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The infinite variety of harira

"I have made this soup several times in a row and I think it may be the most delicious thing ever" Annabel Crabbe

Yesterday we went to a photography exhibition with friends which was an interesting cultural exercise, but I am here to tell you about lunch at their house - well one dish in particular - Harira - a Moroccan soup.

Monika is one of the best cooks I know and so it is always an immense pleasure to dine with her, and yesterday she didn't disappoint. The simply breadcrumbed and fried sardines were divine - they tasted of the sea. Why is it that sardines seem to be the only fish that truly taste of the sea?

The main course however, was the soup served in a beautiful tureen - most likely sourced from an op shop somewhere. Monika has an amazing collection of treasures from op shops. Why don't we have soup tureens these days? It's such a lovely way to serve soup.

It was indeed one of the best soups I have ever tasted so it was a surprise to hear that it was actually a recipe from Annabel Crabbe who is more well-known as a TV presenter with a special interest in politics and history, than for cooking. It came from this book, which was written in conjunction with her life-long friend Wendy Sharpe who is a recipe developer amongst other things, so maybe she is actually responsible for the recipe. Whoever it was they should take a bow. The taste was immediately recognisable as - well I thought Middle-Eastern at first - but of course Moroccan food uses many of the same spices and flavourings so I suppose I was not far wrong. It was a subtle taste though. Not overpowering and I now see, looking at the recipe that it came from the, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, ras-el-hanout and saffron, as well as the particular selection of vegetables.

Alas the recipe is not online, but if you would like it, Monika photocopied it for me, and I can send you a copy. Or you can try and find a copy of the book.

There are, however, endless versions online, some of which I will come to. And they were all different. Well of course. For this is the soup that the Moroccans traditionally serve to break the fast during Ramadan although it is often served for breakfast anyway. This photograph is from a blogger called Helen Thura of the first version that she tried on a visit to Morocco. I suspect that the accompanying things were chosen by her from a hotel breakfast buffet, but it is indeed

"usually served with lemon slices (or lemon juice), crusty bread, figs, and a honey-rosewater flavored pastry called chebakia." Christine Benlafquih/The Spruce Eats

Helen Thura then went on to tell us of the variety she found in Morocco:

"Some times, it had vermicelli in, some times not.

Some times, it was made on a meat stock base, some times not.

Some times, it was quite a thin soup, some times not.

Some times, it had quite a few lentil varieties in it, some times not.

Some times, it was quite red, sometimes it was more orange.

Every time it was pretty darn tasty, some times just a lot more tasty" Helen Thura

The version she ended up making was one of Claudia Roden's - I think the one from Arabesque, but Claudia Roden herself has several versions - the one below on the right is from her Book of Mediterranean Food, and as you can see they look completely different from each other.

Robert Carrier too has several versions scattered throughout his books. It is not included in his Great Dishes of the World, which may be because it was written before he actually lived there for years. It as definitely written before his A Taste of Morocco, which I suspect is still considered by many to be the definitive text on Moroccan food. I say this because you can find that recipe for harira in several different places, which is interesting because, as I have said, many times, not many of his recipes are online. He also featured it in his New Great Dishes of the World, which I think confirms that he perhaps did not know of it when he wrote the orginal Great Dishes of the World. The picture on the left below is from his Moroccan book, and shows the dates, which are traditionally served with it during Ramadan, and the one on the right is Robert Carrier's Moroccan harira from BBC Good Food. Same recipe - I checked - but looking completely different.

Having now checked out several recipes I now believe, that there is really nothing definitive about this. Even the spices are not always the same, although saffron and cinnamon always seem to be present. Tomatoes, chickpeas and/or lentils too, but the rest it seems to me is a moveable feast. You will find many who say that is is a meat soup - the meat being lamb - Robert Carrier's later recipe had kefteh in it and the original had lamb. But there are many, many, many versions which are vegetarian. Lots of people finish with a dob of yoghurt on top. Others don't. Then there is the last minute addition of either a flour and water, some yeast or eggs to make it silky and smooth. For 'harir' in Arabic means silk or velvet. Annabel Crabbe suggests a glug of oil or a dab of butter. Fundamentally it's a fridge and pantry raid soup isn't it? The sort of soup that a mother in Morocco would fling together with what she had to hand.

And just to emphasise this here are four more versions from here and there on the net - all different: Moroccan lamb, lentil and tomato soup (Harira) - delicious.; Harira (Spiced Moroccan vegetable soup with chickpeas, cilantro and lemon - Joan Nathan/Epicurious; Harira (Moroccan tomato, lentil and chickpea soup) - Christine Benlafquih/The Spruce Eats and Harira - The Mediterranean Dish.

So did Ottolenghi have a go? Well sort of. His is 'inspired by' harira so he calls it Chickpea, carrot and swede soup with herby olives. Now olives are definitely not traditional and he uses harissa rather than other more Moroccan spices, but then I suspect harissa might be his favourite spice mix. It would make the dish hotter though.

I shall certainly be trying the Annabel Crabbe version before too long. Here is my yesterday's portion - it looks small because the soup plates were gorgeously huge. It's very definitely soupy weather, so time to give Annabel Crabbe's harira a go. And then maybe I'll give Robert Carrier's recipe a try, although first I shall have to make a fridge raid soup of another kind from leftover bits and pieces, that won't easily fit into the harira mould. More of an American chowder I think.

Maybe if I make a few different versions of harira I shall be able to wing it and make up my own version.

And I nearly forgot to mention the German apple streusel cake that finished our meal. I think it was apples.

The sun was shining so we ate the cake on the terrace and watched the cockatoos squawking away in a nearby tree.

Thank you Monika.


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May 24
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Both the Sardine entree and the Moroccan soup were definitely 5 Star followed by cheese and then a delightful cake served on the terrace in the late afternoon sun. How could anything be finer, even in the state of Carolina - than lunch cooked by Monika!

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