Smen, a preserved butter found in Morocco and other parts of North Africa, is a tradition that dates back centuries.
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Moroccan Preserved Butter
How did Smen come about? Naturally, it was before the days of refrigeration that someone came upon the idea. The butter was heavily salted, stored in an airtight jar and left to ferment.
If you are new to North African cuisine, it may take some getting used to, with its pungent, rancid smell, very similar to smelly cheese!
In fact, an old Berber custom is to bury a sealed jar of smen on the birth of one’s daughter, and to dig it up on the daughter’s wedding day, to flavour the food cooked for the guests. How awesome is that?
You’ll find smen used in all manner of dishes in Morocco and the rest of the Maghreb region: in couscous, tagine recipes and even as a spread. Given its strong constitution, a little goes a long way! While I almost always have some homemade smen at home, I use it very selectively as it’s not very popular with the family!
Smen Square in Morocco
I have been lucky enough to have visited Fez in Morocco a couple of times and in the medina, you’ll find Qaat Smen, or Smen Square, where the production of smen goes back centuries.
You’ll find all sorts of preserved butter here, and so much better than the mass produced ones you find in large shops. There are some really old tubs here and surprisingly, the aroma and flavour isn’t as off putting as the slightly younger versions. They are more mellow and rather pleasant.
One of my favourites is the smen made with khlie, a type of preserved Moroccan meat. Basically, the preserved butter is made with the preserved meat, and it produces an amazing final product.
Making Smen at Home
I learnt two different mathods to make smen at home. One is fermenting unsalted butter as it is, which is the method we’re employing today.
The other, is by clarifying the butter first, then fermenting it. The clarifying is the same method employed as when making ghee and niter kibbeh, the Ethiopian spice clarified butter.
If you fancy trying some “smelly” Moroccan butter, here’s an easy recipe! I am giving you the simplest version. You could also add herbs to the smen by brewing about a quarter cup of strong oregano or mint tea and kneading the tea into the butter.
You can be as elaborate in your recipe as you like, within reason. I also love adding some chillies flakes to the mix sometimes.
Smen, Moroccan Fermented Butter
- 500 g unsalted butter
- 1 Tbsp coarse salt
- 60 ml strong Oregano tea
Additional Ingredients you can use
- chilli flakes
- ground pepper
- other herbs like marjoram, rue
- crushed edible rose petals
- Mix the salt thoroughly with the butter. If using oregano tea, add it now, and knead the butter until it’s all mixed in.
- Spoon into a clean jar and pack it in, pressing down to dispel any air pockets.
- Seal tightly and store in a cool place for a month to let it ferment.
- It should be ready after a month.
- Once opened, store in the fridge and use within a month.