With Morocco 'A Culinary Journey...' (Chronicle Books, June 2012), Jeff Koehler takes us on a visit of the country's various regions through their foods from 'spice-scented markets of Marrakech to the date-filled oasis of Zagora'.
I was not surprised to find sardines or steamed sheep heads in 'Street Food' chapter, yet did not expect to see snails in spice and tea laden broth served at Marrakech's Djemaa El Fna.
Om Djemaa El Fna Snails in Broth (babbouche)
Snails are a street-stall staple, especially in Marrakech on Djemaa el Fna square, where a line of sturdy carts sells them by the broth-filled bowl. The flavorful broth sipped at the end is said to be a restorative and digestive. But what’s in it? One respected attar (spice seller) in Marrakech gave me a list of more than fifteen spices from thyme and licorice to lavender and tea leaves. “Which are the most important?” I asked. “They all are,” he said. “The balance has to be right.”
Here I have adapted the spice blend of Choumicha, the queen of contemporary Moroccan cooking. It’s a relatively simple one, but flavorful and balanced.
Moroccan snails are white with distinctive chocolate brown whirls, smaller than the classic French escargot. Live snails added to boiling water will retract inside the shell and be hard to remove later to eat. When the snails are first cooked, it’s important to bring the water to a very slow boil. While live snails can be hard to find, many gourmet shops carry preserved ones in cans.
Serves 4 to 6
2 lb/910 g fresh snails or snails in brine
Wine vinegar or other vinegar for cleaning snails
2 sprigs dried thyme
1⁄2 Tbsp aniseed
1⁄2 Tbsp caraway seeds
1⁄2 tsp gunpowder green tea leaves
Peel from 1⁄2 orange, white pith scraped away
Two 3-in/7.5-cm pieces licorice root or 1 tsp ground aniseed
2 bay leaves
1⁄2 tsp dried mint
10 sprigs fresh mint
2 small dried hot red chiles
If using live snails, wash with plenty of water. Use salt and vinegar to scrub clean if the shells are dirty. Repeat as needed. Rinse well. Put the snails in a large pot with about 3 qt/2.8 L water. Bring to a slow boil over low heat—figure about 45 minutes for this—watching to keep the snails inside the pot. When the water reaches a boil and foam comes to the surface, drain the snails in a colander. Rinse the snails well with running water and rinse out the pot.
If using snails preserved in brine, drain the brine and rinse the snails well. In a large pot, add the snails and cover with water. Bring to a boil over high heat and boil for 5 minutes. Drain the snails in a colander. Rinse the snails well with running water and rinse out the pot.
Return the snails to the pot. Cover with 8 cups/2 L water, and add the thyme, aniseed, caraway seeds, tea leaves, orange peel, licorice root, bay leaves, dried mint, and fresh mint. Season with a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to medium-low, loosely cover, and simmer for 1½ hours. The snails should be tender and the broth rich and flavorful. Add the chiles and cook for 10 minutes. Taste the broth and adjust the seasoning as needed.
Serve the snails hot in bowls with some broth. Use a toothpick to extract the snails from their shells.
(* Recipe from 'Morocco' A Culinary Journey with Recipes from the Spice-Scented Markets of Marrakech to the Date-Filled Oasis of Zagora by Jeff Koehler-Chronicle Books, June 2012- All rights reserved)