Picture this. November 1621 in Plymouth, New England. Recently arrived Pilgrims give thanks for the blessing of the harvest and celebrate by feasting on Turkey and pecan pie, making the most of the rustic surroundings and the declining warmth and light.
Now picture this. November 1621 in Marrakesh, Morocco. Zidan al-Nasir, Sultan of Morocco, resides in the magnificent El Badi palace built by his illustrious father. It is the muslim New Year, a month of peace and mourning. It is mild, probably about 20 degrees, sunshine all day.
Some people fast, others indulge themselves. I imagine the Sultan tucking into a Djej Mathisha Mesla, which is an ancient Moroccan chicken dish with tomatoes, honey and cinnamon which we discovered from Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean Cookery many years ago.
Djej Mathisha Mesla (Chicken in Sweet Tomato Jam)
4 chicken quarters from the butcher
3 garlic cloves
1 stick of fresh Ceylon cinnamon
1 thumb of fresh ginger
1 tin of chopped Italian tomatoes (or fresh if you have really good ones)
2 tablespoons of fragrant honey
2 oz (50g) blanched almonds
1 tablespoon of sesame seeds
Chop and sweat the onion, garlic and ginger with a little oil and remove from the pan. Add a little more oil and brown the chicken pieces. Return the onion mix to the pot. Add the tomatoes and season well with salt and strong pepper. Break the cinnamon stick into four pieces and add three of them to the pot. Cook gently in the oven for about an hour, until the chicken can easily be pulled off the bone.
Remove the chicken and reduce the sauce further to a sizzling cream, stirring often and taking care that the bottom does not stick or burn. Stir in some of the honey but taste the mix as you go – you don’t want the honey to drown out the other sweet tastes. Once you are happy with the taste, add the chicken pieces back to the sauce and mix well. Leave warm.
Toast the almonds and sesame seeds in a dry frying-pan.
Serve the chicken hot, covered with the sauce. Garnish with the almonds and sesame seeds and finally grate the remains of the cinnamon stick freshly over the dish. Serve with rice or couscous.
(The Sultan would have got his fresh Ceylon cinnamon from the Portuguese, with whom he had many ransom dealings and who had by then colonized the island for its cinnamon.)
PS did you know that Morocco was the first country to recognize America as a nation in 1777? As US President in 1789, George Washington wrote to Mohammed III to thank him for Morocco’s support:
“This young nation, just recovering from the waste and desolation of a long war, has not, as yet, had time to acquire riches by agriculture or commerce. But our soil is beautiful, and our people industrious, and we have reason to flatter ourselves that we shall gradually become useful to our friends… I shall not cease to promote every measure that may conduce to the friendship and harmony which so happily subsist between your empire and [the US].”