On the Road: Moroccan Bastilla

Bastilla – also spelled pastilla, bastila, bisteeya or bastela – is known as a very typical Moroccan dish – and a very impressive one. Made from warqa dough, which is similar to Greek phyllo dough and Hungarian strudel leaves, the original bastilla is a pigeon or squab-filled warqa pillow, often flavored with both sweet and savory aromatics and ingredients like nutmeg, cinnamon, dried fruit, onion and ginger.

Like much of modern Moroccan cuisine, the origins of dishes represent a crossroads of culture and influences. Bastilla is no different. Most scholars cite this dish as having partial roots in the Spanish culture, which influenced Morocco (and vice versa) from its geographic proximity across the Strait of Gibraltar.  That the Spanish word for pastry is “pastilla” is no coincidence.

Bastilla also has obvious Arab influence as well. The sweet and savory flavor profile – a traditional meat bastilla is often dusted with cinnamon and sugar – in addition to the similarities in ingredients and techniques seen in modern cuisine of other nations with large Muslim populations, such as Turkey, Tunisia, Iran and Iraq, all point to a strong thread of influence among each country’s food culture.

However, this is a dish that is truly Moroccan. The main filler, squab, is reflective of the subsistence cuisine of the Berbers – an ethnically-unique tribe who have lived in North Africa for more than two thousand years. And the warqa dough is stronger and thinner than its counterparts in Greece or Tunisia, and is made by dabbing a spongy ball of dough over a hot platter – originally a copper plate over a charcoal fire. Greek phyllo (or fillo) dough, by contrast, is rolled out until it becomes thin enough to see through.

I enjoyed many variations on the bastilla while in Essaouira and Marrakech – as many filled with nuts and chocolate in a modern dessert version of the classic as filled with chicken or ground beef (the original pigeon filling alluded me). The best savory stuffing had raisins, almonds, and an array of complex spices, striking a perfect balance between the flavors of bright fruit and the deep earthiness of tumeric, nutmeg and saffron.

But for all the delicious variations on bastilla that I enjoyed, nearly all were under the guise of fancier dining at restaurants most Moroccans reserved for special occasions, or perhaps couldn’t afford at all. Despite bastilla’s humble origins, I had it in my mind that it was not something that the home cook often made.

That is until I was walking through a produce and meat market one morning with a Moroccan local as a guide. We saw a group huddles around a stall where teen-aged boys were dabbing dough on a round waist-high skillet – making sheet after sheet of warqa. Women lined up to buy what they needed for their daily cooking – just a few cents a leaf. And not only did I see the influence of the many cultures upon Moroccan cooking, but I also saw in that moment, that the difference between what I had originally considered high-end cuisine and home cooking was just as blurred. How I wished I could go home with any of them and share a meal.

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