Khlii (or khlea) is a confit of Moroccan preserved meat. It’s traditionally prepared by the long, slow simmering of a cured, dried meat called gueddid in olive oil and suet. The resulting confit will store safely for months on end, if not for a year or two, at room temperature.
The tradition of making khlii seems to have started in Fes before spreading across Morocco and North Africa. This is probably the reason why Fes is still referred to as “the Capital of Khlii” in Morocco. It’s hard to imagine a Fassi (from Fes) house without this delicacy or at least its sediments, called agriss, agriche or agreish. Both khlii and agriss find their way into many dishes over the course of a year, from breakfast to dinner. You will find it in morning fried eggs or in laminated flatbread, or perhaps in cooked starters and salads. Maybe it will be an ingredient in the main dish of the day but it could also be in tonight’s soup.
Marrakesh is the second Moroccan city which counts khlii among its culinary traditions. While khlii used to be a frugal element in the Moroccan diet, especially in those cities, in modern times it has become a sort of delicacy which is appreciated throughout the kingdom, with domestic tourism helping to elevate khlii’s status.
How Khlii is Used
Khlii is mostly treated as an ingredient in Moroccan dishes. It can replace meat as a main component in a recipe or work as a sort of condiment which lifts the flavor of a soup or sauce. Because it was simmered confit-style, there’s no need to soak or otherwise re-hydrate khlii. It can be left in fairly large pieces when used in stews or other dishes that have ample liquids and long cooking times, but for quick dishes it may be preferable to cut it into small bits and pieces.
The best example of a quick dish with khlii is also one of the most straightforward Moroccan recipes you’ll encounter—pan-fried khlii with eggs. It’s usually served with Moroccan mint tea and eaten by hand with Moroccan bread (khobz), which is used in place of a utensil. While most Moroccan restaurants and coffee shops will offer this dish as Fassi breakfast fare, it can in fact be served as a quick meal any time of the day.
Types of Khlii
Khlii’s main component is gueddid, strips of cured meat which are sun-dried. The meat of choice is usually beef or camel, but gueddid is also made with lamb or mutton, particularly after Eid al Adha. Traditionally, gueddid is prepared once or twice a year, leading to two types of khlii:
- Winter khlii (khlii el wardi or ouardi), which is prepared with gueddid made during winter months. Given the cooler weather, the gueddid requires a long time to dry. However, expert khlii makers say it tastes much better as the meat has longer to cure.
- Summer khlii, which is made from gueddid that was dried in summer heat. The exposure to sun is of shorter duration yet more intense, causing the meat to dry within days to the point that its edges look dark and nearly calcined. This version needs more oil and water to re-hydrate the gueddid as the meat will have lost up to 50 percent of its water content. However, those liquids will then have to be reduced.
Ways of Making Khlii
While the tradition of making khlii at home is still alive, it does require a bit of expertise so we don’t find nearly as many families making it as before. Most now prefer to buy it ready-made from market vendors or grocery stores. Given that commercial availability, it seems that many families will eventually lose the skill and knowledge required to make a good khlii.
There are several ways to go about making khlii, depending on the degree of authenticity you’re after, as well as how much time you have to give to the process.
- Classic Khlii. The traditional method involves simmering the dried meat (gueddid) for many hours in a mix of fat and water, taking care to follow meticulous steps which will yield three separate layers—the meat, the fat, and the sediment (agriss). Each layer is used in recipes throughout the year to come. It’s a lengthy process but worth the effort if you’re after classic and authentic khlii.
- Light Khlii. In recent years, health-conscious Moroccans developed an alternative to cooking the dried meat in fat—they steam it instead. While this yields a healthier khlii, the steamed meat lacks flavor and it will still need to be fully covered in olive oil to preserve it. Another downside is that this method does not render agriss sediments. On their own, the sediments can be used as a condiment in many dishes to lift flavor or bring richness to the texture. I can skip khlii but I need my agrisse! Not to mention the layer of fat, which helps in getting the crispiest roast potatoes!
