Moroccan Chicken Bastila: step-by-step recipe with photos

Bastila is a Moroccan dish made from chicken, eggs and almonds, layered and wrapped in phylo dough.  The word comes from Spanish “pastilla” which I am assuming refers to the thin crispy layers of dough.  Who knows if this dish still exists in Spain, but “history” (i.e. wikipedia) tells us that the Moors brought this dish with them when they were driven out of Spain in the late 1400’s.  Today it is served ubiquitously at special occasions, usually as an appetizer ahead of a meat dish.

I’ve been wracking my brains for ideas to help some of the struggling ladies I know, which is hard to do since my brain actually liquefied and oozed out of my ears a long time ago in this 110 degree heat.  But thankfullyI retained that 10 percent of our brains that we actually use.  So it dawned on me that knowing  how to make bastila is a potentially marketable skill.  In Morocco, women who know how to make it can get commissioned by their neighbors or by local catering companies.  It’s something they can do at home and at their own pace.  But for a large number of Moroccan women, there are two basic challenges when it comes to a home industry like making bastila.  One is illiteracy.  So they can’t read recipes, something most of us take for granted.  Another challenge is not being able to afford the ingredients in order to practice a few times.  These things pose such a huge mental block that women won’t even try.

I wanted to find a way to overcome both challenges.  The idea came to have  a series of cooking classes, free to the participants, funded by outside donations.  We held the first one last Sunday, at the school I work at CLC Morocco (www.clcmorocco.org).  When our school cook, Khadija, heard about the project, she immediately volunteered to teach the class.  Khadija is great cook, but more than that she has a fun-loving confident personality that puts even the shyest and most awkward among us at ease.  As for the participants, we started with a small group of 5 women, some of whom I’ve blogged about here, so if you’ve been reading, you have an idea of the challenges these women face.

As they worked, I took pictures in order to make a picture recipe book that the women can follow another time.  Seeing and participating in making the dish the first time would give them the initial confidence they would need to try it again.

First they prepared and laid out all the ingredients.  From left to right, top: powdered sugar and regular, 1 kg almonds, 1 kg onions, 2 chickens; middle row: 1 gram saffron threads, fake saffron food coloring, 3 cinnamon sticks, peppe, ginger, chopped coriander, smen (ghee), and 1 kg of the bastila sheets called warqa in Arabic; last row: Ras el Hanout spice mix, salt, 3-4 garlic cloves, oil, melted butter.  Missing from this picture are 15 eggs and orange blossom water.

I have to warn you, making bastila is a long process.  It’s a labor of love that I don’t actually expect you or myself to make.  But just for fun, here’s how it’s done.

First, the chicken is set to stew with lots of salt, pepper, ground ginger, ras el hanout (about 2 large spoons each, Moroccan cooks don’t give exact measurements).  There is also a good cup of oil, about a quarter cup of smen (gheen), the onions, garlic, saffron and coriander. Khadija told us that some people prefer to leave the coriander whole in a small bouquet, then fish it out at the end.  She prefers to add it chopped, but she said “you do it however you want”.  That is basically the philosophy behind Moroccan cooking, measurements are eyeballed, the dish is tasted at various intervals and tweeked, and no two cooks will make the same exact recipe.

Stir the chicken in the pot.  It’s going to smell really good really quick, but don’t start to falter, although your mouth may start to water, the end is *not* in sight.  

Good yellow chicken.  Moroccans will not tolerate white chicken.  While the chicken is cooking, you can work on the almonds, see bellow.

When it’s good and cooked, the chicken is removed from the sauce, left to cool and de-boned.  Stage one complete.

Next, skim off a small bowlful of the sauce, add it to the chicken to avoid dryness.  Now start the egg stage.  About 12 or so eggs will be broken straight into the sauce and stirred.

Keep stirring until they look like this.  Then transfer them to a colander and let all the excess water drain out.  Stage 2 complete.  

The almonds now.  These take a while so it’s best if you do this step the day before.  It’s tedious and depressing to do this alone, be warned, so call your friends and make it a bastila-making party.  In our cooking class, there were like 5 ladies plus Khadija plus me working, cleaning, laughing (in my case, snapping photos and running out for random ingredients that we ran out of) and it still took about 2-3 hours from start to finish.  The almonds need to be washed, boiled, skinned, dried, and fried.  If you know Moroccan cooking, then you know what I mean.  For the bastila, Khadija’s method was to take the now prepared almonds and add cinnamon (1 large spoon), regular sugar (a bowlful, to taste, personally I like mine good and sweet), a few tablespoons of orange blossom water.  Then the almonds are pulsed in a food processor until they are coarsely ground.  Then Khadija added a good half a cup or so of melted butter.  Mmm!

Stage 3 complete.  Now on to the great assembling of the bastila.  Here you have 2 things on hand, a bowlful of melted butter (check your diet at the door) and a bowl with 2 beaten eggs (remember the eggs are the glue that keeps the bastila sheets together).  In Morocco, we order bastila sheets at the local bakery the day before.

