5 Chicago Restaurants with Moorish Influences

Admire the laden plates at Chicago’s Sicilian, Spanish and Moroccan restaurants and there’s a common thread drawn from the pages of history: every region was ruled by the Moors at some point, and the influence is clear.

Saffron, rice, eggplant, spinach, pickled fish, sugar cane, almonds and pistachios are just a sprinkling of the many ingredients the Moors introduced to these cuisines. The complex lesson of world history plays out in North African, Andalusian and Sicilian cuisine, if you know where to look.

In the early Middle Ages, after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in AD 632, the Byzantine Roman Empire was losing its territories in northwest Africa to the Umayyad Caliphate, which was ruled from Damascus, Syria. Throughout the 7th century, the Umayyads developed rapidly.

Many indigenous peoples of northwest Africa, whom the Romans called Berbers, became Islamized and Arabized to varying degrees as Arabs integrated, marrying Berbers and building societies together. Soon, a combined Umayyad force of Arabs and Berbers – now known as Moors – conquered Spain and Portugal. About a century later, the Emirate of Sicily is declared.

Hundreds and hundreds of years later, the impact is still present in the flavors of a wide range of cuisines, including the dishes found at these five Chicago-area restaurants.

“The Arabs introduced dried fruits and perhaps also the idea of ​​sweet and savory cuisine,” says Khalid Kamal, owner of Moroccan restaurant Shokran in the Old Irving Park neighborhood. When the Arabs arrived in Morocco, Algeria, and other countries in what they called the Maghreb (“the west”), they found a vast area of ​​already developed agriculture. Berber societies had kings who enjoyed gastronomy, and local Jews and Christians incorporated their own culinary creativity.

Shokran’s Chicken Bastilla ($11) is like a time capsule of this period and the end of the Moorish era. Described in Andalusian cookbooks from the 13th century and served at modern Moroccan weddings, bastilla is a shredded chicken pie cooked in a stew with onions, ginger, cinnamon and turmeric. The stew is mixed with eggs, parsley, toasted almonds and orange blossom water. Stuffed in a phyllo shell, the bastilla is then baked and dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar.

“Moroccan cuisine is based on slow cooking so the spices don’t burn and can release their flavors properly,” said Kamal, who grew up on a farm near Fez in northern inland Morocco. He often watched his mother and friends get together to drink tea and make couscous, rolling every little grain by hand. “The biggest challenge in making these dishes successful is the process,” he said.

4027 W. Irving Park Road, 773-427-9130, shokranchicago.com

In Spain, the Moors introduced pickling, and if you go to La Boqueria, a Spanish restaurant in the heart of the Fulton Market district, you can try the white anchovy boquerones ($12). Other Moorish-inspired tapas include pintxos morunos lamb skewers ($15), vegetarian escalivada ($15) with fire-roasted eggplant and labne yoghurt, and roasted broccoli ($14) with ajo blanco almonds, sumac, raisins and mint.

807 W. Fulton Market, 312-257-3177, boqueriarestaurant.com

Feel like you’ve wandered into the kitchen of a welcoming Castilian family at this Spanish restaurant in the southern suburbs, where the paella is served piping hot and the sangria is strong. In Spanish, many Moorish dishes and ingredients start with the letter A: arroz (rice), aceituna (olives) and also albóndigas (meatballs), which you’ll find at both La Boqueria ($17) and La Vieja Castilla to Blue Island ($8).

13023 S. Western Ave., Blue Island; 708-577-4578; facebook.com/LaViejaCastillaBlueIsland

At Bocadillo Market in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, chef James Martin offers tuna crudo with citrus-harissa dressing ($19) and almond tart with pickled cranberries ($12).

“Arab-Berber flavors bring me a lot of passion, and the story helps me cook this food because of this African influence,” Martin said. “These flavors can come in so many different ways, from delicate airy tuna to hearty smoked lamb chops.”

Sicily is such a melting pot – with descendants from mainland Italy and Greece; Arabs; Berbers converted to Islam; and the exiled Jews of Andalusia – that, just as with Moroccan cuisine, it is difficult to separate this intertwining web of ethnicities to tell who contributed to which thread.

“Many groups have influenced Spanish cuisine, but the Moors have the most concentrated influence because of all the ingredients they brought and how they advanced things like olive oil production. olive,” Martin said. “They learned how to preserve fish centuries before refrigeration, and now we’re creating that as a luxury. This culture ate well and healthily.

You’d be hard pressed to find another region of Italy that uses mint so liberally in pastas and meats. Aubergine caponata or sardines with pine nuts, raisins and saffron are striking examples of “agrodolce” (sweet and sour). Jasmine water is used in granitas and watermelon puddings. Marsala and its wine are named after “the port of Allah” (Marsa Allah), and the wine is found in rich sauces and dessert sabayon.

2342 N. Clark St., 773-857-0331, bocadillomarket.com

Even the arancini, the breaded and fried rice balls you’ll find at Sfera Sicilian Street Food ($9), date back to the 10th century, when the Kalbid dynasty ruled Sicily.

Sfera, which is run by chefs Steven Jarczyk and Daniela Vitale, has scaled back its operations during the pandemic, focusing on pop-ups. This spring, however, they opened a take-out outlet with a small counter in Edgewater.

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“We’re excited to expand our ingredients in a way we didn’t have the space before, so you’ll see dishes featuring pomegranate, mint infused juices, cassata cake and more. “, said Jarczyk.

847-957-3045, sferachicago.com

Nikki O’Neill is a freelance writer.

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