This Chef Is Revealing the North African Influence on Mexican Cuisine

Moroccan and Mexican food have striking similarities—and that’s not a coincidence. One Michelin-starred San Francisco chef is exploring this overlap in an exciting new restaurant.

This Chef Is Revealing the North African Influence on Mexican Cuisine

Photo by Holly Wilmeth

If you’ve ever been to Mexico City, you’ve probably had tacos al pastor: warm tortillas filled with marinated pork that’s been sliced off of a vertical spit. And if you’ve ever been 9,000 miles away in Marrakech looking for a late-night snack, you’ve likely ducked into a shawarma shop where the man behind the counter is slicing lamb off of a spit into a warm pita. Despite the differences in meat, bread, and geographical location, the two dishes are similar in style and flavor. Chef Mourad Lahlou noticed this similarity in his own restaurant’s kitchen.

“When I hired the kitchen staff at my first restaurant over 16 years ago, many of them were from Mexico and Guatemala, places where I didn’t have much of a point of reference for their native cuisine,” says Lahlou of the cooks at his now-closed Michelin-star restaurant Aziza in San Francisco’s Outer Richmond neighborhood. “But I remember watching them cook stews for staff meals and at first, I always thought they were cooking Moroccan food because of the way that they used spices and developed layers of flavor. It was so Moroccan to me.”

Lahlou saw similarities between Moroccan and Mexican cultures beyond food, too. While touring the empty storefront that would eventually be his first restaurant, Lahlou noticed that the archways and tiles of the former Mexican restaurant’s decor reminded him of being in Marrakech. He didn’t think much about how or why this was possible and instead looked at it as a convenience, letting him focus on the developing the menu, rather than the decor, of Aziza. Nearly 17 years later, he’s finally channeling that cultural connection for the concept of his new restaurant, Amara.

Spanish for “Moors,” Amara is an opportunity for Mourad and his chef de cuisine, Louis Maldonado, to explore the roots of their respective cultures. But don’t call it fusion. Instead, the two are hitting the sweet spot between Mourad’s Moroccan heritage and Maldonado’s Mexican background, where flavors and ways of cooking and eating are similar. Think cumin, cilantro, mint, coriander, cinnamon, using a flatbread or tortilla as a utensil, and long-simmering stews. Most importantly, gathering around the table to share a meal is essential in both cultures, and Lahlou will be emphasizing that at Amara.

“When I first came to America, I was baffled by how people ate. When I saw people taking food to go or eating while they were walking, it was devastating to me,” said Lahlou. “In Moroccan culture, everyone eats around a table and from the same platter. I grew up feeling like every meal was like a celebration and eating a meal was the great unifier. It brought us all together for nourishment from the same vessel, and it was important for me to bring that essential aspect of Moroccan culture to the restaurant. It’s also something you’ll find in Mexico, and it’s more meaningful than any ingredient or dish.”

So which came first, the lamb shawarma or the al pastor taco?

After hundreds of years of Moorish reign in Spain, many North African ingredients, spices, and techniques seeped into Spanish cooking, such as long-simmered and heavily seasoned stews, the ubiquity of bread with every meal, and the use of beans as a source of protein. And so, the flavors and cooking techniques of Northern Africa—such as roasting seasoned meat on a spit—made their way to Mexico when the Spaniards traveled to what is now North America many centuries ago. The Spaniards famously brought pigs to Mexico as well.

Historical connections aside, Moroccan-Mexican wasn’t the first idea that came to mind when Lahlou thought about opening a new restaurant in the Aziza space. Originally, it was simply “let’s reopen Aziza” (after a ”temporary closure” turned into two years) and have Maldonado come back to run the kitchen while Lahlou focused on Mourad, his Michelin-starred modern Moroccan San Francisco restaurant. But as the two began brainstorming, the idea of a concept change came up and Maldonado started thinking about putting the two cuisines together.

“I texted Mourad and said ‘Hey, let’s do Mexican-Moroccan’ and he said ‘Sure, that sounds good,’ but I don’t think he took me seriously,” said Maldonado. “So I wrote a menu, ran it by my fiancé [who’s now the pastry chef of Amara], and she approved. When I brought it to Mourad and discussed the historical context, he was intrigued. We started working on the food, and we both realized and understood the connections and similarities between the two. It just made sense to us to open Amara.”

So what exactly will you find on the menu of a Moroccan-Mexican restaurant? Don’t expect to book a table for your next taco Tuesday meal at Amara—there won’t be guacamole, salsa flights, or a tortilla in sight. Nor, at this point, will there be anything roasted on a spit like al pastor or shawarma. Instead, you can expect recognizable Mexican flavors put together using the techniques and ingredient combinations brought to Latin America by the Spanish conquistadors who’d spent hundreds of years cooking with Moorish ingredients during the Moors’ reign in Spain. Although the menu hasn’t been finalized yet, diners will likely find beef cheeks braised in mole sauce, a play on fish Veracruz, and a twist on salsa guisado with lamb belly instead of chicharron.

Lahlou was clear with Maldonado that he didn’t want to just put Mexican and Moroccan ingredients together and hope for the best. He wanted each dish to have a backbone and history to it. Diners should be able to get a sense of the genuine Moroccan and Mexican flavor profiles and both cultures in each bite.

“I think the one thing that people are going to be really surprised by with Amara is how harmonious the two cultures are and how similar we all are on so many levels,” says Lahlou. “If everyone stopped for a second and saw each other as fellow humans first, I think people would realize that we all have a lot more in common than most are willing to see or recognize.”

Amara is projected to open in early 2018.

>>Next: The True Tale of Mexico City’s Al Pastor

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