Moroccon Cigars and My Warka Making Fiasco

by Sarah on July 6, 2009

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I am on a mission to make warka (or ouarka), the special thin dough sheets used in Morocco, Tunisian and Algerian cuisine for making stuffed pasteries such as brik, the famous pigeon pie, b’stilla (or pastille in Algeria) and  Moroccan cigars. Making warka from scratch is a lost art, almost no one does it and rightly so because it is incredibly tricky to make, I know, I tried. Using a Moroccan cookbook, replete with pictures and clear instructions it did not look that complicated. All I had to do was make a wet dough and using my hand dab it on a smooth hot surface to create a very thin crepe. Traditionally these shear North African crepes are made on what looks like an upside down paella pan called a tobsil. In reality the very wet dough splattered all over the counter, glued itself onto the pan, carbonized, dripped all over the range, igniting part of it and filling the  house with billowing clouds of smoke (billowing clouds of smoke is a recurring theme in my kitchen). “May take some practice” says cookbook author, you don’t say?  Apparently, all I really need for warka making besides water and flour is 60 years of practice.  When I called the Moroccan Center of Tirosh to see if anyone in the village makes it she said that yes! YES! There is somebody that makes it from scratch. This was very exciting news until she said, “wait….um sorry, um she died”. Most warka makers are grandmothers and in Israel it is literally a dying culinary art. From what I read from Chef Zadi’s blog, commercial warkas are replacing the art of warka making even in North Africa.    I am still looking for the mythical warka maker but meanwhile, like a normal person I am using readymade phyllo dough pastry to make the Moroccan cigars.

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The warka pastry is probably derived from the Turkish yufka, which is a thin flat bread made on a saj. The Ottoman Turks who controlled parts of North Africa from the 16th century may have introduced yufka which later evolved into warka. The technique for making warka is different than yufka and may have developed in Algeria and then slowly infiltrated into Moroccan cuisine (as the Turks did not control Morocco).

Note in Israel there are also commercial warka but they are very thick and it is difficult to manipulate them into a cigar shape so I prefer phyllo dough.

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Moroccan Cigars

Moroccan cigars are often served during special celebrations and are not an everyday food.

7 phyllo sheets

500 grams ground beef

1 onion, chopped

2 bay leaves

½ teaspoons allspice

½ head of garlic, peeled and finely minced

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

1 tablespoon vinegar

1 or  more teaspoons cayenne pepper or harissa (cigars should be spicy)

3 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped

3 tablespoons coriander, finely chopped

2-3 tablespoons of flour diluted in a bit of water for keeping the cigars closed

Fry onion in a bit of olive oil until just beginning to brown, add the garlic and fry for a few seconds while mixing. Add the ground meat and using a fork break the clumps, frying until brown. Add the bay leaves and 1/2 cup water and simmer until all the water evaporates. Make sure there is no moisture left because this makes the cigars mushy. Mix often so the meat does not burn. Add the remainder of the spices, vinegar and chopped herbs and cook for another 5 minutes.  Mix well and set aside to cool. The meat filling should be heavily spiced as once it is deep fried the flavors are not as strong.

Cut each phyllo sheet into 4 equal pieces, to form a small rectangle (about 13cm width and 20cm height). Using your hands squash a small portion of meat into a cigar shape, a bit smaller than the width of the dough (about 10cm). Place meat on one end of the phyllo, fold sides over slightly, about 1/2-1 cm on each side and roll the meat in the dough until the end. Keep the dough in place by using the flour paste. I made about 20-30 cigars this way. I wish I counted exactly but they were disappearing fast. The length of the final cigars should be about 10-12 cm.

Deep fry the cigars in oil until golden brown. Remove and drain on paper towels. Eat immediately otherwise it turns mushy. Although I did not try, perhaps brushing the cigars in oil and baking on high would be a less oily alternative to deep frying.

In several Hebrew language Moroccan cookbooks the stuffing is made a little differently, by stewing the meat first then frying.

In a bowl combine the ground meat, parsley, coriander and mix, omitting the onion. Form several flat meatballs with the mixture, place in pot and add enough water to cover the balls. Add the bay leaves and salt and cook for 45-1 hour. Drain and cool. Combine with the rest of the spices and the vinegar. Heat a skillet and sauté the meat for 10-15 minutes. When cool enough to handle place 2 tablespoons of filling in a phyllo dough and roll.

I tried this method but like browning the meat first. What I should do is buy Paula Wolfert’s Moroccan cookbook, it would be interesting to know what technique she uses.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Rachel Ann July 7, 2009 at 3:15 am

Oh it sounds good! You so make me want to cook!

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Miriam/The winter guest July 7, 2009 at 4:40 am

Lovely post… I don’t know why, but posts about failures are my favourites, they seem more real and give you a better insight of the author. I should post some myself, I’ve got thousands. And no, the cigars aren’t a failure! :-) They look terrific. I love phyllo/warka sheets myself, they always make delicious dishes and I sure would love to try my hand at them… but I should think twice after reading your account.

