Dafina, also called skhina or skhena, is a traditional dish among the most delicious of Judeo-Moroccan and North African Jewish cuisine.
What is Moroccan dafina?
The word dafina is a Judeo-Arabic word and comes from the Arabic word ad-dafina meaning “covered”, “very hot”, “smothered”, in relation to the cooking mode.
Indeed, for religious reasons, Jews do not cook on Shabbat. The dafina is therefore prepared during the day on Friday.
After having cooked for a long time before the start of Shabbat (Friday before sunset), it is placed on a hot plate and it simmers for almost 15 hours, which gives it a very special taste. After cooking, the ingredients are caramelized.
The Moroccan dafina is generally composed of beef, beef or calf’s foot, small potatoes, chickpeas, eggs, rice and wheat.
There is also the dafina of Pesach (Passover), without the chickpeas, which are replace by fresh peas or fresh fava beans. This dafina also does not contain wheat and rice.
Until the 60s and 70s, women from the Moroccan Jewish community gathered around the municipal bread oven on Friday afternoon, carrying their pot of dafina. Respecting the ban of lighting any fire, they entrusted their preparation to the baker.
According to the order of arrival, the women already knew if the dafina would be successful, that is to say caramelized.
Depending on its position in the oven, it sometimes happened that the dafina was overcooked or not enough. And, in even more distant times, the dafina was cooked buried in the sand, under hot coals, hence the term madfouna, which means “buried”, another name of the dafina.
The dafina can also be prepared in a slow cooker with a thermostat. Slow cooking begins for many hours at a high temperature, and before Shabbat starts, the temperature is set to a very low temperature for slow cooking mode.
Shabbat tables in North Africa
Jews must welcome Shabbat with special dishes, with joy and conviviality, to respect the commandment of the Torah. It is called oneg Shabbat, that is, the celebration of Shabbat. Oneg shabbat literally means “joy, pleasure of Shabbat”.
Friday dinner covers all the most festive aspects of this short weekly rest period: preparations last for many hours before, in order to serve dishes to the family and guests. The table is decorated with a beautiful tablecloth, the house shines to welcome this Shabbat which is nicknamed “the queen”. Everyone is ready and Shabbat can finally begin, after the ritual lighting of the candles, on Friday at sunset.
Inevitable on the table, the kiddush wine, to sanctify the entry of Shabbat, making this day different from other days of the week, and the challah, Shabbat bread, which always come in pair, to remember the double portion of manna which fell on Friday during the wandering of the Hebrews in the desert. The two breads (challot) are covered with a special fabric, often embroidered, to evoke the protective dew cloud.
Immediately after the blessings of wine and bread (motzi), the bread is cut and distributed to the guests, who eat it sprinkled with salt, a symbol of purification and hospitality.
There are many culinary traditions related to Shabbat, in part to keep the commandment not to light the fire while still eating hot food, so for many generations, mothers have had to develop recipes that could be slow cooked, like dafina.
For the Jews of North Africa, the two Shabbat meals begin with a series of appetizers such as taktouka, eggplant zaalouk, zucchini ajlouk, salata baladi, slata mechouia (hmiss), maakouda, baba ganoush, hummus, harissa, fricassés, minina, banatages, cocas, or even tuna bricks, to name a few.
For the Friday evening meal, the richest meal of Shabbat, fish is essential: carp, traditionally found in Central European cuisine, fried fish, like married sardines, or hraimi fish that is prepared by Tunisian and Libyan Jews, with roughly similar variants among Algerian and Moroccan Jews.
The reason for the omnipresence of the fish on the table on Friday evening is that fish is considered a symbol of fertility and prosperity.
In the Midrash, the third of the four rabbinical interpretations of the Hebrew Bible, it is written miharal dag bedag nitsal mideaga (כל האוכל דג בדג ניצל מדג. דהיינו כל האוכל דג בשביעי (“דג”) ניצל מד”ג), which is a pun on the word dag (fish) and which would translate to “he who ate fish during the seventh day is released from difficulties”.
Eating fish on Friday evening is not a commandment but a mitzvah, an act of human kindness. On Friday evening, couscous, pkaila, meat or chicken tajines, stuffed vegetables, tripe (akod), nikitouches, are dishes that reign supreme on North African tables.
It is also said that round-shaped foods, like couscous semolina for the Jews of the Maghreb or meatballs, or even the round potatoes of the dafina evoke a more harmonious world.
Slow-cooked dishes, such as the Moroccan dafina or the Tunisian pkaila, are generally eaten for the second Shabbat meal, the seouda shenit (Saturday lunch).
One must remember that all these dishes that simmer for long hours were born when the technology of programmable ovens was still not around.
The third Shabbat meal, the seouda shlishit, is the one of late Saturday afternoon or early evening when the days are long. It is usually a large snack made up of all the leftovers, whether sweet or savory.
Everything is allowed except dairy products. In fact, the Torah prohibits the consumption of cow’s milk for 6 hours after the consumption of meat. The desserts served on Shabbat therefore do not contain any dairy products. Today, in most recipes, soy or almond milk and margarine can replace milk and butter.
The variants of dafina around the world
The Torah does not include any special prescriptions for menus during Shabbat. It simply says that a double portion of manna fell on the sixth day of the week because it will not fall on Shabbat and that it is therefore necessary to “cook before Shabbat, what is to be cooked, and to boil what is to be boiled”, because it is forbidden to carry out these activities during Shabbat. The Torah indeed forbids lighting fire during Shabbat in a most explicit way.
For many centuries, Jewish cooks around the world have developed imaginative recipes for long simmered dishes.
