There’s a rhythm in Moroccan Gnawa music called Sha’abi. It’s in 6/8, with the main pulse usually played on a bendir (frame drum) with syncopations from both karakab (castanets) fluidly creating a tension between the triplet and the 16th note- and clapping, by at least two people, forming triplets around a beat of four played against the six. Combined with ostinato bass from a sintir, and singing, it’s some of the most trance-inducing music there is; it can make you leave normal time and enter another temporal dimension for the duration of the song. The combination of acoustic instruments, heavy rubato from the karakab, and intricate interplay of all the parts makes for the musical equivalent of the mosaics or textiles that adorn every possible surface in that lovely country (and incidentally puts most electronic “trance” music to shame.)
I’ve been listening to Gnawa music for a long time, and I’m lucky enough to have some friends who play it- and mutations thereof- exceedingly well. The couple of weeks I spent in Morocco back in 1989-1990 (exactly this time of year) were profoundly influential from a visual, musical, and culinary point of view, and that influence continues to resonate strongly in the main creative areas of my life.
They eat a lot of lamb in Morocco, and its strong flavor takes famously to the spice mixes they use. When I was out shopping for new year’s, I picked up a couple of lamb breasts to use for broth, and waiting to pay for them it occurred to me that lamb might make a wicked pho, since many of the main spices in the soup- anise, cinnamon, clove- are central to ras-el-hanout and other Moroccan blends. Last week’s duck pho was still on my mind, because it gave us so many amazing meals, and I find that lamb has more character than beef, and thus makes a more interesting broth.
So I roasted the ribs, then did the blanch, drain, and refill trick to purge impurities, and added ginger, garlic, peppercorns, cloves, star anise, coriander, lemongrass, and a cinnamon stick to the pot along with half an onion, a carrot, and a slightly droopy celery stalk. I let it simmer low for three hours, then strained it into containers and shredded the meat off the bones and removed all the silverskin and tendon. The next day, I cooked up some udon and served it in a bowl of hot broth to which I added shredded meat, a glug of tosa soy sauce for extra umamification, and a big handful of cilantro since that’s all I had in the way of traditional garnishes for pho. I also stirred some sambal in after the picture to add some heat and double the deep garlic-ginger-citrus line in the broth an octave or two higher.
There’s no question that lamb makes a brilliant pho; this broth was hypnotic. The various flavors united and divided in a kaleidoscopic dance that never let any one component dominate; the effect was musical in its immersive and moving totality. The ways in which “sweet” spices play against meat is a common fundament to many cuisines, but this particular example was so evocative that I sort of dropped through the bowl into another food dimension for a minute. There are so many ways in which this could be tweaked: couscous in place of udon, and harissa instead of sambal would make much more Moroccan, and if I added a little of the preserved yuzu I put up last month in place of lemongrass it would veer off into a different kind of Mahgreb-Asian hybrid. It’s going to be fascinating to mess with these possibilities through the rest of soup season.