- Express Khlii. If you don’t want to go through the lengthy process of making classic khlii, you can opt for an express version called Mqila Slaouia which uses fresh meat rather than dried. While express khlii skips the time-consuming step of having to dry strips of meat ahead of time, the final result will not keep nearly as long as the traditional version. You can work around that issue by freezing express khlii. However, there is no workaround for the fact that the express version is a compromise of the real thing. The difference between express khlii and classic khlii might be compared to the difference between fresh goat cheese and an aged one. For that reason, if you have the opportunity to make the traditional version, I suggest you go for it.
- Turkey Khlii. This is a relatively new variety of khlii in Morocco. If you are not fan of red meat, you can cure turkey strips, which will take less time to dry and subsequently less time to cook into khlii.
Homemade Khlii vs. Bought Khlii
Both gueddid and khlii are acquired tastes and not to everyone’s liking. However, I know many people who have adopted khlii and forgotten about bacon; my husband is one of them. Therefore I was surprised by a well known food program which showcased khlii as a meat gone bad. Other critics of khlii have been known to describe it as “rancid” or “fermented” or “spoiled” but these are usually inaccurate descriptors. It’s true that both the flavor and smell of khlii can be pungent, but unless you’ve acquired it from a questionable source, it’s unlikely to be spoiled.
Gueddid that is not well-dried will lead to a bad khlii. An old or unwashed piece of fat might ruin it, as might a storage container that wasn’t clean or dry before khlii was added. In those cases, khlii might indeed develop a disturbingly rancid taste and a tiny layer of mold might surface. To avoid both, khlii can be frozen rather than stored at room temperature.
Every house used to make a supply of khlii if they could afford to buy the meat. But times have changed, and I see many people settling for store-bought pots of khlii from the old medina. It usually costs more than homemade and the quality is not always there. Some suppliers strive to offer a good product while others don’t.
Although khlii is traditionally made in huge batches of more than 20 kilograms of meat, making a smaller batch will increase your chances of success and you won’t have to buy a massive cooking pot.
Homemade khlii is better than store bought in many ways. Basically, if you are buying it from a shop, you will most likely be paying for more fat than meat itself. Making it at home allows you to control the quality, adjust it to your liking and it costs much less.
How to Make Moroccan Khlii (Khlea) - Recipe and Tutorial
Preparations Before Cooking
- You may need to order suet from your butcher ahead of time. (It can be frozen until needed.) Ask him to mince it for you, or plan to grate it or finely chop it at home. Make sure the suet is fresh and free of any membranes or unsavory bits. Wash and pat it dry before grating or chopping.
- As you handle the gueddid, you will find some sediments; collect them and set them aside. Place the strips of gueddid in a large bowl or basin and cover with fresh water. Leave to soak for a few minutes, then drain and rinse.
- Use a large, deep, heavy-bottomed cooking pot, preferably with a nonstick coating. (Nonstick is especially helpful if you are making khlii for the first time.)
- If using a wide pot, you will not need to cut the strips of dried meat; you can add them as they are. If using a narrow pot, cut the strips into lengths about 2.5" (6.5 cm) so they can fit. In either case, make sure your pot is deep as the liquid will splatter.
- It is important that the area where the khlii will be simmering is free of pets and children. You don't want an accident!
Cooking Khlii: The Simmering Stage
- Season the ground fat with half of the crushed garlic and half each of the ground coriander seeds, ground cumin seeds and salt. Stir.In a large cooking pot (as described above), heat the water to a simmer. Add the seasoned fat and continue cooking over medium heat until the fat has completely melted and starts bubbling. Slowly add in the strips of dried meat, the reserved sediment, and the rest of the seasoning.
- Alternatively, we can melt the suet in a separate deep pot over low heat. Once it reaches a liquid state, let it cool to lukewarm. Strain it, discarding any debris caught in the sieve. Season the clear liquid fat and add it to the simmering water in the large pot. Cook over medium heat until the liquids start to boil, then add the strips of gueddid.
- If the meat is not fully covered with liquid, add more hot water and stir. Simmer over very low heat for about 1 hour. Once the meat has become tender and absorbed some of the liquid, add the olive oil.
- Continue cooking over low heat. Use a large wooden spoon to stir occasionally and delicately, while frequently scrapping the bottom of the pot. Let simmer for several more hours until the water has totally evaporated. The cooking time depends on the age of the animal and therefore its meat, on the type of gueddid (winter or summer ) and also on the thickness of the strips.
