version. Add olive oil at your discretion.
- To enjoy this side dish at its best, serve it room temperature or cold although some also serve it warm. The brain absorbs even more flavors from the sauce once cooled.
- The sheep or calf brain is better served the same day or within 48 hours.
- The quantity of tomatoes listed in the recipe depends on how you want your sauce. Using more tomatoes for a richer sauce is perfectly in line with the traditional recipe. However, you need to adjust the seasoning accordingly.
- Replacing freshly grated or chopped tomato pulp with good tinned plum tomatoes is perfectly acceptable though some brands do require the addition of a pinch of sugar to adjust their acidity.
- You can crack some eggs on top and poach them in the sauce or scramble them just before serving. It would make a good main dish in this case and it goes really well served with Moroccan bread or baguette and a good mint tea.