Khlii starts off as simple slabs of meat – either beef or lamb. These are then marinated and simmered in a mix of herbs and spices, such as cumin and parsley. Salt is also added – lots of salt – thanks to its natural preservative properties. After the meat is cooked, it’s placed outdoors, where it is left to dry under the sun.
Chama Benani, founder and owner of Chamita, which produces and sells khlii among other Moroccan delicacies, still makes the recipe ‘like they did in the old days.’ Benani launched Chamita in 2003, and initially focused solely on khlii. ‘We make it in the summer between June and August, to take advantage of the dry heat and sun.
After marinating and simmering the meat, we let it sit out under the sun for up to three weeks. With this process it can last up to three years.’ After the khlii is dried, it’s stored in its own fat and sold in Chamita’s signature glass jars.
Khlii in Morocco is traditionally served with couscous or lentils, or stuffed in ‘rghayef’ (a square-shaped pancake), among other dishes. Most popularly, however, it is served alongside eggs in a tagine, with a splash of olive oil and garnished with parsley.
Abdelilah Belghazi, owner and curator of the Belghazi Museum of Morocco, fondly reminisces about his days as a student in Fez, when the khlii-egg combination was the meal of choice among him and his classmates. They would refer to the combination as ‘al khlii bndidrate’ or ‘khlii with glasses’.
A native of Fez, Belghazi recalls his mother preparing khlii in their family riad. ‘There were always an extra six or seven bowls ready to be packed and shared with neighbouring families,’ he recounts. The communal nature of making khlii became a ritual for Belghazi and his family.
‘The smell of the khlii would be so strong that the whole neighbourhood could smell it, and we happily shared it with our neighbours,’ he says, remembering the pleasure he took in distributing the bowls to neighbours as a young child. ‘They would never let me take the bowl back empty. They always filled it with almonds, dates or sweets.’
Khlii not only has a special place in the community. The preserved meat holds an important place in Moroccan and Maghrebi history in general. Without any other means for preserving their food, Moroccans travelling to Mecca for the annual hajj would pack portions of khlii for their trip. The dry climate was ideal for khlii, which provided a critical source of protein and sodium during the gruelling journey.
Khlii even made its way into European travel accounts, such as those by British traveller Bayle St. John, who documented his time in the Libyan desert in 1849, and mentioned eating what he described as ‘a tin of preserved meat’ during a ‘frugal meal.’
Even during World War II, Belghazi explains, Moroccans relied on khlii as other sources of protein became unavailable. During a conflict between Vichy France and the US-led Allied forces on Morrocan soil, those living in inland dry cities, such as Fez, Marrakech and Meknes, preserved and consumed khlii for years.
‘When Moroccans couldn’t leave their homes to purchase meat, either for security reasons or because of the lack of resources, they would take the khlii out from the mkhizen and rely on that instead.’
The mkhizen, a diminutive term for the makhzen, meaning storage space, was used by families to store large quantities of khlii. Belghazi still has memories of his mkhizen.
‘When I was young, my parents didn’t let me fast during Ramadan since I wasn’t old enough,’ he says. ‘Once I saw my father leaving for the dawn prayer and I threw a temper tantrum because he didn’t wake me up for suhur. After he left, I snuck into the mkhizen to get some khlii. Since the door was high, I used a big rock in order to reach it. I jumped in through a small opening and dived into the mkhizen. My mother came and found my feet dangling from the door. I wasn’t allowed to have khlii for a whole year after that incident.’
Despite the traditional values of khlii, nowadays new processes have been introduced for producing it in greater quantities, particularly in areas where the climate is more humid. A machine resembling an industrial tumble dryer can hold hundreds of kilos of khlii, and allows for a speedier drying process than hanging the meat outdoors. The use of these machines is especially ideal during winter, when the seasonal humidity would otherwise be impractical for hanging meat to dry.
In coastal cities such as Rabat, Agadir and Essaouira, khlii is made à la vapeur. The meat is placed in a vaporizer, which yields a more smoky-flavoured version of khlii and requires less salt. This process, according to Belghazi, results in less grease and fat, offering a slightly healthier version for consumers concerned with high cholesterol.
The pungent odour and taste of khlii will perhaps continue to give way to detractors who are put off by the sight of aged meat preserved in its own fat. Khlii’s fans, however, remain faithful. In response to the repugnant reactions often caused by khlii, Belghazi says he thinks the taste is simply misunderstood.
‘It’s no different to other forms of preserved meat common in Europe and elsewhere, such as smoked meat or jerky.’
Reflecting on her experience of selling khlii to non-Moroccans from Paris, London and Madrid, Chama Benani also agrees, and adds, ‘People love it, everyone loves it.’
This article can be found in Brownbook’s September/October 2014 Issue.
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