Polyglot Pie

Combine an Arab sensibility with a European recipe using locally available ingredients, and you pretty much have bisteeya. For indeed under the hood it is very “pie-like” in the old sense of the world: a mixed bag of ingredients inside an edible container, all bound together with egg. Granted it’s not something you see much in Europe these days, but once upon at time at the height of the Age of Pie (i.e. the MIddle Ages), these sorts of preparations were everywhere in Europe and the Mediterranean.

Yet Medieval pie only forms the foundation of bisteeya. Atop it is a much more elaborate structure which primarily Arabic. Yes, I’m talking about the layered pastry crust, but more than that the spices. Most bisteeya recipes call for saffron, ginger and cinnamon. Still more elaborate versions include ras el hanout, a spice blend that can include up to 30 different spices, among them cardamom, mace, allspice, nutmeg, turmeric and white, black and cayenne pepper. There’s only one culture that could have brought so many exotic aromatics to the bisteeya party: the Arabs.

The local contributions to bisteeya are more modest, but then you have to consider the history of Morocco. It’s been occupied for some 2,000 years by a succession of empires: the Romans, the Vandals, the Arabs, the Turks, the French. However that occupation was largely limited to the cities (Tangier, Fes, Casablanca, Marrakesh, etc.), which as a consequence developed cosmopolitan cultures. The vast interior of the country has always been more sparsely populated by nomadic peoples like the Berbers who tended to subsist on locally available foods. Still their influence in bisteeya can be seen not only in the meat (chicken or pigeon) but in the fresh leaf parsley and coriander (cilantro) that are native to North Africa.

All in all a pretty interesting culinary convergence, no? But quite understandable when you consider where Mococco is: directly across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain in North Africa.

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