Moorish culture has influenced Lisbon, and Portugal in general, in many different ways. For example, the Moors introduced the idea of decorating floors and walls with painted ceramic tiles, the Portuguese azulejo. They also left smatterings of their language – southern Portugal’s Algarve is named after their al-Gharb – and some of the country’s finest historic buildings retain Arabic architectural features.
The Moors were also responsible for culinary contributions that would color and flavor recipe books across Iberia and beyond. The Arabs from North Africa brought with them almonds, figs and oranges, among other exotic foodstuff, and they were the first to come up with the idea of combining fruits and nuts with meat and fish.
They used nutmeg, cinnamon and saffron to spice up stews and sweeten rice, long before Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route to India in 1498, a voyage that opened up the global spice trade.
The colorful Moorish-style interior of Flor da Laranja — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Moroccan cuisine draws on Berber and Mediterranean influences, and the recipes Rabea Esserghini creates reflect her North African roots and her affinity with Portugal, and in particular Lisbon, where she runs Flor da Laranja. This delightful bistro-style eatery is located in the city’s Bairro Alto neighborhood and makes for a more unusual place to eat.
Flor da Laranja celebrates the gastronomy of Morocco. Esserghini, who was born in the country, opened her restaurant with the idea of preparing authentic North African ingredients and cooking to a style beloved by the Berbers of the Middle Atlas – simple, wholesome fare infused with herbs, spices and tangy citrus flavors.
The menu is selective but representative of the region, and everything is homemade. Incredibly, Rabea works alone. She is host and chef, and an evening spent at Flor da Laranja is akin to joining a private dinner party.
The restaurant is decorated in the colors of the Maghreb - tangerine, lilac and ochre. Just think of dusk over the desert! Handcrafted mirrors in minaret patterns and filigree Moorish lanterns further enhance the Arabic texture.
Diners are regaled with a choice of entrees that includes traditional harira soup - a delicious broth of lentils, chickpeas and meat that's garnished with celery, parsley and coriander. Succulent dolma (stuffed vine leaves) and freshly baked meloui, a kind of pancake, are worthy additions.
Eating North African style is somewhat of a ritual, and Esserghini always finds time to explain a little about each dish, the ingredients used and, if you’ve requested a platter of appetizers, the order in which they should be enjoyed.
Main courses again typify some of Morocco’s best-known gastronomy, and you can’t fault the lamb tagine with prune or artichoke. Esserghini also recommends the chicken with preserved lemon and couscous.
Flor da Laranja offers vegetarian-friendly dining, too: the tfaya couscous mixed with caramalized onion and sprinkled with raisin is just one of a clutch of options, and most of the starters are already vegetable based.
The Arab cookbook is notorious for appeasing those with a sweet tooth, and Esserghini has made sure the dessert choice upholds this deliciously decadent aspect of North African cuisine. Treats like her rich, dark chocolate cake and lavish passion fruits and orange flan are simply irresistible.
Flor da Laranja’s authentic menu is such that the Moroccan ambassador to Portugal is a regular patron. The restaurant is also a favorite with small groups (the long cushioned wall sofas ideally accommodate such get-togethers). It’s therefore best to book ahead to secure a table if arriving on your own or as a couple: after all, the moor the merrier.