Flash in the Pan 

Navigating the Jewish cuisine of Morocco

Abe Abramson opens his Perugia Passport and shows me the stamps. Finland, Portugal, Yemen—just three of the 31 “ports of call” he has visited with Captain Ray Risho, founder of Perugia Restaurant in Missoula. Tonight, Abe gets a “Morocco” stamp.

There is a huge tree in the middle of the room, its extended branches heavy with leaves stretching to all corners. Lanterns hang from the limbs. Two more trees are built into the walls, their branches intertwining with those of the central tree to form a woven ceiling. It looks like we’re in a Greek garden, but we are in Perugia’s brand new dining room, fresh and unspoiled as springtime, so new the room doesn’t even have a name yet. Green and white tiles wind like snakes across the floor. Sam, son of Ray and Susie Risho, renovated this room as a surprise for his parents when they were out of town.

Ray kicks off the big night with a speech, the most mouth-watering history lesson ever. But this tale is by no means pure bourbon and bingo. Ray tells of the Sephardim, descendants of Jews who lived in Europe’s Iberian Peninsula for centuries. In the late 1400s, it became, shall we say, problematic to be Jewish in Spain and Portugal, and 250,000 Jews fled to North Africa and the Middle East, where they were welcomed into the lands of the Ottoman Empire by the Sultan of the Turks.

The Moroccan Jews were among the largest Jewish populations in the world before the creation of modern-day Israel. And for many years, they had it pretty good. The Iberian culinary styles they brought across the straight of Gibraltar mixed with Turkish, North African, and, later, French influences, resulting in such savory dishes as The Bride’s Pigeons: game hens stuffed with rice, apricots, prunes, currants, dates, nuts, and served with an onion sauce of lemon and honey. This dish was traditionally presented to newlyweds on their wedding night, to ensure a sweet life full of love. Ray points out that although many of the dishes on tonight’s menu are traditionally served on special occasions, they were a part of everyday life too, “not just for Bat Mitzvahs and circumcisions.”

But when the Ottoman Empire crumbled, many Sephardic Jews suddenly found themselves in hostile territory. Many bolted for Israel as soon as it became an option. Today, about 15,000 Jews remain in Morocco, some of whom hosted Ray’s son Abe Risho, Perugia’s new head chef, when he spent a month studying the culinary habits of these Arab, French, and Hebrew-speaking people. Perugia’s former head chef concluded his speech with a detailed description of what was on the menu for the evening.

Every month, the good ship Perugia sails to a different “port of call.” Last month’s port of call was the cuisine of Palestine. May 30 will be the cuisine of the Armenian Caucasus Mountains, whose Arab/Slavic language has produced some of the most difficult-to-pronounce names in the culinary universe. Each course of the five-course meal—of which the appetizer itself consists of five courses—includes a different glass of wine, each glass specially selected by a visiting representative from a different winery each month. The $55-per-plate price tag includes gratuity.

This month’s wine representative stood up and announced that he was from Ernest and Julio Gallo. At first I thought he was kidding. But no, I learned a lot of things that night, including that Ernest and Julio comes in a lot of varieties, the best of which don’t even say “Ernest and Julio” on the label.

But soon it was time to head for the kitchen and investigate firsthand if such delights of which Ray spoke really exist on this earth. Fish sears in pans, filling the kitchen with the complex aroma of harissa, a spice rub made from cumin, cayenne, coriander, cinnamon, and salt. Sous chef Dom Martin seasons a chickpea and spinach soup. Abe Risho garnishes a phyllo dough-encased pigeon pie of egg, almonds, and chicken, while the kitchen crew snaps photos. I taste the best olive of my life, plump and warm, floating in orange sauce. The liver sauté was as red as red meat can be, rich and without a problem. Desert was a sweet almond paste with orange blossom essence, rolled in buttered phyllo dough, coiled into a rose, and sprinkled with powdered sugar.

There’s just something so good about chasing rich and succulent food with a mouthful of wine. Back in the dining room, the droning roar of the feasting celebrants reaches a fevered pitch as the wine cases refill with empty bottles. Chef Boy Ari bumps into the Ernest and Julio man just in time, and sucks down a new glass of Anapamu Paso Roble like he just crawled across a big ol’ desert.

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