Salty, Sweet, Sublime: Bisteeya

Moroccan Bisteeya with Chicken 


It could be mistaken for one of the hottest culinary concepts of our time, enshrined à la Fat Duck or El Bulli in cutting-edge gastronomic whimsies like sardine-on-toast sorbet, seaweed nougat or white chocolate and caviar; even high-class pastry chefs are getting in on the act with dessert menus full of things like chocolate mousse bathed in olive oil and fleur de sel. These days, the dishes top chefs seem to get maximum mileage from are those that taunt our minds and thwart our expectations, playfully rearranging our preconceptions of good taste as we experience sweet and savory together in ever more daring forms. Now I’m no psychologist, and admittedly my exposure to cutting-edge cuisine is limited, but even so another possibility occurs to me. It seems to me perfectly plausible that the reason this particular combination of flavors manages to succeed so well on big-league menus is not a result of the novelty, surprise or confusion they elicit, but rather because of their effect on a completely different region of the head: simply put, sweet and savory just taste good together.

You don’t have to look far to find that many cuisines value the interplay of sweet and savory elements. Some seem to court love affairs with the combination but restrict its appearance to a few choice staples – just look at the American penchant for ketchup, baked beans, and sticky barbecue, or the British love of Branston sandwich pickle and Colemans mint sauce. For others, eating this way conforms to a long-established tradition. In much of Southeast Asia, and Thailand in particular, a dish of perfect proportions is said to encompass the four essential tastes, namely sweet, sour, salty and spicy, while in Indian Ayurveda, there are six (sweet, salty, sour, astringent, bitter, and pungent) believed to create harmony in the body and spirit. The idea of balancing opposing tastes is a fundamental of Zoroastrian belief as well, which is why modern Persian cuisine boasts so many sweet and savory delights. Among all the cultures that venerate this particular taste dynamic, however, to my mind none can compete with Morocco, where some of the most innovative and delicious sweet and savory cuisine in the world finds its home.

Moroccan cuisine is justifiably hailed as the most sophisticated in all of Africa. Despite its peripheral location on the northwest coast of the continent, it has been shaped by centuries of invasion, colonization and cross-migration between Europe and the Middle East, all of which has left a unique and profound culinary legacy. There are elements from the indigenous Berbers, the conquering Arabs, the colonizing Europeans, and the Moors, who fled from Spain at the time of the Inquisition, bringing back with them the myriad flavors of Iberia. You’ll find oranges, almonds, saffron and peppers rubbing shoulders with ginger, cumin, quinces, cilantro and dates; you’ll find decadent, mind-blowingly opulent feasts (often encompassing up to twenty different courses), a world-famous tradition of hospitality and a culture of kitchen artistry where secret recipes are passed down from generation to generation like priceless family treasures. And though you’ll find fierce regionalism and a loyalty to the particular foodways of one’s home soil, it seems that just about anyone you ask will agree on what the true crown jewel of Moroccan cuisine is: a flaky, sugar-dusted meat pastry called bisteeya.

Paula Wolfert has some very interesting theories on the origin of bisteeya (also commonly – and confusingly – written b’steeya, b’stilla, pastilla, or any variation therein). Rejecting the theory that it came back with the Moors when they left Spain in the fifteenth century (which is what current wisdom holds, pointing out the similarity of bisteeya to the Spanish word for pastry, pastel), she believes it stems from an old Berber word for a dish of chicken cooked in saffron, bestila, to which a pastry innovation from the Chinese was applied. Moroccan warka pastry, she claims, instead of emerging as a variation on other European thin pastry such as filo or strudel, made its way to Morocco from China via Persian and Arab traders. She may have a point there as unlike European pastry, which is always rolled, warka is more pancake-like, made by dabbing a ball of wet dough over a hot griddle until a thin sheet can be peeled off, much the same as Chinese spring roll wrappers. The idea that these disparate techniques met on Moroccan soil for the first time seems perfectly logical to me – after all, nowhere else in the world, and particularly not in Spain, will you find anything remotely resembling bisteeya.

