Dina Chkarka Spreads the Message of Moroccan Food to the Masses: Here’s cookin’ with you, kid – Food

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Dina Chkarka with a tray of mint tea (Courtesy of Dina Chkarka)

A burgeoning social media personality, Dina Chkarka is passionate about bringing Moroccan food into the 21st century. Chkarka first learned to make complex tagines (clay pot steamed meat and vegetables) and bastillas (meat pies) by watching her mother cook for their family of five. Once she was in middle school, she began preparing meals for herself and her family a couple of days a week.

Born in Austin to immigrant parents, Chkarka visited her extended family in Morocco every other summer throughout childhood and was raised bilingual. While she was very connected to her family and culture, she did not have much of a local circle who shared her enthusiasm for Moroccan cooking. She felt somewhat isolated until she discovered Twitter as a teenager. Under the name Dina’s Kouzina, she shared her modern versions of traditional recipes and quickly found community. Across TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram, she’s earned a modest but loyal following of people across the country and around the world who were hungry for English-language content centering Moroccan food.

“My dream is to someday have a spot of my own where I can share the best of my culture, pass on what I have learned from my mom, and foster a community that comes together around the food I love.” – Dina Chkarka

Chkarka realized that few of her friends had the same opportunities to learn to cook in their homes and did not know where to begin in the kitchen. Even fewer were interested in the time-consuming processes used in creating traditional dishes. She wanted to keep the flavors alive by making customary dishes feel more accessible to her millennial and Gen Z peers. This led the 25-year-old recent college graduate to share recipes and social media food content online, many of which use time-saving appliances like air fryers and the Instant Pot.

An array of pastries and desserts (Courtesy of Dina Chkarka)

“I make dishes more accessible for English speakers who want to make Moroccan food but just can’t find authentic recipes in English,” Chkarka says. “I make easy-to-follow tutorial videos with tips compared to just reading a recipe online or in a cookbook. I don’t necessarily make changes to the recipes; I just use what my mother and grandmother have taught me. For example, as with many ethnic cooking styles, we don’t cook with measurements. Figuring out what the perfect measurements actually are is one way I make cooking more accessible for people.”

Some of Chkarka’s most popular recipes include couscous topped with vegetables and lamb, a savory vegetable and chickpea soup called harira that is commonly served during Ramadan, and mint tea. One of her most viewed TikToks is for a flatbread known as msemmen, which can be savory and stuffed with meat or topped with honey.

Though she specializes in creating content with nods to her parents’ country of origin, she makes all types of foods, especially desserts. Chkarka began taking specialty baking orders in 2020 for family, friends, and customers. (She takes orders at her site: dinaskouzina.com.) She makes beautiful cakes and pastries of all types, as well as specialty Middle Eastern and North African desserts during Ramadan and Eid. Her holiday specialties are maamoul (date-filled semolina cookies) and chebakia (sesame-based fried cookies soaked in honey and topped with sesame seeds).

Morocco has a complicated history, including French colonization, resulting in a culture and cuisine that is a mix of indigenous African, Middle Eastern, and European influences. One of Chkarka’s favorite street foods in Marrakech is an escargot soup. She grew up thinking escargot was a uniquely Moroccan dish and only later learned about French colonization, and the effect it had on food, language, and so much more.

Courtesy of Dina Chkarka

Seeing people embrace her cuisine is especially sweet for Chkarka. Like many children of immigrants, it took her some time to figure out where exactly she fit in and what her identity meant to her. With her North African lineage, she was told she was considered white, but that did not jive with what she saw in the mirror or account for her Indigenous Amazigh heritage.

When I asked about her favorite spot for Moroccan food in Austin, her first response was, “Home.” She lamented the authentic Downtown restaurant Darna, which did not survive the pandemic, leaving Austin with few options. The one place she still loves to go, however, is Moroccan-owned Vivel Crepes and Coffee in Lakeway.

Among Vivel’s traditional cafe offerings are a few uniquely Moroccan dishes, along with many of the French influences found throughout francophone Africa. We went together on a Saturday morning to taste a few of Chkarka’s favorite items: shakshuka tagine, sunrise tagine, mint tea, baklava, and a unique fusion baklava cheesecake crepe. The shakshuka tagine contains merguez beef sausage, roasted bell pepper and tomato sauce, three sunny-side-up eggs, feta cheese, and is served in a cast iron skillet with warm pita bread to mop up the flavorful sauce. Chkarka explains why the flavors are spot-on: “They use the right spices and the right amount, making it authentic enough for cafe-style food. I’ve tried many so-called Moroccan spots in the U.S. and they rarely get the flavors right so the fact that I’ll order tagine at Vivel says a lot!”

The sunrise tagine, also served in a hot cast iron skillet, contains Moroccan meatballs, three sunny-side-up eggs, tomato garlic sauce, and ricotta cheese. The dollop of ricotta added a bit of richness that Chkarka said she had not done before but enjoyed it enough to consider adding it the next time she made the dish herself. Otherwise, Chkarka described the meatballs as tasting close to what she would make at home because they use the right mix of spices.

Both tagines were warm and delicious, but what is still on my mind is the baklava cheesecake crepe with a pistachio and rose cheesecake filling with flaky baklava crumbled on top. It’s a unique combination of textures and flavors fusing two notable French and Middle Eastern/ North African delicacies.

One trip was not enough to explore the Moroccan offerings on Vivel’s menu, including unique combinations like gyro crepes, hummus and falafel crepes, and a Marrakesh Express tagine featuring slow-cooked spiced lamb. For Chkarka, Vivel Crepes is one of the few places in the Austin area where she can find the comfort of flavors that she would have at home.

“My dream is to someday have a spot of my own where I can share the best of my culture, pass on what I have learned from my mom, and foster a community that comes together around the food I love,” she says. And, like many influencers of her generation, the path to achieving that specific dream is paved one TikTok at a time.

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