Checking the Readiness of Khlii
- Test the meat when it appears the water has evaporated. If you cut through a strip of meat, it should look dark red; if you try to pry the meat apart with a fork or fingers, it should separate. It should not be soft on the inside.
- When the water has nearly evaporated, the sediments will start sticking to the bottom of the pot. This is why you should scrape the bottom while stirring--those bits are as precious as the strips of meat themselves.
- We use something called ftila to perform the ultimate test of whether all water has evaporated from the pot. Dip a 10" long piece of hard paper (or a long cotton wick) into the fat. Give it a few seconds to ensure some liquid has been absorbed. While you are holding it from one end, try to light the dipped end (the "ftila"). If it lights and holds a flame, there is no water left. If not, you still have a way to go.
- If, for some reason, the meat appears to be ready before the water has totally evaporated, fish it out and save it on the side while you carry on simmering the liquid. (Note that this should not happen if you have cooked the khlii over low heat.)
The Final Texture of the Fat Layer
- One of the signs of a khlii done right is that the cooled, solidified fat will have a grainy texture. The way to get that texture is to sprinkle the hot liquid fat with cold water. This may seem backwards, but for some reason this step is required; it's beneficial to the fat's conservation as well as the general texture.
- So, once all water has evaporated, remove the strips of meat from the fat and set them aside.
- Sprinkle about 1/2 cup of water over the simmering liquid fat. Allow this water to evaporate then turn off the heat.
Storing the Layers of Khlii
- Only handle the khlii when all elements have cooled to lukewarm but are not yet cold. As mentioned earlier, khlii is the cooked meat which comes with a layer of cooked fat and a layer of sediment (which we hold dear). Follow the process below to make sure you store the layers correctly for future use.
- Set out clean, dry containers or jars which will be used to store the khlii. When the meat is cool enough to handle, use scissors to cut the strips into smaller pieces--you decide how small, but 1/2" to 2" (2 cm to 5 cm) generally works well--and arrange them in the bottom of the containers. (We cut the khlii now rather than later because it's difficult to fiddle with once set. This way, you are a step ahead of a recipe that directs you to cut khlii. If you buy commercial khlii, the strips of meat will need to be cut at time of use and the task will be a bit messier.)
- Pour enough liquid fat over the meat to fully cover it. Once cooled, it will solidify, creating a natural barrier against bacteria and other nasties.
- Leave each jar or containers uncovered until the fat moves from a liquid stage to a solid creamy yellow layer. This is a sign everything has cooled properly and is ready to be sealed. A good plastic container with an airtight seal will do the job.
Storing the Agriss (Agriche) Sediments
- Agriss is the name of the sediments which have fallen of the khlii; they're the small bits of meat and marinade found at the bottom of the pot in which you cooked the khlii.
- At the end of the simmering process, after the meat has been removed from the liquid fat, allow time for the sediments to fully settle at the bottom of the cooking pot.
- Transfer these precious bits into a different jars or containers, along with leftover liquid fat, and set aside to cool, uncovered.
- Once all the jars and containers appear to have set, cover and seal (if needed). Place in a dark place such as a cupboard for the months to come.
- Be aware that opened jars should be stored in the fridge or freezer. That said, a khlii properly done should not develop mold or smell bad or become disturbingly rancid at any time provided all instructions for making it and storing it have been followed.
- It is very difficult to come up with serving guidelines for this recipe. Khlii or agriss (agrich) might be used as condiments the enhance the taste of many Moroccan recipes. They may not be primary ingredients. Although in the old days, a good piece of bread would have been stuffed with strips of khlii (including the fat surrounding it). This sandwich was enjoyed as an indulgent breakfast along with a glass of hot mint tea.
- Recipes which use khlii may call for one, two or three layers altogether. Some will use the meat while others the sediments and maybe a bit of fat as well. A recipe for 10 people might include only 2 strips of khlii or 2 tablespoons of fat/agriss; another recipe for 4 servings might use the same quantity because the meat would be a major ingredient, such as in fried eggs with khlii.