Whatever its exact origins, bisteeya is an extravagant and magical dish, almost as much an event as it is sustenance. Imagine crisp, gossamer-thin pastry encasing layers of spiced chicken, lemony eggs, tangy onion sauce and butter-fried almonds, baked until golden and then liberally dusted with cinnamon and sugar. Though the combination may sound peculiar, the taste is anything but – a single bite encompasses everything from spicy to herbal, sour to pungent, nutty to creamy, salty to sweet. While it is traditionally eaten as a first course of a large celebration meal, a huge communal pastry laid out for everyone to tear into with their fingers, it is hearty and filling enough to serve as the pièce de résistance of a considerably smaller affair. But whether you serve it as part of a no-holds-barred feast or a simple dinner with mint tea and a salad, it is a truly spectacular dish, and one I daresay would beat the pants off all the sardine sorbet in the world.

Moroccan Bisteeya
Serves: 6-8
Source: Adapted from several sources, including Wolfert’s Couscous and Other Good Foods from Morocco, and Claudia Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food
Notes: True bisteeya is made with warka pastry, not filo, so if you have a source for it, by all means use it instead. Alternatively, Wolfert gives a technique for making it yourself in her book. Also, though bisteeya in Morocco is usually served with pigeon meat, this recipe uses more commonly available chicken – however if you can find pigeon or squab, feel free to use it instead, substituting two whole birds for the chicken thighs.

For the chicken:
4 tablespoons (60g) butter
2 medium onions, peeled and finely chopped
3 cups (750ml) chicken stock
8 chicken thighs, bone-in
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
knob of fresh ginger (about 1/2 inch/1 cm long), peeled and minced

pinch saffron threads, crumbled
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste (depends on your stock)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste) 

For the eggs:
small bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
small bunch cilantro/coriander, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
8 large eggs

For the almonds:
2 tablespoons (30g) butter
1/2 lb. (225g) blanched almonds
1/2 cup (50g) powdered/icing sugar, sifted
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

To assemble:
1 lb. (450g) filo dough, defrosted if frozen
8 tablespoons (125g) butter, melted
3-4 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
flaked toasted almonds, for decoration (optional)

Melt the butter in a
large, heavy pot and saute the onions over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until they are soft and golden and beginning to fall apart, about 25-30 minutes. Add the chicken and the rest of the ingredients for the chicken (keep in mind that the sauce will be reduced later, so add salt accordingly), bring to a boil, cover, lower heat, and simmer gently for an hour and a half, until the chicken is falling off the bone. If you have the time, allow the chicken to cool completely in the broth – this will really improve its flavor and succulence. If not, remove it from the cooking liquid and let it cool enough to handle. When it has, shred the meat into bite-sized pieces, discarding bones and skin. Set aside.

Meanwhile, boil the cooking liquid until it has reduced to about 1 cup (250ml). Add the lemon juice and simmer a couple of minutes. Taste for salt and add more if needed – the reduced broth should be very well seasoned but not overly salty. Beat the eggs with the parsley and cilantro. Slowly add the beaten eggs to the reduced sauce and stir constantly with a wooden spoon until the eggs have congealed into a thick curd and most of the liquid has evaporated. Cool.

For the almonds, melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat and sauté the almonds until lightly browned. Remove, drain on paper towels, chop them finely, and combine with the sugar and cinnamon.

About an hour before eating, preheat the oven to 400F/200C.

Unroll the filo and put the leaves under a damp towel to keep them moist while you are working. Brush the bottom of a pizza pan, paella pan, or very large cake pan with the melted butter. Layer the bottom of the pan with leaves of filo until the entire surface is covered and the filo extends about 2 inches outside the pan in all directions. Brush each layer of the filo generously with butter. Layer the filo up 4 sheets deep, brushing the top with butter. Sprinkle half of the almond-sugar mixture evenly over the surface. Continue layering another 4 layers of buttered filo over the almonds, again brushing the top layer with butter.

Spread the shredded chicken evenly over the surface. Cover with the egg mixture. Fold the overhanging edges in to cover the egg layer and brush with butter. Add another 4 layers of filo, tucking them down around the sides like bedsheets. Sprinkle the top with the remaining almond-sugar mixture, finishing up with a final 4 layers of filo. Trim any edges of filo that can’t be neatly tucked underneath. Brush the top liberally with butter.

Bake for 20 or 25 minutes until the top leaves are golden. Remove the pan from the oven, carefully invert onto a large buttered baking sheet, brush with any remaining butter, and bake 10 minutes more.

Dust the top with powdered sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle with flaked almonds, if desired. Serve immediately.