Laila Benkirane knows Moroccan food tradition well. Four years ago, this delicate, scholarly woman and her husband, professor Mohamed Mezzine, translated a 13th century Moroccan cookbook into French for the first Festival of Fez for Culinary Arts.
Last month Mezzine directed a second Festival of Fez. In between festival activities, Benkirane sat in a shady alcove of the Dar al-Batha Museum and discussed how the people of Fez break the daytime fast of Ramadan and celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of the fasting month. (According to Muslim law, Eid al-Fitr’s exact date depends on when the new moon is visible; this year it is expected to fall on Sunday.)
During Ramadan, the orthodox way to break the fast is with dates, a tradition set by the prophet Muhammad. Dates, honey and dairy foods figure in many of the dishes to follow, but the most famous Moroccan fast-breaking dish is harira, a spicy soup which has as many versions as cooks.
Vegetables play only a small part, said Benkirane, and certain foods are avoided. One is garlic. Another, surprisingly, is fish. Moroccans believe fish makes you thirsty--something you want to avoid when you won’t be able to drink a drop of water between sunup and sundown the next day.
For Eid al-Fitr, when people can eat during the daylight hours again, a few specific dishes are traditional. One is smid bel-asal, a wheat porridge with honey.
Like everyone else in Fez, Benkirane takes pride in the ancient city’s subtle and sophisticated cuisine, which includes special Eid al-Fitr dishes. One, she said, is Djaj bel-Qera Mderbela, chicken with candied pumpkin. Its Arabic name literally means “chicken with raggedy pumpkin,” because the pumpkin has been cooked down to a delicious but untidy-looking mush.