By Georgia Knoles
RABAT, Morocco — On any given day, filling homes and wafting through the streets of Rabat is the scent of harcha. The pan-fried, semolina flatbread is enjoyed daily by Moroccans with breakfast or afternoon tea. Its availability throughout the day makes it an overseen, undervalued part of local culture.
Its appearance and style of cooking resemble variations of pancakes everywhere. Yet, this crumbly, golden treat is unique to Morocco.
The making of harcha is an artform. The ingredients are few and simple, so the final product is determined by the skill of the maker. In her home in Rabat’s ancient medina, 42-year-old mother of five Chadia Essadiqui, shared her recipe and expertise.
Recipes vary from family to family, as do preferences about how to dress the crisp pancakes. The cook generally makes one or two platter-sized rounds of harcha, which she serves sizzling hot with an assortment of spreads. Sometimes, instead of large pancakes, mothers or street vendors make many smaller harcha rounds, 4 to 6 inches in diameter, which are easily enjoyed by individuals.
Friends and family gather around coffee or traditional mint tea and slice the bread into triangular pieces which they spread with butter and douse in something sweet—jam or honey. Alternately, diners may choose the savory route, decorating their share with soft cheese, olive oil or whole olives. It can be eaten in its original, thick form, or sliced through the middle to produce two thinner pieces.
When asked if it the recipe had come from her mother, Essadiqui immediately shook her head, saying “Non, non, non.” No one ever taught her to make harcha. It was in the streets that she observed the mastery of vendors. “I saw it in the street, just like you did,” Essadiqui said in French. She’d been in the market, grocery shopping, when she stopped to watch. At home, she toyed with measurements until she perfected the pancake.
Years of practice have allowed her to pick, with her fingers, the exact amount she needs from each ingredient with little thought. She kneaded and pounded the dough with a casual smile, explaining that blending the wet and dry ingredients requires “lots of work” to make sure that the consistency is appropriate and that the batter will stick to itself while leaving the pan unmarked.
Essadiqui began her ritual of cuisine in a dimly lit kitchen. With the help of her youngest daughter, Roquaya, 8, she gathered her ingredients. Paying little attention to quantities, she filled a mixing bowl with semolina flour, dusted it with salt, powdered sugar, and yeast, and mixed it with her hands. Next she added about a cup of cooking oil to bind the ingredients.
When the dry ingredients and oil were fully mingled, Essadiqui added the water. With a bare hand, she scooped cold water from the faucet, tossing it into the mix little by little. Many families make harcha batter with milk, but Essadiqui always serves it alongside milk, so in her eyes, it’s not necessary. “In the street, too,” she said. “They don’t use milk because it’s too expensive.” She went on to explain that milk isn’t very costly but for those who make a living off their cooking, it’s best to cut costs when possible.
With the confidence and artistry of a potter at her wheel her hands danced atop the ball of dough, each touch getting her a step closer to perfection.
Finally, Essadiqui oiled the pan and sprinkled the surface with semolina. Here she flattened the dough into a wide disk and smoothed out the edges.
Just outside the door of Essadiqui’s tiny but productive kitchen sits a small four-burner stove where Essadiqui does all her cooking. This is where she placed the harcha, on medium heat, when the flattening had been finished.
She said street vendors may instead have a tabletop griddle or other large flat surface that stays hot throughout the day, but the pan works just as well. Walking down a medina street anytime of day, one can smell harcha sharing a griddle with other pan-fried breads including meloui and msemen. The latter two treats are made with white flour as well as semolina, which creates a more breadlike consistency. The harcha, however, stands out given its density and golden glow.
When the cooking was done, Essadiqui gathered her children around the dining table and began doling out slices. Everyone gladly dove in, except the youngest, Ali. According to his mother, the five-year-old would rather play than eat so he entertained the family with a song and a dance.
Harcha may be a simple food item, but in Essadiqui’s home it’s a reason for the family to come together.