An immense pie of thin, flaky pastry filled with spiced pigeon, lemony eggs, tangy onion sauce and toasted sweetened almonds, fried and then dusted with cinnamon and sugar--this is bisteeya. Elaborate and festive, it is the most captivating of all Moroccan first courses, a pièce de résistance for weddings and birthdays. Moroccans also eat this pie in a dramatic way, by plunging the thumb and two fingers of the right hand into the hot pastry and scooping out a portion to eat--a practice Americans might consider too messy.
Though to my mind classic bisteeya is one of the world's great dishes, it is too rich for many occasions. Moroccan cooks have developed a lighter seafood version that is so good it has become a favorite even in traditional Moroccan homes, which proves that cuisines are always in transition.
In the wonderful bisteeya variation that follows, fish fillets and shrimp are seasoned with charmoula, the Moroccan marinade that is typically used for fish, vegetables and chicken. Charmoula combines the forceful green flavor of fresh cilantro and parsley, the bite of hot pepper, the pleasant sweetness of tomatoes, the tang of fresh lemon, the pungency of preserved lemon and the richness of olive oil. In its fabulous complexity, it virtually defines Moroccan fish cookery.
I heard rumors about a seafood bisteeya in the late Seventies. To find it, I tracked down Mohammed Boussaoud, a tall, lanky chef at La Mamounia Hotel in Marrakech, who shared his recipe with me. He used spiced fine noodles in place of the buttery almonds, and sandwiched the shrimp and fish between layers of those noodles and fresh spinach leaves, which helped the seafood remain moist and hold its texture despite long cooking. Cut into wedges, this bisteeya makes a fine lunch dish or first course--one that should be eaten with a fork.