Moroccan m’qualli-style dishes that are served with sweet toppings or stewed fruits are prepared according to a precise codification. This codification includes a set of aromatics and even the type of meat to use in order to make the best pairing.
A great number of dishes in Moroccan cooking falls under the m’qualli category. Poultry, rabbit, beef, calf or lamb can be used depending on the type of vegetable or fruit accompanying them. As for chicken and rabbit, both whole or jointed are acceptable. The latter is more convenient especially if using a small cooking pot or tagine.
How to flavor a sweet m’qualli
Most sweet versions of m’qualli call for hardly any garlic, if any, in the sauce. This is in contrast to non-sweet m’quallis, such as those with olives or vegetables, where the presence of garlic is noticeable. The same applies to parsley and coriander. And, since a sweet m’qualli should have a “clean” marqa or sauce, we tie the herbs in a bouquet to stay in control of them. It is common to add a spoonful of chopped herbs, but more than that is not good for the presentation of the dish. We are mainly after a reduced sauce with a yellow-tone.
Primary spices and aromatics
The primary seasonings for a sweet m’qualli dish are saffron, ginger, black and/or white pepper, and cinnamon. Cinnamon sticks are preferred to ground cinnamon as the sticks allow you to stay in control of the color of the marqa; ground cinnamon might darken it.
Complementary spices and aromatics
Turmeric, a bouquet of herbs (optional), a touch of smen (optional), a sweet version of Ras el Hanout (depending on families), and a touch of honey or sugar are also added to bring both flavor profiles of the dish together with a precise balance of sweet and savory.
Any other spice is not welcome in this dish. Cumin especially is an unwanted addition. It has wrongly become synonymous with Moroccan cooking because many cookbooks and published recipes claim it should be used in almost every type of Moroccan dish. This is not true.
The garlic-gate in Fassi cuisine
In Fez and nearby regions, the subtle marriage of sweet and savory is found in a number of famous traditional dishes. In this region, such dishes usually do not have garlic added in them, and the same holds true for other recipes with a sweet note. My mother, who moved to Casablanca decades ago, will add only one clove of garlic to the whole dish, even if it will serve 12, while my other aunties are still loyal to the old ways. If you ask me, the one clove of garlic does not really make a difference in the dish, but more will be an issue.
Daghmira, the thick Moroccan onion gravy
The unmistakable signature of m’qualli is daghmira, a thick, paste-like onion gravy. In many cases, especially for festive dishes which fall under m’qualli, daghmira is served as a topping to the meat or chicken. In the case of other types of sweet dishes, t is not needed. However, you will need to reduce the sauce to a syrupy texture while making sure the onions are well cooked to a soft texture.
Which onions to use for m’qualli?
Some onions tend to melt and help with the syrupy textures while others will stay somewhat firm even after 45 minutes of cooking. When the onions are so watery and tender that they melt without the addition of water—this is the case with bassla khaddariya, a sort of large spring onion—we tend to add more sliced or chopped onions halfway through cooking, setting meat or chicken aside if it has already cooked. The additional onion will cook in the remaining sauce, sometimes topped up, until the desired consistency is reached. This adaptation is seasonal according to the freshness and type of onion used. Red onion, such as the one used in Indian cooking, is out of scope in such recipes but a seasonal pinkish version we have in Morocco will do just fine.
Basic Moroccan M'qualli Recipe for Sweet Dishes
Your choice of chicken, lamb or beef will define your cooking time. Apart from that, the base m'qualli recipe for sweet dishes will remain the same
- 3.3 lbs large pieces of lamb, calf or beef meat on the bone or chicken cut into 6 pieces
- 1/4 cup olive and vegetable oil, mixed 50/50
- 1 medium-size yellow or Spanish onion, finely chopped
- 1 tsp smen
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1 pinch saffron threads
- 3/4 tsp salt or to taste
- 1/2 tsp ground white and black pepper
Ingredients for cooking
- Make the chicken or meat marinade: In a small glass, top the saffron threads with 1/4 cup of hot water and set aside for about 10 minutes. Stir in salt, turmeric, ginger pepper and smen.
- Transfer the marinade to a large bowl and add the meat or chicken. Coat each piece with the marinade, cover and leave for a minimum of 1 hour or overnight.
- Transfer the meat and marinade liquid to a tagine or deep pot with a heavy bottom. Add the chopped onion and 1/4 cup of water.
- Bring to a simmer for 10 to 15 minutes over medium heat while turning 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 browned on all sides, add the rest of the ingredients except for the honey.
- If cooking meat, add enough water to fully cover the ingredients.. If cooking chicken, add only enough water to cover 2/3 of the ingredients.
- Cover and let simmer until the meat or chicken is cooked through and has become tender to the touch. The liquid should have greatly reduced by now. Add the honey and stir.
- The red meat might require more water as it cooks, especially if you are not using a pressure cooker, so check liquids regularly. Top up the water if needed in order to avoid burning or a sticky bottom.
- If the meat or chicken has cooked and you are left with a good amount of sauce, remove it and cover while you reduce the sauce (marqa). Return the meat or chicken to the pot too reheat just before serving.
- In the case of sweet toppings cooked on the side, plate the meat or chicken first on the serving dish (leave in a tagine if that was your cooking vessel) and cover with the thick sauce. Finish by garnishing with the caramelized fruits or any topping you have in the recipe. You might also sprinkle the dish with toasted sesame seeds or crushed fried or baked almonds.
- Always serve warm or hot.
- The flavors of m'qualli dishes rely on the spices and the slow cooking method. Marinating ahead of time is key to their success but if you haven't done that, making them one day ahead and heating them the next day compensates for it as they will have time to rest and suck in all the goodness from the cooking sauce.
- Note that this version of m'qualli, which is intended to be paired with fruit or a sweet topping, does not use much onion, unlike the iconic lemony version of m'qualli with daghmira.
- If using chicken, you can discard the skin, especially if you plan to cook it jointed. It should be brined and cleaned before being used in Moroccan recipes.