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Paula Wolfert July 7, 2009 at 2:51 pm

The closest pastry to warka is the Chinese spring roll skin. They are both made with that yo-yo-like thumping onto a hot flat pan. While warka is made with semolina patent durum flour, the spring roll skin is made with wheat starch.
Any thoughts on the link between the two?

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Paula Wolfert July 7, 2009 at 2:54 pm

Ooops I forgot to mention that there are seven pages on the making of warka in my book on Moroccan cooking. If you do get it, be sure to get the American edition; the English one is abridged.

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Kristen July 7, 2009 at 10:11 pm

wow, those look and sound fantastic. Whether or not you can whip up the dough like a 90 year old or not. I am impressed that you tried to, so cool!

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admin July 8, 2009 at 11:16 am

Ah, so this is why spring roll/lumpia/ warka was written on the package of the thick sheets I bought (like crepe). In the cookbook I have these sheets were almost transparent like in the link I have above. I did not know warka and spring roll (lumpia,popiah) are made in a similar way and I also wonder how this technique made its way to Morocco. Will try to search….

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Christine Benlafquih July 9, 2009 at 9:47 am

You’re inspiring me to publish all my failures! The making of warqa is truly an art that very few seem to master or even to take trouble learning.

As Paula Wolfert suggests, spring roll wrappers will work, but I find they’re a bit thicker than warqa. I used them while living in the States. A double layer of phyllo dough will also work, but the end result is more fragile (i.e. flakier) and phyllo can be a bit finicky to work with. You really have to be diligent about keeping the phyllo covered while you roll all the briouats!

A very simple but delicious filling is cream cheese, either plain or mixed with herbs. My kids love the plain cream cheese.

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Zahavah July 9, 2009 at 3:58 pm

You are making me SOO hungry! I want to come visit. My first attempt at a meal that I wanted to blog about included phyllo wrapped nut cookies that were so ugly. I still have the pictures and one day I might post them just to laugh at myself! For now, it’s about dinner time and I came to visit your site looking for that harissa-carrot-ravioli recipe (plan to use wonton wrappers, being in the US), but got sidetracked by your lovely photos and stories as usual.

OK, on to dinner, but just had to comment, Sarah. Again, always a pleasure every time I drop by.

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Shaya July 29, 2009 at 5:51 am

Your cigars look delicious. I admire you for trying to make the warka. I make most everything dough from scratch, I love dough – both working with it and eating it. But making my own warka or phyllo had never crossed my mind until a friend who is Greek told me her sister makes her own phyllo (they call it “pita” as in “spanikopita” or “tyropita”). I can’t wait for her sister to come here for a visit so I can watch her in action.

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aya September 10, 2009 at 1:25 pm

I recently went to a friends house for ramadan break the breakfast celebration. Her mother used a frying pand on a sauce pan, such as a double boiler. Then she used a paint brush to brush it on. To a lite yellowish color or so. here is a link for recipe.
‘Warka\’ is the crisp, paper-thin pastry from North Africa that is used to make the famous Tunisian \’briks\’ (stuffed parcels) or the classic Moroccan …
http://www.bakespace.com/recipes/detail/Warka/15341

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admin September 11, 2009 at 5:08 am

thank you aya for the great link, very interesting. I would love to try painting a warka, that sounds incredible to me.

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Nawal Nasrallah November 13, 2009 at 4:28 pm

Hi Sara,
Enjoyed reading about your adventures with the pastry, and a remark on the Moroccan warka etymology. This a one hundred per cent Arabic word. It simply means paper from Arabic waraq. The pastry sheets are meant to be as thin as paper.

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Pat November 18, 2009 at 10:05 pm

I love the idea of a Moroccan spring roll! It just goes to show what a small world we live in. I’m definitely going to give this a whirl.

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Suzy July 4, 2012 at 8:08 am

Going to make these tonite….when you say “head of Garlic” approx how many cloves are you talking about, 4or 5? and fresh Coriander, Cilantro?

Thank you

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Sarah July 4, 2012 at 8:45 am

Hi Suzy, Thanks for trying this recipe, hope it works out well for you. I usually use about 5 large garlic cloves. Yes, fresh coriander is cilantro (we use the seeds as well).

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Ellen February 7, 2013 at 3:21 pm

Paula Wolfert describes the difficulty making warka in her cookbook Couscous and other Good Food from Morocco (I think that’s the title). Her points were: grease the tobsil or upside down wok with a little butter (if kosher, I guess use margarine or other solid parve fat), hold the ball of dough in your hand and tap it on the tobsil (or upside down wok) over the heat until you have a solid film over the dome. When it dries, lift it up with your fingernail in one piece. Expect that the first few will not work but do not give up.

I have never tried this, but these are her directions. She is a perfectionist, so they probably will work. Good luck, or buy fillo or egg-roll or wonton wrappers. I have used wonton wrappers, and just rolled them so they were a little thinner. Fillo is better, but maybe too thin…

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Sarah February 13, 2013 at 4:54 am

Thank you for the interesting information Ellen. Next time I try making warka I’ll use the method you described (and keep the fire extinguisher on hand ;-))

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