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Pastilla, which may be alternately called Bastilla, Bstilla, or Bsteeya, is an interesting North African dish, particularly favored in Moroccan cuisine, that combines the flavors and textures of savory meat, crunchy pastry and sweet spices. Though the traditional dish in Morocco or other parts of Northern Africa may be made with squab or pigeon meat, in the US, you’re likely to see chicken substituted instead. The chicken is cooked and shredded and may be combined with toasted and ground almonds.
The thing that makes pastilla unusual, is that the meat and other ingredients are then formed into a pastry made with filo dough. In Moroccan restaurants, pastilla is typically one of the offerings, and when the restaurants serve in the traditional manner, where hands instead of silverware are used, a large pastilla is served to the guests, who then break off pieces with their hands. Pastilla is usually topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar, creating an unusual but delicious taste, and making it quite different from European meat pies and pasties.
A word to the wise if you do happen to be dining in a traditional Moroccan or North African restaurant: Be careful when grabbing bits of pastilla after it is first served. The interior can be extremely hot. It’s quite easy to burn the tongue or the fingers if you take too big a portion at first. Also use only the right hand for tearing off pieces of this dish or for any other food served. The left hand is used for toilet purposes in Morocco, and it is considered highly rude to use your left hand to grab food. These traditions are relaxed outside of the Arabic world, but should be closely attended to if you happen to be in Morocco.
There are a number of variants to pastilla. You’ll find many different national cuisines have adopted its use for sweet desserts. Tarts with pears and honey in filo dough may be called pastillas, though they tend toward the sweet only and not the savory. Such pastillas are found often in French cooking, and of course, French cooking not only influenced Moroccan cuisine but has also been influence by it.
You’ll also find numerous online recipes if you wish to try to make one of these pastries. With easy to purchase filo dough on hand, it’s actually not difficult to create one. The main difficulty for some is that many recipes call for the chicken and spices to be cooked the day prior, and then chilled overnight. Some recipes also recommend beating eggs into the chicken prior to enveloping the chilled meat in pastry dough. This creates a more custardlike interior, but some recipes find this step unnecessary. You will have a drier pastilla if you omit the eggs.