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Secret To Moroccan Chicken: Mother’s Community

Rabiaa finishes the table presentation for a traditional meal that will serve herself, three children their cousin. Credit: Copyright 2017 Justine Szafran

RABAT, Morocco – In the old city of Rabat, traditional Moroccan cooking is not just about fresh and savory ingredients. It’s also about a web of relationships that starts at the market stall and stretches all the way to the dining table.

Although she is just 21 and still a university student, Sarah has formed a web of relations built through cooking: at the market, with the baker at the communal oven, in the kitchen with her mother Rabiaa, and with family and friends around the table.

Today she is helping prepare her mother’s chicken with olives and preserved lemon.

Rabiaa usually does the shopping herself, but today Sarah is the one making her way through the market, where stalls brim with pomegranates, vibrant oranges, and rows of carrots, radishes, and cabbage. Amidst the vegetables and fruits, vendors also sell fresh fish, live chickens, and countless varieties of nuts and dates.

Shopping for live chickens

Sarah pauses to greet the chicken seller, an older man in rubber boots and overalls presiding over his noisy flock. Like most sellers here, he slaughters the chickens in front of you when you make your purchase. “He’s been here a long time,” Sarah says. But today she doesn’t need to buy from him – her mother took care of that yesterday.

Instead, she weaves through the crowds, exchanging quick words with vendors she knows. She fills her shopping bag with bunches of carrots, bell peppers of all colors, olives, tomatoes, and cucumbers, all for the salads that will be served alongside the chicken.

Rabiaa prepares the preserved lemon she will use in her chicken dish. Credit: Copyright 2017 Justine Szafran

Rabiaa prepares the preserved lemon she will use in her chicken dish. Credit: Copyright 2017 Justine Szafran

A few winding blocks away, Sarah arrives home and gets to work. Although she is still young, she has developed an experienced, easy relationship with her mother in the kitchen. Rabiaa reaches for five mug-sized plastic containers from a shelf above the sink, each with a different color lid and containing a different spice – among them deep red paprika, sand-colored ginger, and saffron. Rabiaa opens the pot, and her hands fly as she adds the spices, sometimes in pinches and sometimes in handfuls. Next, she adds in the chickens and onions.

When Sarah’s older sister, Hajar, comes home, she trades her coat for slippers, and takes a seat at the table, recounting her first day at her new job as a nurse. While Sarah grew up helping in the kitchen, Hajar always disliked cooking.

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Daughter Sarah, left, and mother Rabiaa, right, explain the significance of chicken with olives and preserved lemons and the bread they are preparing for a family meal at their home in Rabat, Morocco. Credit: Copyright 2017 Justine Szafran

Rabiaa opens the pot and the aroma of spices fills the space. Yet Sarah is most excited about the bread, a traditional recipe including an array of spices and seeds that is made on special occasions.

“Only mom can make this bread,” Sarah says as Rabiaa’s powerful hands knead the dough, later cutting an intricate pattern of lines into its flattened surface. “This bread is only in Rabat,” she adds, and baking it requires one more relationship. The communal oven, which perfumes the street with the smell of charcoal, is located in a little room with an open door a few blocks away.

When her mother finishes molding the dough, Sarah heads down the block, handing the pan to a man standing just inside the oven’s open facade. He carefully places the pan onto glowing coals. Two hours later, with the chickens still simmering, Sarah comes back for the baked bread, joining a little queue of neighbors waiting for their loaves.

Rabiaa prepares the dough for her specialty bread. It will be taken to a communal oven for baking. Credit: Copyright 2017 Justine Szafran

Rabiaa prepares the dough for her specialty bread. It will be taken to a communal oven for baking. Credit: Copyright 2017 Justine Szafran

Finally, Rabiaa turns off the stove. Sarah, Hajar, their older brother Ayad, and cousin, Kamal, drift in, pausing their respective Saturdays to gather around the circular living room table.

Colorful plates of vegetables surround a centerpiece displaying the massive chickens, layered with spices, lemons, and olives. Each family member deftly tears off a piece of bread and dives in, heading straight for the spicy sauce at the bottom of the dish. The five of them then rip into the chicken with their hands as they talk, laugh, and tease.

They finish eating, although the heaping plates in the center are not empty. Kamal chooses a song from the vast library of international pop music on his phone, and Sarah begins to dance and sing along. Soon the whole table, Rabiaa included, is clapping and banging to the rhythm. They linger around the table, drawn together by the power of a shared meal.

Authors Anna Karmel and Carolyn Ward, and photographer Justine Szafran are students at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. This story was produced in association with Round Earth Media, a nonprofit organization that supports the next generation of global journalists.

Chicken with olives and preserved lemons

Yield: 6 servings


2 whole chickens

1 1⁄2 teaspoons powdered saffron

juice of 2 fresh lemons

2 preserved lemons

1 cup red and green olives, pitted

3⁄4 tablespoon powdered ginger

1⁄4 cup olive oil

3 teaspoons paprika

1 1⁄2 teaspoons black pepper

1⁄2 cup fresh chopped parsley

1 1⁄2 tablespoons salt

1⁄2 tablespoon vegetable oil

4 cloves garlic

3 small white onions

1 small red onion


In a large pot combine spices and oil. Mince onions and garlic and add to mixture. Squeeze in fresh lemon juice and mix. Add whole chickens to the pot and cover entirely with the mixture. Add olives and sliced preserved lemon. Put pot on the stove and simmer over medium heat, approximately two hours. Keep pot partially covered, adding cold water to thin sauce as needed.

This story was produced in association with Round Earth Media, which is mentoring the next generation of global correspondents while producing under-reported stories for top-tier media around the world.