What a delight to have discovered a genuine Morocco eatery Zerza in New York's East Village, where they prepare authentic North African/Moroccan cuisine in the traditional way. The accomplished cook, an older lady, wears a djellaba, traditional Moroccan garb. The atmosphere is casual, and although the interior is dimly lit, it did not detract from my feeling of wanting to linger.
On my memorable visit there, Zerza's owner, Radwan told me that this kind of food cannot be found in most other restaurants because the dishes are slowly and tenderly prepared by the women of the house who are used to gathering in the kitchen to assemble the meals for their families. In Moroccan culture it takes time to cook dishes perfectly. Zerza's menu offers an array of wonderful selections from appetizers to main dishes, a variety of tagines, and desserts.
Moroccans are known for their masterful use of spices, including a mixture called Ras el Hanout, “the head of a shop.” This mixture usually contains the best spices the seller has to offer. Spices typically include cardamom, clove, cinnamon, ground chili peppers, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, peppercorn, and turmeric but can be as many as one hundred different kinds. What a cook might use depends on the dish to be cooked. The cuisine also represents Mediterranean influences—from Spain during its Moorish occupation to the trade routes through the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
Couscous, a staple of Moroccan cuisine, is made with moistened semolina wheat flour. When I lived in the Middle East, our neighbor would roll the dough into hair-thin strings and with her index and thumb would take tiny pieces and roll them in round shapes one at a time. She would then steam or cook them with chicken or meat broth to make an ideal base for hearty stews. Some of these stews are called tagines, slow-cooked medleys containing traditional ingredients ranging from meats to fish and vegetables.
Tagine is also the name of the utensil used to cook the meal. The pot consists of two parts: a clay base unit which is flat and circular with low sides and a large clay cone-shaped top that covers the base during cooking. The cover is designed to promote the return of all condensation to the base, which keeps food moist. With the cover removed, the base can be taken to the table for serving.
According to Radwan, the elaborate dish called bastilla separates Moroccan food from Mediterranean-inspired cuisine. Bastilla is a complex, mouthwatering combination of sweet and savory flavors made with either seafood or chicken. If chicken is used, it is slow-cooked with herbs and spices like saffron, turmeric, nutmeg, cumin, and ginger. The chicken is then shredded and layered with a mixture of eggs and toasted, crushed almonds; then enclosed in paper-thin (warqa) dough; and finally slowly baked until the dough is crisp. Before presentation, the Bastilla is sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar. Although the process is lengthy, all the women in the kitchen working together nourish relationships among friends and family. It nourishes the body as well.
My friend and I savored Mediterranean-influenced starters. The Moroccan cigars ($6), spiced ground beef wrapped in the (warqa) dough, were served with the classic, pleasantly smooth, and fiery harrissa sauce, a traditional table accompaniment made with red chilies, bell peppers, tomato paste, olive oil, and other spices. In North African cuisine, harissa complements dips or functions as a flavor enhancer.
We also devoured a mezze plate of bakoula, matbucha, and baba ghanough served with pita bread ($13.75). Bakoula is a flavorful spinach puree with chickpeas—spicy yet tangy and sweet. Matbucha is a sweet and tangy roasted pepper with tomatoes dip, augmented with cumin. The baba ghannough was the best I ever had, prepared with perfect proportions of mashed, smoked eggplant, tahini (sesame seed paste), and lemon juice. The bitter, sweet taste of the eggplant combined with the tangy lemon juice and sesame paste was quite flavorful.
Dining at Zerza would be incomplete without a tagine. We ordered the Chicken Lemon Tagine ($15.50), consisting of herb-rubbed chicken, Moroccan olives, and preserved lemons. The trick to making this even tastier and more exotic is to top the couscous with caramelized onions—voila! An avalanche of flavors makes your palate sing!
Allow ample time to enjoy the food at Zerza. The slow-cooked dishes are prepared to order. Unfortunately, we were on a timeline and had to forego the intriguing-sounding fig ice cream to end the meal, vowing to try it at our next visit. But we did end the meal with a fabulous item: a refreshing Moroccan beverage made with green tea, sugar, and mint leaves, simmered over a slow fire.
Zerza offers special 3-course dinners and brunches for only $13.95 (cash only), with belly dance performances on Friday and Saturday evening.
Location: 308 East 6th Street. New York, NY 10003
Web site: zerza.com