Not Your Average Couscous

Chef Kamal Albaz is hoping to shatter stereotypes about Moroccan food at Al Maghreb, his meticulously designed restaurant that recently opened in Tel Aviv.

The entrance to the small space on Menachem Begin Road in Tel Aviv, wedged between a sandwich bar and a shawarma joint, is surprising. From the very first glance it's clear that Al Maghreb is a thoroughly designed restaurant. Slowly but surely, over the course of a four-month renovation, its walls were covered in original Moroccan mosaics. The restaurant's chef, Kamal Albaz, who came to Israel 12 years ago from Morocco, also helped in the project.

Albaz, who is 41 and lives in Beit Safafa, quietly opened Al Maghreb two months ago, without any publicity. He bemoans what he calls "the Israelis' fixation on couscous and oil."

food - David Bachar - November 23 2010
David Bachar

"It's a pity the Israelis know couscous mainly through the food fairs at shopping malls or through the fast food stalls," he explains. "Moroccan dishes don't need oil in them at all. They have many varied flavors in them, as well as many fruits and vegetables. This is true slow cooking."

Albaz speaks on Skype with his family in Fez and Marrakesh twice a week, to update recipes and experiment with food. His cuisine is natural, healthy and to a large extent also organic; it includes no fried food at all. And above all, the dishes he makes are refined and tasty - real Moroccan cuisine worth getting to know.

Albaz is a serial entrepreneur. He happened to come to Israel in 1998, as part of a Foreign Ministry course: A group of farmers from Morocco were brought to Israel for a training course on agricultural technology that lasted several months. The course ended and Albaz returned to Morocco, but he quickly returned to Israel thanks to a new love named Nadira. Today she is his wife and the mother of their daughter Zahara, 9.

He transitioned from agriculture to work in the kitchen of the Darna restaurant in Jerusalem, first as a sous chef and then as chef.

"I always loved being in the kitchen," he explains. "They offered me the job and I went for it. I discovered that I enjoy cooking very much. I invented dishes, combined ingredients and started to dream of branching out on my own."

In 2004 he opened a restaurant with partners in the Dead Sea area, called Hamsa, and then he received an offer to open a restaurant at the Jerusalem supermarket Zmora Organic.

"I liked the combination of organic food and Moroccan cooking. I sold my share in Hamsa and started something new," he recalls. At his restaurant at Zmora Organic, Albaz prepared slow-cooked and healthy Moroccan dishes, including quinoa couscous, brown rice, organic tomato salad and whole wheat bread. These offerings and others now appear on the menu at Al Maghreb - the restaurant he's opened in partnership with Moshe Yitzhaki.

Tel Aviv arrival

"I wanted to get to Tel Aviv, because I felt I had something to contribute here," he explains. "There are many aspects to the Moroccan kitchen. I visit Morocco a lot and see the developments in the field. For example, pastilles [flaky pastries] are no longer coated in powdered sugar but rather in honey and lemon, because it's healthier. They aren't frying things, they're paying attention to ingredients, they're looking for more natural fats and they're baking everything in the oven. And most importantly, they are not grabbing food, but devoting time to it."

"The whole family eats lunch and dinner together," he says, recalling his upbringing in Marrakesh, in a home where everyone loved food. "They don't grab snacks between meals. Two hours are allotted for lunch, during which they eat slowly and drink tea. The slow eating and the slow cooking are the key to better nutrition. If you set aside two hours a day for lunch, it's impossible to eat poorly. There is time to cut up vegetables and then do the cooking. If someone is missing from the dining table they immediately ask: 'What happened?' and they don't accept an excuse like work. There has been an infiltration of junk food into Morocco, but it's a slow one."

No shortcuts

"When you talk about Moroccan cooking in Israel, people immediately think of sfinj [sweet fritters] and mufleta [fried flatbread], but this doesn't reflect the reality," he continues. "At my restaurant I prepare 10 to 12 salads every day for starters. We make and roll out the leaves of dough for the pastilles ourselves. I don't believe in taking shortcuts with food."

As noted, the restaurant's design is not haphazard either. The floor and walls were designed in the zellij method - hand-fitted mosaic designs made with colored stones. The iron tables were also surfaced in the same manner and the iron chairs were imported from Morocco, as were the molds and some of the utensils.

Thanks to the interest generated by the authentic design, Albaz has also launched a company that carries out renovations in the Moroccan style, using suitable raw materials and employing workers skilled in the complicated technique of setting the stones.