Moroccan Pantry – “Bit Lakhzen”
The concept comes from the fear of failing to receive a guest correctly, knowing that supply might be difficult or interrupted during certain times of the year. Meat, fruits, herbs and spices were dried. Vegetables and some fruits were pickled or preserved, and stored in an isolated room, which only the main lady of the house had access to. The stored elements are a sort of treasure, to be protected and taken out only as needed.
On another level, the food stored in “Bit Lakhzen”happen to be indispensable to the authentic Moroccan recipes, for it’s those elements dried, pickled or preserved that are the secret of the Moroccan cuisine. You can’t make a chicken Tagine without preserved lemons, or couscous without aged butter, or eggs bel khalii Tagine without Khalii.
Over the years, the society has developed and Moroccans have acquired kitchen appliances, but nonetheless, the “Bit LaKhzene” concept still exists. Perhaps it’s no longer a separate room, but rather a kitchen cabinet. “Kaddid”,“Khaliia”, “Msayer” and “Semen” remain the secret potions the Moroccan cuisine will forever stay faithful to.
Butter versus olive oil
The use of butter versus olive oil in the Moroccan cuisine is very related to “eddar” – the house. In other words, the “bigger” the house or the “wealthier” is the family, the more butter is used in recipes instead of oil.
In the old times, and still today in villages, butter was manually extracted from milk. When I was younger and my grandmother – father’s side was alive- my father took us to visit her regularly. My grandmother lived in a small village near the city of Al Jadida, and her house was extremely basic. I can’t express how proud I am, to have had the opportunity to occasionally share her basic life. I am proud to have herded her cattle, milked her cows, pulled water from her well, started fires, lighted my way at night with a candle in my hand, and made heavy milk and butter! Every time I visited her, I insisted on making heavy milk, for I loved drinking it and loved eating the light and molting butter that is extracted from it with warm homemade bread.
I pour the milk in the “shakwa”, which resembles a giant gourd made of goat skin, suspended from giant wooden sticks. Then I shake it for about an hour, until the milk turns into “Ellben” – heavy milk- and the fat condenses into small yellow shanks. The “Ellben” is then used as an accompaniment for couscous and the butter is eaten fresh or used for making “Essmen” or for cooking.
Not all Moroccans however owned cows. Or, if they did, they had only one or two, and had to sell the milk and butter to be able to buy grains and vegetables. Especially in the south, where the weather is dry most of the year, there is very limited flat land to plant, and no grass for the cows to eat. As a result, people in the south of Morocco lived on goats, olive oil, Argan oil and dried nuts & fruits. This diet instituted specific culinary traditions that are still present although a very high percentage of farmers have moved to the cities and adopted a more modern life style.