Good Moroccan food is about seasoning

February 11, 2012 (CHICAGO)

He's found a family-run restaurant in the old Irving Park neighborhood where the menu includes a lot more than those tiny grains.

The vegetables and spices are among the most important components to the meal.

Sure, there's some drama to Moroccan cuisine: the unveiling of the conical, clay tagines.. the aggressive steaming of the miniscule couscous. But the real draw is the seasoning. From spicy harissa to tart preserved lemons, it's a cuisine with an enormous depth of flavor. At Shokran, which is easy to miss while driving down Irving Park Road, all of the recipes are prepared as if they were being served to family.

"The reason it's different, is just the spices we use and different ingredients we use in it; and the way we assemble it," said Khalid Kamal, the owner of Shokran.

The vegetarian sampler requires a number of procedures. Sliced carrots are marinated with preserved lemons, cumin and coriander.. eggplant is roasted, then combined with slow-cooked tomatoes and onions and fresh cilantro, for a dip called zaalouk; roasted peppers join that same tomato sauce, for an earthy taktouka. Even the spinach is unique.

"The fresh spinach is just cooked with olive oil, preserved lemon, green olives and cumin and other spices," Kamal said.

A bit of harissa and some olives are offered in the middle of the plate, but either way, this is addictive dipping.

Tagines are always popular and in one case, lamb shanks are marinated in tumeric and onions, before being slow-cooked over the grill.

"There is one with roasted pepper, another one with artichoke and peas, and one with potatoes and preserved lemon," said Kamal.

In the case of the lamb, hard-boiled eggs, dates and slivered almonds complete the dish. Couscous is also popular here. They steam it, adding succulent pieces of slow-cooked chicken, plus the cooking liquid, which soaks into the tiny grains. Caramelized onions and raisins give the dish a hint of sweetness. Speaking of sweet-and-savory, the bisteeya is truly unique: roasted, pulled chicken, cooked eggs, plus roasted and ground almonds sweetened with sugar, cinnamon and a touch of orange blossom water to make it into a paste.

"Then we take the phyllo dough and put a layer of the chicken, a layer of that sauce with the eggs and layer of the almond paste. We bake it and top it with powdered sugar and cinnamon," he said.

Now there are other cuisines with similar ingredients - Turkish and Lebanese come to mind - but there's nothing quite like the Moroccan pantry, with its really unique spices, and honestly, the tagines and the couscous alone are worth the trip.

4027 W. Irving Pk. Rd.
(773) 427-9130

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