Ophir Haberer explains the dishes before everyone eats. (Photo/Alix Wall)
Ophir Haberer explains the dishes before everyone eats. (Photo/Alix Wall)

Moishe House goes Moroccan with matbucha and other favorites

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Ophir Haberer faced a formidable task.

The avid home chef began his recent Moroccan cooking class by asking people if they had any food sensitivities. The short answer? Yes, they did. Plenty.

Multiple dietary requirements are the new normal. The young Jewish adults at the Oakland Moishe House shared run-of-the-mill sensitivities, like gluten and dairy; some people were vegetarians. One person couldn’t eat tomatoes. Another said no to cilantro. Another couldn’t tolerate high levels of spice.

Of course tomatoes, cilantro and heat are all integral to Moroccan cuisine, and couscous, a staple that is the country’s most ubiquitous grain, has gluten. But Haberer took the challenge in stride. His meal ended up entirely gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan. And in a concession to those avoiding sugar, he used a bit of coconut sugar rather than the traditional processed variety (even though it’s unlikely coconut sugar has ever been used by a Moroccan chef).

Haberer recently left his job as festival and leadership coordinator for Wilderness Torah. For anyone who has attended the organization’s Passover in the Desert or Sukkot on the Farm events in the past two years, it was Haberer holding down all the details. He is not a professional chef but loves to cook, and when it comes to Moroccan food, it’s personal.

“Moroccan food is about so much more than food,” he said by way of introduction at Moishe House. “It’s about hospitality, it’s about love. It’s about home, and community. Go to any Moroccan meal, and the table will be covered with dishes … almost too many to fit on it.”

The way I cook is with intuition, which is how my grandma and mom did it.

Haberer’s maternal line is from Morocco; his grandparents are from Oujda, near the Algerian border, which is in the part of the country that was a French protectorate.

“Spanish Morocco is very different from French Morocco,” he said. “In Spanish Morocco, the culture is to go out more often, while in the French part it’s more about home hospitality.” And just as Litvaks and Galitzianers have their preferences for savory vs. sweet gefilte fish, “the couscous is more sweet than savory in the south,” he said.

Haberer’s grandparents left Morocco in 1956, and after a year in Marseilles they immigrated to Israel, settling in the northern town of Ma’alot, where his mother was born in 1957.

“My grandmother cooked more traditional Moroccan food, while my mom infused hers with more Israeli style,” he said. (His father’s side is Ashkenazi, from South Africa).

While Haberer shared that using written recipes is counterintuitive for him, he promised attendees he would send recipe outlines after the workshop.

“The way I cook is with intuition, which is how my grandma and mom did it,” he said.

The evening’s menu featured matbucha, a cooked tomato salad with spices (matbucha, which means “cooked” in Arabic, is perhaps the most prominent Moroccan-Israeli hybrid dish; it also can be the base of shakshuka) and a vegetable tagine or stew. Tagine is named after the traditional clay vessel with a steam vent on top, “but I didn’t bring that with me,” Haberer said. “A tagine is usually cooked with some kind of meat, but what defines it is that it’s a mixture of meat and vegetables with dried fruits like date and prunes. My favorite to use is dried apricots, but we’re using dates.”

There also was a fennel and radish salad with fresh herbs, as well as crispy spiced chickpeas, which are a common street food or snack in Morocco, often sold in a paper cone. Dates drizzled with a tahini-honey and cardamom mixture and sprinkled with pistachios were the dessert.

The very busy kitchen of Oakland Moishe House (Photo/Alix Wall)
The very busy kitchen of Oakland Moishe House (Photo/Alix Wall)

Haberer veered from tradition a bit, not only to suit the allergies (like substituting the gluten-free grain quinoa for the couscous) but also to cook seasonally. For example, he could still find locally grown kabocha squash, so he used that rather than pumpkin, which is more traditionally Moroccan.

He noted that tomatoes have become an essential ingredient in Moroccan cuisine, even though they aren’t native to the country. “Tomatoes came late to Morocco, brought after the exploration of the New World.”

Indeed, the table was covered with multiple dishes when the class was over; perhaps also because the fennel salad, which was dressed with an orange, lemon and lime dressing, parsley and mint, had to have the cilantro on the side, and the tagine, which is usually made with harissa, a spice paste essential to Moroccan cuisine, has tomatoes in it, so it also had to be left on the side. While Haberer made his harissa paste from scratch in a blender, he explained that it usually goes into the tagine in an early stage, to build flavor.

Haberer likes to garnish nearly every dish with a few sprigs of mint for color. “Aesthetics are very important,” he said. And before digging in, he taught everyone to say in the Moroccan dialect of Arabic: “Kul b’saha u’raha,” which means, “Everything in good health and good spirit.”

He then gave a rather lengthy blessing. “For me it’s important before we eat to give a bit of gratitude and acknowledgement to the amazing array of foods and different seeds that came together from many parts of the world. I tried to use things from the Mediterranean, but a lot comes from after 1492 from the Americans and Asian influences, and the evolution of those foods. There’s such amazing abundance, and I’m grateful to those over the years who allowed this to happen.”

Haberer will be teaching a class all about tahini on May 22 in West Berkeley through OneTable. Registration is required.

The Oakland Moishe House is interested in holding more peer-led cooking classes covering different ancestral cuisines. If interested, email [email protected].

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."