Mderbel of pumpkin (القرع المدربل) or gr’aa m’aassla/maassala) (القرع المعسَّل) is a delicious sweet Moroccan pumpkin paste with cinnamon. It can be served as a cooked salad or as a topping to a famous m’qualli-style sweet chicken or meat tagine that’s popular during Eid Al Mawlid, the remembrance of the Prophet’s birth. This tradition is still observed in Fez and nearby cities. The pumpkin paste itself is making a comeback as part of the assortment of salads served at wedding celebrations.
We make this easy pumpkin paste ahead of time to freeze in batches and use whenever we fancy.
Choosing the Pumpkin for Pumpkin Paste
Since leaving Morocco, I have tried different kinds of pumpkin—from Hokkaido to butternut. I have to say that a good compact pumpkin is the only one that will give you the expected result.
Some pumpkins are deeper in color than others; we prefer a darker orange with less fibery texture as the paste should be smooth and silky. This usually is a sign of a fresh and high grade pumpkin. When the pumpkin is paler, we tend to double the amount of cinnamon powder.
Although the recipe is simple and does not require many ingredients, it does involve two methods of cooking: steaming and pan frying. The frying process to get the silky texture can take as long as one hour, which is why making a freezable batch may justify the effort as opposed to sweating over the heat for a tiny bit.
Sweet Moroccan Pumpkin Paste: Gr'aa mderbla or m'aassla
- 2.2 lbs pumpkin flesh (see instructions)
- 1 cup oil
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar (or a mix of honey and unrefined sugar)
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp cinnamon (or [adjustable]2[/adjustable] tablespoons if the pumpkin flesh is not dark orange enough)
- 3 to 4 drops gum mastic or meska, crushed to powder with a teaspoon of sugar
- 2 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted
Prepare the pumpkin
- Instead of fighting with this tough vegetable to peel and dice it raw, I have two methods which make this process easy: I scrape off the inner part to clean it of seeds and fibers. I then cut the pumpkin into large chunks or wedges and either cover with foil and roast in the oven for 30 min at 180 C/365 F; or I steam them then until the pumpkin has softened.
- Collect the flesh from the pumpkin (diced or scooped). Set aside to drain if you have chosen to steam it.
- Mash the pumpkin with a potato masher or a fork.
- In a slightly deep frying pan over medium-high heat, fold in the pumpkin. Add salt and stir for about 10 to 15 minutes until the water has completely evaporated. Transfer to a bowl or a plate.
- Pour half of the oil in the hot pan, give it a second to heat up and fold in the pumpkin and keep stirring. The oil helps the paste not to stick but at some stage, it helps fry it, giving it an amber color and an intense flavor. So we will add it as we go.
- Keep tossing for about 10 minutes. Add the rest of the oil if you think you need more, should the paste start sticking.
- Add the sugar and the cinnamon then keep tossing until it looks smooth, silky and caramelized. The paste should be lump-free.
- In the last 2 minutes or tossing and caramelizing, add the gum mastic powder and stir.
Serving and storing
- Serve the pumpkin paste at room temperature or cold, with a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds.
- Warm, it is served as a topping for other Moroccan dishes or as a side dish to a fried steak.
- Once cooled, put it in ziplocs and flatten them. Freeze for up to 6 months. Serve it as described above.
- Do not be tempted to reduce the oil and the sugar. Both are needed to get the correct texture and color; they also help in preserving the pumpkin paste for a long time. Most of the oil will separate once the pumpkin paste has cooled so you can discard it or cook with it.
- Some older versions of this recipe have a bigger ratio of sugar to pumpkin, making it literally look like a jam. For example, 2.2 lbs of pumpkin could need about 3.3 lbs of sugar and about 1 lb of oil to bring it to the required texture and color. The recipe I am sharing is on the lighter side of the spectrum.