Harira, There, and Everywhere

I first had harira in Marrakech in 1991. I was in a hotel restaurant, seated in a banquette with five others, surrounded by zelij-covered walls in dizzying patterns and colors. We were staying at the Hotel La Mamounia, definitely my most elegant hotel experience.

At the time, I was Program Director for the New York State Museum Institute, and was in charge of their travel program, both domestic and foreign. Mostly, it was domestic. Happily, I was offered a spot on a familiarization tour to Morocco to entice me to bring a group from my museum.

For $432, I got round trip airfare (first class in one direction) on Royal Air Maroc, and a 10-day, whirlwind tour of the highlights of a most beautiful and amazing country.

Our hotels were all the best available, except when they weren't available - La Mamounia being one of two five-star properties at which we stayed. When one leaves Marrakech and heads into in the High Atlas Mountains, there simply aren't many five-star hotels on the road. In fact, one is lucky if there is any road at all.

Which brings me to my second bowl of harira. It was in the High Atlas Mountains in the home of Mohammed, the driver of one of our 4X4 vehicles, known in French as "quatres-quatres."

The pool at La Mamounia
A mountain road blocked by a landslide called for a change of schedule, and led to an impromptu overnight stay at the home of the brother of our driver Mohammed. His was a kind, beautiful, and generous Berber family, as you see in the photos.

Mohammed, his wife, two children, and a nephew.
Their home wasn't in a town, per se, but there was assemblage of adobe homes and outbuildings that included a granary and an olive oil mill. We toured everything we could, and provided a source of fascination and ample amusement for the kids in the neighborhood. Our blond hair was the thing that attracted their attention most.

Lachsen with his cousins. His mother is in the background.
The meal at Mohammed's home was served in the main room; the floor, banquettes, and walls were all clad with Moroccan carpets and textiles. A traditional meal was served; we had harira, a vegetable couscous, a goat tagine, and finished with sliced oranges - the sweetest I ever tasted till we moved to Tucson - sprinkled with cinnamon.

Lachsen with his cousin David, who was very proud to share his name with me.
The men of our small group slept in the large attached stable on piles of handwoven Berber carpets; the  goats (those that hadn’t found their way into the tagine) were on one side of a short dividing wall, we men on the other. We kept company with the matriarch's treadle sewing machine along with bolts of colorful fabrics. The women stayed in the main room where we had eaten dinner.

The granary - or ksar in Maghrebi Arabic - near Mohammed's home.
My two first harira experiences could not have been more different in terms of venue, yet they were close to identical in quality and exquisite flavor. One made with lamb, the other with the freshest butchered goat. How fortunate was I to be able to taste this national soup in these settings?

Laundry day in the High Atlas Mountains.
I haven't had harira since then - not even at EPCOT at DisneyWorld - till this week. It was a perfect storm of ingredients in my kitchen. We had bought lentils last week for a French dish, and had enough left over. We had a small chunk of lamb shoulder. We seem always to have cans of plum tomatoes, and there were chickpeas in the cupboard. There are always fresh herbs in our garden. It was a no-brainer.

My homemade harira was every bit as good as I recalled - deep, rich, lamb-flavored broth contrasted with the acidic tomatoes, sweet spices, and bright leafy herbs. I served it with a Provençal rosé - Domaine La Rabiotte, a readily available and very good rosé from Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence. To read more about the pairing, check out my review on the Provence WineZine.

Moroccan tiles with carved plaster in the Koranic School in Marrakech.
That long-ago trip to Morocco was in January. Marrakech was sunny, warm, and dry like Tucson, while up in the Atlas Mountains, the weather was cold like New England. The soup worked well in both situations - perfect for summer or winter! And perfect with rosé year-round!

I hope you enjoy some of my photos from a time long passed.

~ David


2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, grated
8 ounces lamb shoulder, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 cup green lentils, soaked in water for 1 hour
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups canned plum tomatoes
1 stalk celery, diced
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/4 cup flour
1 large egg

Heat oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add grated onion, lamb, and spices. Brown the meat for 3 minutes. Add lentils and 4 cups of water.  Bring to a boil, the reduce heat to medium, cover the pot, and cook for 15 minutes. Add another 4 cups water.

Add a little bit of the soup liquid to the tomato paste to dilute it. Then add the mixture to the soup. Purée the tomatoes and the celery, and add to the pot with the cilantro and parsley. Taste the soup and adjust the salt accordingly. Lower the heat to medium and cook, covered, for 10 minutes.

Add the chickpeas. Dilute flour in some hot water; mix well. Add flour mixture to the soup, stirring continuously, until the soup thickens. Cook the soup for 2-3 minutes. Beat the egg with a fork, then add it to the soup while stirring. Cook for another 3 minutes before serving.

Serves 8.

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