More than just tagine and couscous

A taste of traditional Arabic home cooking . . . Julian Desser discovers a small corner of Morocco in Ashton-under-Lyne.

Cafe Mozaic exterior

EVEN in an area renowned for the diversity and volume of its international restaurants, truly authentic Moroccan cuisine isn’t easy to come by.

But that is exactly what can be found at Café Mozaic hidden away in Ashton-under-Lyne, a bustling market town within the sprawling conurbation of Greater Manchester a few miles to the east of the city centre.

It was here that Abdeljalil Bousselham – best known by everyone as AJ – chose to start the business he had always dreamed about while working as a sous chef in top restaurants around Manchester.

Passionate about Mediterranean cuisine, AJ wanted to give local people the opportunity to taste the sort of food he enjoyed when growing up in Rabat, the capital of Morocco.

So last year, together with his Stockport-born wife Esther, they opened Café Mozaic and delicatessen which has quickly become established as a magnet for lovers of genuine Arabic cooking – and a firm favourite with local residents and business people alike.

“We chose Ashton because it is a busy, vibrant town with a mix of straight-talking people who want tasty food that is affordable and good value,” says AJ (pictured).

“There are plenty of places where shoppers can eat pasties or fish and chips but we offer something different.  Our aim is to provide top quality food that is rarely found outside the Moroccan home.”

Typical dishes include:

  • “taktouka” (mixed pepper salad) a staple starter in MoroccoCafe Moazaic AJ
  • lamb kefta  kebabs (“brochettes” in Morocco) often served at Eid
  • North African chicken (a rice, chicken, chick pea and sultana mix which is an everyday family dish in Morocco and has been slightly adapted. It is typically Moroccan because it mixes sweet dried fruit (sultanas) with meat which is an ancient tradition inherited from the native Berber culture in North Africa.

And to drink, of course, there’s the aromatic mint tea which is always available everywhere in Morocco itself.

The couple met at a language school in Rabat where Esther was a teacher and AJ was employed in administration.  But he always loved cooking – food and hospitality is an integral part of Moroccan culture – and after he retrained as a chef they moved to Manchester where AJ worked in restaurants including Piccolino, Loch Fyne and Jas Jas Jas.

AJ ensures that the food is always the focus of the experience and encourages those new to the cuisine to try a “mezze” starter containing dishes such as tabouleh, green beans with walnuts, spicy carrots and humus, followed by a main such as lamb skewer, falafel or halloumi cheese served in an Arabic flat bread wrap or with saffron rice.

Since opening Café Mozaic they have extended the menu range to cover other Mediterranean dishes especially Lebanese and also branched out into functions and a wholesale food service.

“We do quite a few lunches for local businesses especially the local council and for companies which require halal food,” says Esther.  “We are catering for a large Indian wedding soon as they want something non-Indian for the third night of the celebration.

“We have also done events with French groups who want to explore food from Francophone cultures.

“The functions and wholesale operations account for about a quarter of our turnover but we would really like to build this to a bigger percentage as we believe we are offering something different and more interesting than the usual fare for lunches and events.”

At the moment they employ three part-time staff to help with the 20-cover café and delicatessen both of which are only open during the day but do cater in the evenings for private parties and small groups.

AJ and Esther are also planning to convert an upstairs space into a “salon Marocain” which is a room exotically decorated in traditional style like a Moroccan riad (guest house).

It is hardly surprising that Café Mozaic has already become a “talking point” around Ashton-under-Lyne, evidence of which are the comments to be found on internet review sites and in blogs.

“Having recently visited Café Mozaic I can say I was impressed with the food on offer and the service offered by the staff,” says one.  “If you are new to Moroccan cuisine the proprietor will happily talk you through the dishes on offer.”

And another: “Mozaic is in our opinion a lovely little cafe, a real gem in a busy part of town.  The eating area is small and cosy which just adds to its charms with staff who are very attentive and knowledgeable.”

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