First butter the pan.  Lay the first sheet down, half hanging out of the pan.
Step by step instructions for Moroccan bastila with photos

Add four more overlapping sheet, brushing egg in between them, and brushing butter on top.
A fifth sheet is added in the center, egged and buttered.

Now take your chicken and eggs and mix them up (who cares which came first, hehe).  Lay them down for the first layer.  It should be a good 1.5 – 2.5 inches thick.  With the amounts we used, we had a good third left over (we made little bastilas out of the leftover filling).

Place a bastila sheet over that layer.  Not everyone does this, some prefer to just add the almonds directly.  

Now add the coarsely ground almonds.

Now add another bastila sheet smack dab in the middle, and start to fold all the flaps over. 

Always egg and butter.

At the very end, you add one last bastila sheet to cover the whole thing.  Tuck it in nicely all around and butter the top.

Put it in to cook, about 45 minutes, until the bastila is golden brown and crispy.  At this point I sort of dropped the ball on photos and did not get a PHOTO OF THE FINISHED BASTILA.  Doh!  At the end, you decorate it with powdered sugar and cinnamon.  It is so good, I’d place it among the top 5 best Moroccan dishes.  Oh yeah, and you can’t get it in restaurants, well, not really, unless you go to those swanky places that serve pigeon bastila at exorbitant prices.  Homemade is always better!

But you can sort of see it in this picture along with the apprentice cooks.

It was such an enjoyable day.  I think the ladies learned a lot from Khadija (she’s second from left here).  She has had lots of experience cooking for riads and for catering services, so she has the confidence it takes.  These women on the other hand, have worked mostly as maids, receiving orders, so maybe do not have that confidence.  The cost of the ingredients for this dish and the fruit tarts they made afterwards was about 300 dirhams (40 dollars).  It’s not a lot, but in Morocco it can be a week’s salary.  Someone had given me this money and said, do something for the ladies.  This turned out to be an awesome use of the money.   Khadija also insisted that we buy the ladies proper white uniforms, which made them feel like real students.   And these ladies who are so used to serving others, their employers and families, well on this day they were the guests of honor, since we all sat down and ate the bastila together.  For me, it was a perfect day combining several of my favorite things (things I have not yet figured out how to get paid for doing, lol): networking, planning, empowering women, photography, eating and finally breaking through the blogger’s block!

20 thoughts on “Moroccan Chicken Bastila: step-by-step recipe with photos

  1. Please send me a huge amount of bastillia as soon as possible! I absolutely love it
    but in rather small quantities.
    Once when we were down in Zagora at a hotel where they served huge chunks of lamb the waiters noticed that Robert wasn’t eating much. They asked him what he liked and the next night produced a HUGE bastillia……
    and stood round watching us eat it until we were almost busting…..
    a funny memory.
    Your students look so sweet and enthusiastic. What a really worthwhile project.

  2. Dear Nora. So happy you’re blogging again! Amazing project. My boyfriend and I are booth drooling over the outcome, it looks so delicious. Hugs from Olga

  3. The bastila made by Khadija and the ladies lookes so amazing – how great you guys are sharing the recipe with us! – Big thank you from Munich, Germany.
    Danke aus Deutschland.
    شكر من ألمانيا

  4. Great post! Love the idea and good luck on turning this passion you have to help and change and empower and cook all into something!! This is inspired and inspiring.

  5. k says:

    Looks like a fantastic, fancy pastilla! You know, the name comes from the Spanish word for pill because when it is done, it is a nice round pill-shaped dish. Now…what about a seafood pastilla?🙂

    • Thanks for the linguistic clarification! Do you have any idea if it’s still eaten in Spain? Yes, the only thing better than chicken pastilla is seafood. Coming soon…

  6. I loved Bastilla when I tried it in Jbel el Fna recently. I would love to have it again. Love your ideas of cookery classes. I would love to come to one! In return I could teach some women to ride bikes! I teach women and children to ride bikes in Bradford!

  7. I just finished eating a (small) pastilla from a restaurant where I live, in Orlando, Florida. The place is called Pasha. I have eaten the pastilla (or bastila) several times there, but I must say I had never enjoyed it as much as I did while reading your recipe and about your experience teaching these women!!

    I love your blog; I’m a blogger myself, and my family and I traveled to Marrakech in May of this year.

    I’ll be back for more servings.😉

    • Good question! I would say just leave the egg out and stick with chicken and almonds. Bastila can basically be filled with anything, and by the time you slather it in butter and bake it crispy, it tastes good no matter what. We have a good one that is just filled with grated veggies and it’s amazing. Good luck!

  8. zuzubird says:

    How I loved this, and your project to do something for these local women! Just today ran across your blog while looking for pastilla recipes, and was attracted to your name, moroccomama. If a Moroccan mama doesn’t know what’s going on, who does??

    This was so good!

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