One of the Moroccan dishes which I consider most notable is rfissa, a trid-like feast of chicken, lentils and heavily-seasoned broth over shredded bread. Although rarely as elegantly presented as shown here, a huge platter of rfissa is nonetheless impressive and appetizing, and its phenomenal blend of flavors make it a favorite among Moroccans and others who are fortunate enough to be introduced to it.
I first sampled and fell in love with rfissa shortly after giving birth to my first daughter, as it’s long been Moroccan tradition to serve rfissa at that time. That is likely due to fenugreek (helba) being a key ingredient, an herb which is well known to be beneficial to nursing mothers. Rfissa is also commonly served as a special occasion meal, when entertaining, or simply as a family dinner that helps redefine comfort food.
This version of rfissa, shared by Jameela Khiyati, is a specialty of her native Meknes, where it’s known locally as bormache. It sets itself apart with seasoning that includes lots of garlic, several dried herbs – wild oregano (za’atar), pennyroyal (fliou) and a mint (merseta) – as well as additions of cayenne pepper and tomatoes. The standard fenugreek, saffron, ginger and ras el hanout will be more familiar while lentils are optional.
Bormache and other rfissa variations are most often served atop a bed of shredded msemen or trid, a type of pastry-like crepe. Sometimes it’s served over crumbled harcha, a semolina skillet bread which is similar in texture to cornbread. In a pinch, you could also serve it over shredded stale bread or shredded store-bought flat bread.
The prep time below does not include the time involved for making the bed of msemen. In Morocco, we can buy msemen or trid pastry already shredded for this purpose, but many cooks still prefer to make their own. This task can be done while the chicken is cooking, but I recommend making it ahead of time, shredding it while warm, then freezing until needed.
Marinating the chicken a few hours or overnight is optional but recommended. Use a free range chicken (djaj beldi) for best results. It takes longer to cook and is a bit more gamey, and therefore is better suited to this dish. If you do use a regular chicken, note that it must be removed from the pot when cooked to avoid having it fall apart while the stew finishes.
Bormache is a regional variation of rfissa, a Moroccan chicken, lentil and fenugreek stew which is served over shredded pastry or bread. The recipe here is shared by Jameela Khiyat, who learned the dish in her native city of Meknes.
- 1 whole chicken, preferably free range (2 kg / 4.5 lbs.)
- 1 lb. onions, thinly sliced
- 3 tablespoons ras el hanout
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
- 1 tablespoon ginger
- 1 tablespoon turmeric
- 2 teaspoons salt or to taste
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste (optional)
- 1 teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 2 tomatoes, peeled
- 1 head of garlic, peeled (See Notes)
- 1 handful fresh parsley
- 1 handful fresh cilantro
- 2 teaspoons dried za'atar (thyme or oregano)
- 2 teaspoons dried fliou (pennyroyal)
- 2 teaspoons dried merseta (mint)
- 2 to 3 tablespoons fenugreek seeds (See Notes)
- 1 tomato, peeled and left whole
- 1/4 cup lentils, picked through and rinsed (optional)
- 1 teaspoon smen (optional)
- 1 1/2 batches msemen, shredded (or 2 lbs. shredded, stale bread)
- 1/2 cup fried almonds coarsely ground, for garnish (optional)
- 12 to 15 dates for garnish (optional)
- 4 to 6 hard-boiled eggs for garnish (optional)
In a large pot or in the base of a couscoussier, combine the chicken, onions, spices and oil. If time allows, cover and leave to marinate in the fridge several hours or overnight.
When ready to cook, place the pot over medium heat and cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, turning the chicken several times to brown on all sides.
Use a blender or food processor to combine the two peeled tomatoes, garlic, parsley, cilantro, and dried herbs. Add the blended mixture to the pot.
Also add the fenugreek, the whole peeled tomato, and 1 liter (4.5 cups) water. Bring to a boil over high heat then reduce the heat a bit and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, for about an hour.
If you are using a free range chicken, it will not be fully cooked at this point and should stay in the pot. If you are using a regular, factory-raised chicken, it will be cooked and should be removed from the pot; set it aside, cover with foil and plan to return it to the pot for reheating at serving time.
Add the lentils and continue cooking for about another hour, or until the free range chicken and lentils are very tender. Add water as necessary to be sure that there is ample, rich broth in the pot.
When the chicken and lentils are fully cooked, taste the broth and adjust seasoning. Add the teaspoon of smen and blend it into the broth. (If you had removed the chicken from the pot, return it to the pot to heat through.)
When ready to serve, place the shredded msemen in a steamer basket over the simmering chicken (or over a separate pot of simmering water). Steam for several minutes or until the msemen is tender and heated through.
If you like, you can brown the chicken under the broiler for a few minutes to color and crisp the skin.
Spread the steamed, shredded msemen on a large serving platter. Top with the chicken, lentils, onions and ample broth. Garnish as desired with chopped fried almonds, dates and hard boiled eggs.
Serve as a communal dish with each person eating from his own side of the platter. Additional broth is typically offered on the side.
- A note about fenugreek: Although not a must, I like to soak fenugreek overnight which reduces pungency and contributes to softer cooked texture. Other options for adding the flavor of fenugreek without having to bite into the seeds is to either 1) simmer the fenugreek separately for 30 minutes, then add only the liquid infusion to the rfissa; or 2) tie the fenugreek in cheesecloth before adding it to the rfissa; the flavor will infuse into the broth and the fenugreek seeds can easily be retrieved to offer on the side.
- A note about garlic: Instead of processing the garlic as described in the directions, you may leave the head of garlic intact (do remove the papery skin) and offer the cooked garlic on the side as shown in the photo.
- A note about lentils: Soaking the lentils in cold water for a few hours will help reduce their cooking time.