A complete meal that cooks in a pot is called cholent in Yiddish, the language of German origin of Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe, while in the languages used by the Sephardim of the Mediterranean, it is called hamin, dafina, t’fina or shkina, in Judeo-Arabic from the Maghreb, while in the Middle East, it is called tebit or tabeet. The Jews of Persia and the Caucasus also have their version which they call oshisabo.
These Shabbat dishes contain meat, usually beef, but there are veal, lamb or mutton variants. Marrow bones or beef or veal are often added to obtain a fatty consistency and a smooth sauce.
In Sephardic hamin, the meat is used in two ways: whole and ground. With the ground meat, a meatloaf is prepared, which cooks wrapped with pieces of beef.
In the Ashkenazi cholent, there are usually pearl barley, potatoes, meat, usually beef, and white beans. People also add kishke, a kind of meatloaf, made of breadcrumbs, chicken or goose fat, eggs and spices, wrapped in beef intestines or chicken necks.
Cereals and rice are often added to pots and put in cloth or plastic bags provided for this purpose and resistant to high temperatures. They are seasoned, and water is added in the right proportion, with the appropriate space in the pot to allow for their increase in volume.
Potatoes are universal in all these dishes, with the peculiarity that in the Mediterranean, sweet potato is often used, and vegetables are rare, except in the hamin of Livorno, an Italian port city, which includes Swiss chard or cardoons.
Next come the eggs, which have an important symbolic value in Jewish tradition. They are a symbol of life and rebirth.
Whatever the tradition, eggs, like potatoes, are always present and must be added whole with the shell, except in the Tunisian pkaila or the Iraqi tabeet, which is prepared with stuffed chicken, rice, many spices and eggs.
They also cook for a very long time and absorb the flavors of the other ingredients. The egg white becomes brownish and the yellow takes on a delicious buttery consistency. Sometimes, they are cooked separately, with coffee grounds and onion skins, and they are then called beid hamine or huevos haminados.
Different condiments and spices are used, depending on the origin. The Ashkenazis season their cholent with honey, pepper, cloves and cinnamon or paprika, while the Sephardim use honey or dates, and different spices depending on the region, from cinnamon to turmeric, cumin, or sweet or spicy chili. Some Moroccan communities, even Sephardic, add prunes and dried almonds.
When ready to serve, some bring the pot directly to the table to open it in front of all the guests, others distribute all the different ingredients in serving platters and bring them to the table together or one after the other.
The Ethiopian equivalent of dafina is doro wat. This national dish from Ethiopia is also the favorite Shabbat stew among Ethiopian Jewish communities.
The Moroccan dafina is slightly different depending on the cities of Morocco. Each region has its recipe, and claims that it is the best. The dafina of Fez, whose recipe is presented here, is considered to be one of the most famous, along with those of Mogador-Essaouira and Meknes. But, despite the differences, the recipes remain quite similar.
- 6 lb small white potatoes
- 2 pieces calf's foot
- 1 lb beef cheek
- 1 lb braising steak
- 4 dates
- 2 cups chickpeas (soaked overnight)
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar (or white sugar), for the caramel
- ½ cup sunflower oil
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- White pepper
- 12 eggs
- 8 oz. parboiled rice
- ½ lb wheatberry
- ¼ cup sunflower oil
- 1 teaspoon ground ñora
- 3 garlic cloves , crushed
- 1 whole garlic head
- 2 sweet dried peppers
- 2 dried chili peppers (or 1 dried pimento pepper)
- 1 small piece beef
- 1 lb ground beef
- 1 large onion
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 small bunch parsley leaves
- ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- 2 pinches ground mace
- 1 egg
- 2 tablespoons breadcrumbs
Prepare a caramel. If using a slow cooker, prepare the caramel with the sugar in a small saucepan and pour it onto the bottom of the slow cooker.
Add the chickpeas, then add the potatoes on top with the cow's foot in the middle and the dates scattered around the pot. Add the meat on top. Add the spices, salt, pepper and pour boiling water on top.
- Turn the cooker on high immediately after mixing the ingredients by slowly moving the pot from side to side to allow the spices to infuse. Add the oil.
- Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl. Add twice the volume of water and the washed unpeeled garlic head. Put the ingredients in a cooking bag. Do not seal the bag. Roll the edges and place on top of the other ingredients.
Cook the bags of rice in a saucepan. Put aside. Keep some room for the rice in the pot, as it will be added to the pot early Saturday morning
- Mix the ground beef with all the ingredients except the egg, breadcrumbs and spices. Add the rest of the ingredients. Mix well. Form one or two long thick sausages depending on the room left in the pot. Wrap the meat in parchment paper or in a cooking bag and set it on top.
- Finally, add the eggs.
If using a traditional pot: start the dafina at around 10 am on Friday (the day before serving) on a high temperature and lower the heat once the potatoes are cooked until it is time to put on the hot plate. Depending on the power of the hot plate, the level of liquid may need to be checked. Typically, as soon as the pot is on the hot plate, the level should be about ¾ high.
If using a slow cooker, the thermostat should be set on "high" all day Friday and then turned to "low" just before Shabbat. The level of liquid should be the same as in a classic pot.
In both cases, add a heavy cloth on top of the pot to cook “à l’étouffée” or stew the dafina until ready to serve.
Mistakes to avoid
- Never use firm types of potatoes (e.g. red ones)
- The potatoes must be kept at a constant temperature otherwise they won't have a melting texture, the hot plate must therefore be very hot when putting the pot on so the heat is constant.
- If using a slow cooker, only add the wheat once boiling point has been reached again. The slow cooker takes time to heat up and the wheat should not stay too long in cool water.