When you learn to make traditional Moroccan harira from Meme Suissa, you're not learning to make harira from Meme Suissa. You're learning to make harira from her mother, from her grandmother, and so on. You're learning a recipe that goes back centuries.
But of course Meme uses no recipe. Her daughter Kathy Shapiro stood by and wrote down the amounts for ingredients that have never before been quantified. Meanwhile, I stood across from Meme and watched her cook — watched her measure onions in the palm of her hand and spices between her three fingers. Many times, she didn't even look at what she was picking up; she just knew the feel and the weight by the experience of her 84 years.
Harira is a traditional Moroccan soup. In the Suissa home in Casablanca, and then in Montreal, it was served at festive meals as well as everyday dinners. What makes the soup special is the slurry of flour and water added for thickening, followed by fresh-squeezed lemon juice beaten with egg. The jolt of acid brightens the flavors of the vegetables and chicken and puts the soup squarely into the tradition of Greek avgolemono and Persian stews and soups that rely on sour limes, sumac and other such flavorings. Make it correctly, and every bite will reveal new flavors.
It's a one-dish meal, complete with garbanzo beans, lentils, noodles, egg, many vegetables and, if you like, chicken. You could eat a salad with it, but you won't have room for much more.
Harira, gentle and nourishing, belongs to both Muslim and Jews in Morocco. The Jews eat it to break the Yom Kippur fast (well, that and a shot of fig liquor). The Muslims serve it during Ramadan.
More after video.
When I first asked Meme to show me how she makes the harira, it was the dead of winter — and I can't imagine a better soup to have on a cold day. But made with the first vegetables of spring or the ripe tomatoes of summer, the soup is adaptable to any season.
As for spicing, Meme told me people in Morocco like the soup with fresh or dried chili. But her family, she lamented, never likes it spicy.
Making the harira couldn't be easier. Meme sautéed carrots, onions and celery, added her spices, her stock and tomatoes and let it simmer. Then she mixed together and added flour and water to thicken, then the egg and lemon juice, along with some noodles. She boiled it for a short while longer, and it was ready.
While it was cooking, we sat down — and maybe it was the smell of the soup suffusing a kitchen near Pico Boulevard that sparked her memory — but Meme began to reminisce about life in Casablanca.
Everyone lived together, joined by private courtyards, shaded by lemon and orange trees. The men returned from work for long lunches, the children played together, the women had help.
“We had a very good life,” she said.
After the Six-Day War caused a backlash against Jews in Arab countries, the Suissa family left for Montreal, and Meme’s life changed drastically. She and her husband worked long hours, scrimping to raise children without help, the extended family dispersed across a cold, snowy city.
The one constant was the food, brought from Morocco, unchanged. In her son David’s kitchen, Meme conjured up the memory of Casablanca again, hot and (gently) spiced, in a bowl.
Meme Suissa's Moroccan Harira Soup
This is Meme Suissa’s recipe as written down by her daughter, Kathy Shapiro. For a vegetarian version, you may substitute vegetable broth and omit the chicken. That’s our suggestion, not Meme’s.
- 2 cups diced onions
- 2 cups diced celery
- 1 cup chopped parsley
- 1 cup chopped cilantro
- 1/4 cup olive or vegetable oil
- 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon dried red chili (optional)
- 1-2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- 1 cup green lentils, rinsed
- 1 can (15 ounce) garbanzo beans, peeled
- 1 can (15 ounce) crushed tomatoes or 4 medium chopped fresh tomatoes
- 2 quarts or more good chicken broth*
- 1 egg
- 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 cup flour
- 4 cups cold water
- 3/4 cup extra fine egg noodles
- Half of a cooked chicken, cubed or shredded, white and dark meat (from chicken used to make broth)
- 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Whisk together flour and water, set aside.
Beat egg and lemon juice, set aside.
Heat oil and add onion, celery, cilantro, parsley, turmeric, chili (if desired) and 1 teaspoon salt.
Sauté over medium/high heat until well-cooked and blended, about 10 minutes.
Add 1 quart of the stock, lentils, garbanzos and tomatoes, bring to a boil.
Reduce heat and simmer until lentils are tender but not too mushy, about 20-25 minutes.
Add remaining stock, chicken, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon pepper and continue to simmer another 5 minutes.
While stirring slowly, stream in egg/lemon mixture, followed by half of the flour/water mixture.
Bring to a low boil. Stir in noodles.
At any point, add a bit of stock, water or flour mixture to desired consistency. The soup should be hearty and somewhat thick.
Stir in remaining 1/4 cup cilantro. Add salt to taste.
*Meme makes hers with a whole chicken, water and onion, salt and pepper, simmered for a couple of hours.