Age-old traditional Moroccan pastry meets new health concern

IMG_0227

By Kayla Dwyer

For more than 65 years, the Ougaamou family has kept tradition alive in the 17th century walled medina, in Rabat, Morocco’s capital — but they are one of very few to do so. From a hole-in-the-wall stand they sell sfenj, traditional Moroccan donuts whose tough and greasy exterior conceals a steaming, flaky inside.

Sfenj? Yes, good, very good — especially with tea, it’s wonderful,” said Youness Elfaleh, 22, whose eyes widen at the thought of the Moroccan oil-fried doughnut. “But I can only eat it one or two times a month.”

The dough for sfenj takes about three to four hours to rise, and should be sticky when it’s ready to fry. These are freshly fried just seconds ago. (Photo by Kayla Dwyer)
The dough for sfenj takes about three to four hours to rise, and should be sticky when it’s ready to fry. These are freshly fried just seconds ago. (Photo by Kayla Dwyer)

This traditional treat may be on its way out of favor even in sweet-loving Morocco. Health concerns like Elfaleh’s are the reason the shop’s proprietor, Mohamed Ougaamou, 70, gives for a drop in the sale of sfenj.

“People don’t want to eat products that are fried in oil — they don’t want to gain weight,” Ougaamou said.

Indeed diabetes is rampant in Morocco and is the second leading cause of adult death, according to the World Health Organization. These days, Moroccans are exhorted to be more health conscious, and Ougaamou says that’s why his stand is one of just two left in the medina that make and sell sfenj. When his father opened the shop in 1950, there were 10 other stands, he said.

Ougaamou uses a simple family recipe. Four fingers scoop out a hole from a ball of dough, made of farina, water, salt and yeast, and drop the special shape — thick with finger-size ripples — into a ten-gallon pot of bubbling hot oil. Proof of its excellence is in how long the sfenj recipe has remained unchanged, says Ougaamou.

Hicham Ougaamou, 38, the son of Mohamed Ougaamou, brought a batch of sfenj to his home to share with his family. (Photo by Kayla Dwyer)
Hicham Ougaamou, 38, the son of Mohamed Ougaamou, brought a batch of sfenj to his home to share with his family.
(Photo by Kayla Dwyer)

Sfenj are sold especially for breakfast and afternoon tea, dipped in sugar or honey and featured at special occasions, like weddings, Ougaamou said. But this simple treat isn’t expensive — five Dirhams for one sfenj, about 50 cents in U.S. currency. Even the poorest family can afford to buy sfenj at least occasionally.

“So it’s easy to share from generation to generation,” Ougaamou said. “What’s special is not the place the person comes from to prepare it. It’s the time, the duration, the tradition.”