Moroccan Chicken M’qualli with Preserved Lemons and Olives is one of the most famous dishes in Moroccan cuisine, and this festive version with a silky onion sauce called daghmira is especially popular. The secret to making a proper daghmira is to reduce the onions patiently and slowly until they no longer are identifiable as onions. Once you achieve that consistency and add the preserved lemon and olives, you’ll understand why daghmira is so well-loved by all who taste it.
The dish follows a Moroccan cooking style known as m’qualli, which can be used to make both everyday and festive dishes which might be either savory, or savory with sweet toppings. Both have nearly the same set of spices and aromatics, with small variations depending on the type of m’qualli and the occasion.
How to Flavor an Everyday M’qualli
The seasoning for chicken with preserved lemon and olives falls into the everyday category, although the addition of the daghmira makes it festive. This type of m’qualli welcomes the addition of garlic, herbs, preserved lemon and green or purple olives. Depending on the dish, the quantity of onions might differ.
Primary Spices, Aromatics, Condiments and Other Specifications
Depending on family recipes, the balance of spices may vary but it revolves around the same primary set. The aromatics and condiments complement the dish so perfectly, and all the regional variations are equally good.
- Chicken liver: The liver is crushed in the daghmira to make a rich paste or just cooked in the sauce and becomes part of the garnishing. In either case, the liver is usually parboiled before being added.
- Spices: The spices used are the same as for any m’qualli—saffron, ginger, black and/or white pepper.
- Aromatics and condiments:
- Coriander or parsley, a little or a lot, chopped or/and as a bouquet,
- Preserved lemons, the finely chopped pulp may be added in the cooking sauce in the sauce and the rinds used to garnish or only the latter.
- Olives, added in the last minutes of cooking or only for topping.
- Fresh garlic: a few, grated or crushed.
Daghmira – The Thick Moroccan Onion Gravy with Marqa
This recipe is served with daghmira, a thick onion paste which is the result of long cooking and reduction of the chopped onions. Daghmira is a popular topping for a festive variation of chicken with preserved lemon and olives, as well as other festive meat or chicken m’qualli dishes which generally don’t include the addition of vegetables.
The recipe explains that there are two ways to go about making the daghmira—all of the onions can be cooked with the chicken from the beginning, or most of the onion can be reserved to cook separately when the chicken is done.
For best results, brine the chicken ahead of time and allow time for marinating. The day of cooking, allow ample time for reducing the onions for the daghmira. The recipe below is for stove top preparation of the chicken. For oven preparation, see Roasted Chicken M’qualli with Preserved Lemon and Olives.
Moroccan chicken m'qualli is a national favorite, especially when topped with the iconic onion sauce called daghmira. Enchanting spices along with fresh herbs, preserved lemons and olives pair nicely with the chicken and sauce. It all comes together in the end in a delightful way, making each step worth the wait.
This recipe is for a festive version with a good daghmira topping and garnished with preserved lemon rinds and purple or green olives. There are shortcuts to make a quick thick sauce but the best one is made as shown below.
Please take time to read through the entire recipe ahead of time as it explains different approaches for making the dahgmira.
- 1/4 cup olive and vegetable oil, mixed
- 3 medium-size onions (yellow, white or red varieties), finely chopped (see instruction in the daghmira section below)
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 2/3 tsp salt
- 2 garlic cloves crushed or grated
- 3 or 4 chicken livers (optional)
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1/2 preserved lemon, pulp only
- 1/4 cup purple or green olives finest quality
- 1 preserved lemon rind, pulp removed
Make the marinade: In a small glass, top the saffron threads with 1/4 cup of hot water and set aside for about 10 min. Stir in salt, turmeric, ginger pepper and smen.
Cut the chicken into pieces and transfer them a large bowl. Add the marinade, turning and rubbing each piece to coat it thoroughly. Cover and let it absorb the spices for a minimum of 1 hour or overnight.
