Dina Chkarka with a tray of mint tea (Courtesy of Dina Chkarka)
A booming social media personality, Dina Chkarka is passionate about bringing Moroccan cuisine into the 21st century. Chkarka first learned how to make intricate tagines (steamed meat and vegetables in a clay pot) and bastilles (meat pies) by watching her mother cook for their family of five. Once in middle school, she started cooking meals for herself and her family a few days a week.
Born in Austin to immigrant parents, Chkarka visited her extended family in Morocco every other summer throughout her childhood and was raised bilingual. While she was very connected to her family and culture, she didn’t have much of a local circle that shared her enthusiasm for Moroccan cuisine. She felt somewhat isolated until she discovered Twitter as a teenager. Under the name Dina’s Kouzina, she shared her modern twists on traditional recipes and quickly found a community. On TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram, she gained a small but loyal following of people across the country and around the world who craved English-language content centered around Moroccan cuisine.
“My dream is to one day have a place of my own where I can share the best of my culture, pass on what I learned from my mother, and foster a community that comes together around the food I love.” – Dina Chkarka
Chkarka realized that few of his friends had the same opportunities to learn to cook at home and didn’t know where to start in the kitchen. Even fewer were interested in the time-consuming processes used in creating traditional dishes. She wanted to keep flavors alive by making traditional dishes more accessible to her millennial and Gen Z peers. This led the 25-year-old recent college graduate to share recipes and food content online on social media, including many use time-saving appliances like air fryers and the Instant Pot.
A range of pastries and desserts (Courtesy of Dina Chkarka)
“I make the dishes more accessible to English speakers who want to do Moroccan food but just can’t find authentic recipes in English,” says Chkarka. “I do easy to follow video tutorials with tips versus just reading a recipe online or in a cookbook. I don’t necessarily make any changes to the recipes; I just use what my mom and my grandmother taught me. For example, like many ethnic cooking styles, we don’t cook with measurements. Figuring out what the perfect measurements really are is one way I make cooking more accessible to people. .
Some of the most popular Chkarka recipes include couscous topped with vegetables and lamb, a savory vegetable and chickpea soup called harira which is commonly served during Ramadan, and mint tea. One of his most-viewed TikToks involves a flatbread called msemmen, which can be savory and stuffed with meat or topped with honey.
Although she specializes in creating content with nods to her parents’ country of origin, she cooks all types of food, especially desserts. Chkarka started taking specialty baked goods orders in 2020 for family, friends and customers. (She takes orders on her site: dinaskouzina.com.) She makes beautiful cakes and pastries of all types, as well as specialty desserts from the Middle East and North Africa during Ramadan and Eid. Her holiday specialties are maamoul (semolina cookies filled with dates) and chebakia (fried sesame 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 food in Marrakech is snail soup. She grew up thinking that escargot was a typical Moroccan dish and only later learned about French colonization and its effects on food, language and much more.
Courtesy of Dina Chkarka
Seeing people adopt his cuisine is particularly pleasing to Chkarka. Like many children of immigrants, it took time for her to understand exactly where she stood and what her identity meant to her. With her North African lineage, she was told she was considered white, but that didn’t match what she saw in the mirror or her indigenous Amazigh heritage.
When I asked her about her favorite place for Moroccan food in Austin, her first response was “Home”. She lamented authentic downtown restaurant Darna, which didn’t survive the pandemic, leaving Austin with few options. The one place she still likes to go, however, is Moroccan-owned Vivel Crepes and Coffee in Lakeway.
Among Vivel’s traditional cafe offerings are a few quintessentially Moroccan dishes, as well as many French influences found throughout Francophone Africa. We went together on a Saturday morning to sample some of Chkarka’s favorite dishes: shakshuka tagine, sunrise tagine, mint tea, baklava, and a unique baklava cheesecake fusion pancake. The shakshuka tagine contains merguez beef sausage, roasted peppers and tomato sauce, three sunny eggs, feta cheese and is served in a cast iron skillet with warm pita bread to mop up the savory sauce. Chkarka explains why the flavors are perfect: “They use the right spices and the right amount, which makes them authentic enough for cafe-style cooking. I’ve tried many so-called Moroccan places in the US and they rarely get the flavours.” so the fact that I order tajine at Vivel says a lot!”
The sunrise tagine, also served in a hot cast-iron skillet, contains Moroccan meatballs, three fried eggs, garlic tomato sauce and ricotta cheese. The dollop of ricotta added a bit of richness that Chkarka said she hadn’t 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 sticks out in my mind is the baklava cheesecake crepe with a pistachio and rose cheesecake filling with crumbled flaky baklava on top. above. It is a unique combination of textures and flavors fusing two notable French and Middle Eastern/North African specialties.
One trip wasn’t enough to explore the Moroccan offerings on Vivel’s menu, including unique combinations like gyro pancakes, hummus and falafel pancakes, and a Marrakech Express tagine with 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 she would have at home.
“My dream is to one day have a place of my own where I can share the best of my culture, pass on what I learned from my mother, and foster a community that comes together around the food I love,” she says. And, like many influencers of her generation, the path to realizing that specific dream is paved one TikTok at a time.