It's about far more than just tagines, the food blogger tells Ella Walker.

You might think you know what couscous is, but Nargisse Benkabbou is about to change all that.

"When I came to England and people were eating their couscous completely differently, I was like, 'This is really weird'," says the food writer wryly.

"In Morocco, the stuff in the packet, we call it semolina," she explains. "We have a dish we normally eat on Friday and it's steamed grains of semolina topped with vegetable broth and meat – and that is couscous. If you order couscous in Morocco – unless you're somewhere really touristy in Marrakesh – they'll always bring you the whole dish."

This is just one of many snippets of information about Moroccan food Benkabbou is hoping to illuminate with her debut cookbook, Casablanca – because chances are, unless you're actually Moroccan, you won't really know all that much about it.

"People think it's something exotic, or they think hummus is Moroccan. They're excited about it, but they don't cook it at home because they think it's very complicated, and it's not," says Benkabbou, who was raised in Brussels before moving to the UK, and shared her recipes and food writing through her blog,, before penning her book. "My mission is to bring Moroccan flavours into peoples' homes."

The Leiths trained cook, who was prestigiously crowned Observer Rising Star In Food 2018, really started her own cookery education as a child.

"My oldest memory of my mum is coming home from school and her writing down recipes in front of the TV, because back then we didn't have internet," she remembers. It was Benkabbou's job to play assistant in the kitchen, peeling and chopping, and to be a fellow flavour interrogator when they ate out. "I would taste with her and she would ask me, 'What do you think? Is it rosemary? Is it thyme?' Then we'd go home and try to reproduce it."

The trouble was, her mum always took the lead, "so when I started cooking on my own, I was like, 'Oh my god, I don't know this, I don't know that', there were gaps in my knowledge. I started calling my mum..."

Luckily, she had a very good palate, "and that's how I started reproducing my mum's recipes over the phone," she continues. "I could tell if it was a success or not because I knew exactly how it should taste in my memory." Even now, following a stint training in political science, which gave way to the insistent hunger to pursue cooking professionally, Benkabbou admits with a smile: "I still call her."

Although her food is informed by the dishes her mother and aunts fed and taught the London-based chef, Casablanca is not a tome dedicated to traditional Moroccan cooking. Although the pages may be scattered liberally with traditional Moroccan ingredients and dishes - from ras el hanout and harissa, to tagines and (proper) couscous, and woven through with what gives Moroccan food its essence (vibrance, aromatics, spiciness, sourness and the "influences of so many civilisations - Persian, Arab, French, Ottoman, Turkish") - Benkabbou takes her food heritage and gives it a twist.

"What I aim to do is share traditional dishes and make them more accessible," explains Benkabbou, who is also a supper club host. "I've been eating this food all of my life, and I know how far I can go when I want to tweak a recipe to make it accessible for someone who doesn't know about Moroccan food, so that's what I do."

She also loves to invent fusion dishes - a recent success was Moroccan almond cookies (ghriba), made with Chinese matcha. Do traditional Moroccan cooks mind her playing with classics?

"[Questions] come more from the older generations, but my uncles and cousins will also tell me what I'm doing for our food is really great," Benkabbou muses. "It's very emotional and also makes me very proud that I'm able to share my heritage.

"Every time I share a traditional recipe, there's part of my mum in the recipes and my grandfather - for me it's a wonderful way to give an homage - it makes me really happy."

Casablanca: My Moroccan Food by Nargisse Benkabbou, photography by Matt Russell is published by Mitchell Beazley, priced £20. Available now from

Pistachio Cake


(Serves 8)

250g unsalted shelled pistachio nuts

4 large eggs, separated

100ml olive oil, plus extra for oiling

3tbsp orange juice

1tbsp vanilla extract

150g caster sugar

100g ground almonds

Finely grated zest of 1 large orange

1/2tsp (heaped) salt

1tsp baking powder


1. Preheat the oven to 190°C (170°C fan), Gas Mark 5. Lightly oil a 900g loaf tin and line the base with baking paper.

2. Tip the pistachios into a food processor and pulse until ground to a flour consistency, but take care not to overgrind them, otherwise they could turn into pistachio butter. Transfer the ground pistachios to a bowl.

3. Mix the egg yolks, olive oil, orange juice and vanilla extract together in a large bowl until smooth. Add the remaining ingredients, except the egg whites, to the ground pistachios and mix together, then tip into the wet mixture and stir to combine, making

sure that all the dry ingredients are moist.

4. Using a hand-held electric whisk, whisk the egg whites in a separate large bowl until stiff. Gently fold into the cake mixture with a large metal spoon.

5. Spread the cake mixture in the prepared tin and bake for 35-40 minutes or until the cake is golden and feels spongy to the touch, and a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out a little moist and sticky. Remove from the oven and leave the cake to cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then turn out, slice and serve.

Smoky Zaalouk


(Serves 4)

4tbsp olive oil

2 large aubergines, peeled and chopped into 3cm chunks

4 tomatoes, deseeded and chopped into 3cm chunks

3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

2tbsp chopped fresh coriander, plus extra leaves to garnish

1tbsp lemon juice

1/2tbsp clear honey

1tsp smoked paprika

3/4tsp salt, or more to taste

1/2tsp ground cumin

1/2tsp paprika

1/8tsp cayenne pepper, or more to taste (optional)


1. Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan and add all the ingredients. Cover the pan and cook over a medium-low heat for about 30 minutes until the vegetables are soft, stirring occasionally to make sure they don't stick to the base of the pan.

2. Uncover the pan and crush the vegetables with a potato masher, then leave to cook for about five minutes over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, until all the liquid has evaporated. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding salt if necessary.

3. Serve warm or cold, garnished with a sprinkling of coriander, as a side, dip or spread on khobz.

Harissa Chicken


(Serves 4)

2 onions, sliced

8 garlic cloves, peeled but left whole

4 large chicken legs

1 large sweet potato, cut into large chunks

300g cauliflower florets

2 lemons, sliced

For the marinade:

200ml vegetable stock

Finely grated zest of 3 lemons

3tbsp lemon juice

3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

3tbsp harissa, plus extra to serve

2tbsp olive oil

2tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander

1/4tsp salt, or more to taste


1. Preheat the oven to 200°C (180°C fan), Gas Mark 6.

2. Mix all the marinade ingredients together in a bowl.

3. Spread the onions out in a deep roasting tin and scatter the garlic cloves all over. Place the chicken legs, skin-side up, on top with the sweet potato chunks and cauliflower florets. Pour over the marinade and turn the chicken legs several times to ensure that they are fully coated with the marinade. Top the whole dish with the lemon slices.

4. Bake for about one hour or until the chicken is golden and cooked through. Serve the chicken and vegetables immediately with extra harissa.

Casablanca: My Moroccan Food by Nargisse Benkabbou, photography by Matt Russell is published by Mitchell Beazley, priced £20. Available now from