Shanghai restaurant review: El Wahj

Publication: Best Food in China - 10 articles

If you’ve ever tried putting Mentos into a bottle of Diet Coke, you’ll have noticed that it results in a surprisingly vigorous fountain. Imagine a slim version of that, less vigorous, upside down, with no coke involved, and you’ll have a vague idea of how I first became acquainted with El Wajh’s Moroccan mint tea. Tremendous tea, poured from a height by a Chinese waiter dressed in what I can only assume is a Moroccan waiter’s costume, the blue hue of which matched the colourful ceiling drapes and cushions very nicely. Equally well styled was the authentic silver teapot the waiter was flairing with – in fact, everything down to the unusual cutlery seemed to fit the Moroccan theme. Only a gloomy, electric-scootery Dingxi Lu outside the window gave the game away.

For those who have missed the numerous clues, El Wajh is a Moroccan restaurant – a rare breed in Shanghai. Or, rather, it’s a Moroccan restaurant owned by a Singaporean company, Face, who own a couple of other restaurants in the city. But the chef, Ibrahim, is the genuine article – shipped, like the tea, direct from Morocco. It was a pleasure to meet someone so open and keen to introduce us to his national cuisine, which is a treasure chest seldom rummaged through by either Shanghainese or BFICese.

We began with warm soft flatbread with generously portioned hummus and eggplant dips, which eased us in nicely. This was swiftly followed by fish samosas – a real treat. Not to be confused with spicy and saucy Indian curry samosas, these were straight to the point, packed full of fresh fish, squid and shrimp. A rich mermaid’s purse, if you will. Definitely one to try.

For the main course, tajines were the order of the day. The dish gets its name from the traditional Moroccan clay pot in which the food is both cooked and served. It produces a wonderful infusion of flavours and very tender meat. We had fish in a tomato, eggplant and olive sauce – a great tasting dish where the Mediterranean strand of Moroccan cooking really comes through.

The other tajine was heaped with chicken and cous cous (北非的蒸肉丸子). Cous cous (also called semolina) is a grain that Chinese readers may not be familiar with, so let’s have a little explanation. Imagine a thin piece of rice chopped into five pieces by a tremendously precise chef, then coloured yellow – like a big grain of sand. Now imagine a whole bowl full of these. How many pieces are in the bowl? Don’t worry – that’s not a question you have to answer when you’re dealing with cous cous. Just enjoy it. The golden pyramid of chicken and cous cous in our bowl emerged moist and glistening from the tomb of the tajine. A rich pharoah’s sarcophagus, if you will. (I know; mermaids don’t come from Morocco either.) 

But if you won’t, if you can’t, you’ll still probably find room for some sticky, sweet Moroccan pastries – ideally with a good few more cups of sugary mint tea, if your own wallet can handle it. A shortcut to diabetes it may be, but at least it’s an honest life.