Transfer the chicken and marinade to a deep cooking pot with a heavy bottom (or a tagine). Add the giblets, the finely chopped onions, garlic, and the rest of the spices. Top with 1/4 cup of water.
Bring to a simmer for 10 to 15 minutes over medium heat while tossing the meat a few times. You may cover the pot during this step and uncover it to stir.
When the water seems to have mostly evaporated and the meat has changed color from all sides, add the oil and enough hot water to cover 2/3 to 3/4 of the chicken.
Cover and let simmer until the chicken is cooked through and has become tender to the touch. The liquid should have mostly reduced by now. Regularly check the bottom of the pot to prevent any burning or stickiness.
If the chicken has cooked and you are still left with a good amount of liquid, remove the chicken, cover with foil or cling film, and leave on the side while you carry on with the rest of the recipe.
There are two ways depending on the type of onions used; this will define when to add most of them during the cooking process. Some onions are more watery then others and tend to melt in a short time; while cooking we hardly need to add water to the dish. Whichever way you go, 1 chopped onion is always cooked with the chicken from the beginning of the cooking.
Method I: Cook chicken and all onions at the same time, then fish out the chicken once it becomes tender. Reduce the sauce and keep stirring until you get a silky onion gravy.
Method II: Cook chicken with only 1 chopped onion; remove the cooked chicken then add the other 2 chopped onions and cook them in the sauce, When they become tender and cooked through, toss and break them with a spatula until you get a silky onion paste (the daghmira). It will start separating from the oil when ready.
Par-boil the chicken livers for 10 to 15 minutes and discard the scum. (You may optionally flavor the water with 1/2 tsp of each of the following: chopped garlic, ground pepper, salt, ginger.) Drain the livers, rinse and set aside.
Take some of the sauce and cook the livers separately for another 15 min. This is a good idea when you have a mixed table where some don't like them and others do. If you have no picky eaters around, just chuck them in the sauce after you cook the chicken and let them cook as the sauce reduces.
Again, you may choose to leave them in one piece. In this case, fish them out and put them on the side, covered as they may darken and dry out in contact with air. But you can also grate them or crush them into the daghmira for a thick and richer consistency.
In the cooking pot: The traditional way of making this dish requires sauteing or frying (rissoler is the French word that comes to mind) the cooked chicken in the oil that separates from the daghmira. We put the chicken back in the oil over medium heat and turn it until golden brown; the chicken remains moist inside. The word m'qualli takes its name from this method.
In the oven: In recent decades, some have moved to browning the chicken in the oven while we work on the daghmira. If you choose this option, just glaze it with some of the oil from the sauce and brown it for 20 minutes at 400 F/200 C, turning it a couple of times to brown it evenly. A whole chicken might take up to 30 min.
Traditionally, we start by pouring the marqa (sauce) onto the serving plate then we place the chicken then livers and giblets on top. We coat the top of the chicken with daghmira (the onion paste) and garnish with olives and the rinds of preserved lemon. If we choose to serve this dish with fries, we scatter them on top or arrange them around the chicken.
If you have used a tagine to cook, you just need to place it directly in the middle of the table as probably the order of chicken and daghmira would be the opposite (daghmira and sauce on the bottom and around while the chicken takes center stage).
Always serve this dish warm.
In some versions of this dish, some of these ingredients are added while cooking the chicken. One or all of them may be added. These quantities are for 1 chicken as mentioned in the recipe:
- About 4 tablespoons of chopped coriander and parsley.
- 1/4 preserved lemon is finely chopped or ground then added to the marinade for the chicken.
- 1 or 2 tablespoons of lemon juice are added to the sauce after cooking the chicken and while thickening daghmira. Beware that lemon and salt should be used wisely as they both add saltiness.
- About 1/4 cup of purple or green olives, pitted or not (we prefer not). If you buy them tinned, make sure you par-boil them in hot water for 10 min after water boils as they have more salt in them. As you cook the olives in the sauce, adjust the amount of salt accordingly.