Pastilla is one of those dishes that tricks the eye. You see a sugar-dusted pie made with flaky dough, so, of course, you think sweet. But once you bite into the meat filling, you realize it's much more complex than that—especially if you're biting into Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully's version from the new Nopi cookbook ($40).
The duo behind the popular London restaurant of the same name combine rich chicken cooked with garlic, cinnamon, chipotles and brandy with Catalan spinach made with currants, pine nuts and heavy cream, and wrap it all up in a petticoat of delicate phyllo for a deeply rich and only slightly sweet pastry showstopper (see the recipe).
Though pastilla (which is sometimes spelled bisteeya or bastila, or several other ways for that matter) is rarely seen in restaurants, it is the crowned prince of Moroccan cooking, a beloved classic reserved for special occasions and honored guests. It's "so intricate and grand, so lavish, and so rich that its extravagance always reminds me of The Arabian Nights," culinary scholar Paula Wolfert writes in Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco.
Pastilla "epitomizes Moroccan food," Moroccan-born chef Mourad Lahlou of Mourad restaurant in San Francisco explains. "It marries the sweet and the savory in one dish. . . . It's the most glorious dish that we can serve somebody."
At festive dinners, he explains, it's placed on the table still steaming before a group of guests as the first course. "That's the wow moment. . . . It's like a little present. You dig in with your fingers—there's that interaction with the heat and crunch, and everyone's nibbling at it until they get to the center. It's almost a spiritual experience," he adds.
Despite its celebrated role in Moroccan cooking, no one can seem to quite agree on the origins of the dish. "In Morocco, they say it is an Andalusian dish, while in Spain, they say it is Moorish," cookbook author Claudia Roden explains. But pastilla's roots in Morocco run deep: The technique for making it has changed little over the years, and there are still boys in the streets of Marrakech selling freshly made warka, the dough traditionally used, Ottolenghi tells me. The filling, however, has seen interpretations from several chefs: Lahlou serves his stuffed with duck confit and almonds, while the creative rendition at Nopi came from the work of several cooks.
RELATED Pastilla Soon »
"I found recipes from old ladies in Morocco [online]," Scully recalls. He started there, making a classic pastilla filled with pigeon, egg and saffron. But over time he tweaked the filling, using rabbit or venison and dried Chinese dates, ultimately switching to a chicken and Catalan spinach recipe that came from the father of a new cook working at the restaurant. (The pair even riffed on a dessert rendition during our meeting, made with fried custard or a sorrel crème anglaise and sour apples that could show up on a menu at Nopi someday.)
As for the recipe in the book, Ottolenghi says, "This is one of the epic ones," referencing a joke in the introduction about potentially creating a chapter of "epic" recipes. They ultimately decided against it, but Nopi, unlike Ottolenghi's other acclaimed books, is geared more toward a restaurant cook or an accomplished home cook than a beginner (though there are exceptions).
"This is a recipe for people who want to get together on the weekend and want to cook something interesting with a certain amount of commitment," Ottolenghi says. But don't let that intimidate you. The recipe requires time but little else, using relatively simple techniques throughout and producing exceptionally nuanced results worthy of a special occasion ("It's all about giving it a little bit of spice and having the sweetness," Ottolenghi says), like the ones served in Morocco.
And once the cooking is done, so is most of dinner. "I would serve it with hardly anything," Ottolenghi says. Perhaps just a salad, "something fresh and zingy and very light."
Please check your inbox to verify your email address.