There are always those tastes, flavors and smells that are going to remind us of home. It was the same for entrepreneur Mehdi Boujrada when he moved from Morocco to Seattle, joining some family already living there.
“Like any immigrant, the first thing you miss is food,” says Boujrada. So he would email his mother in Morocco, asking her for recipes and how to make certain dishes he missed. He would email at night, and because of the time difference, he would wake up to his mother’s response to his questions. Then he would try to recreate the flavors of his home country on his own.
After he had been in the US for a bit, working the front of house in an Italian restaurant his half-brother owned, he realized the view around Moroccan food needed some reframing. It was post 9/11, and Boujrada felt he needed to break some stereotypes. He always wanted to bring something from Morocco to the United States, so he finally settled on olive oil as a starting point. Moroccan olive oil is made from a picholine olive, and Boujrada describes the flavor as “very fruity, not as bitter, grassy, green.”
“Moroccans like their olive oil to taste like an olive. Sometimes they even let it ferment a little bit before they press it,” he says. “They like a little bit of that funky flavor.”
Thus, Villa Jerada was born, Boujrada’s company that imports and produces high-quality Moroccan specialty items. It was a reflex, he says, to follow up with other ingredients after finding a customer base for the olive oils. With help from his mother, they created a harissa recipe that they were happy with and didn’t require importing from Morocco. Boujrada felt that as long as they were respecting the history and tradition of the products, they could make them in the US.
Villa Jerada’s Harissa N ?1 is simple in process (you can watch Boujrada and his mom make it here), but very flavor-forward. It’s less spicy than other North African versions and made with tomato, and Villa Jerada’s version has about a quarter of preserved lemon per jar. The result is silky spread that can be used in stews, sauces and classic dishes like shakshuka. In addition to harissa, Villa Jerada also sells spices, spreads, condiments, oils and houseware.
For Boujrada, it’s important to maintain the integrity of the products he sells. He wants to recreate high-quality products that are rooted in culinary history and tradition, not necessarily innovate. “The wish is to take this harissa to Morocco and have them say it’s good,” he says. “Fusion” products are not on the to-do list. But Boujrada will always do his research before he writes something off. He gives one particular example of seeing a rose harissa, and called on the help of a Tunisian friend (harissa originates in Tunisia).
“I was like ‘hey, is rose harissa a thing?’ And he said he hadn’t heard of it, and then I was like ‘ok, can you just ask your mom please? And your aunt?’” he says, laughing.
While a career in food wasn’t always obvious to Boujrada, it wasn’t an industry he was unfamiliar with entirely — his father sold tractors and his grandfather was a wheat and grain exporter. He was around it, but had “no idea” he would be involved with food. He describes his childhood in Casablanca as pretty normal with a big interest in American culture. He spent his time watching MTV, skateboarding and surfing. But when it came to big events like weddings, he would ask his parents to go because he knew traditional, ceremonial Moroccan dishes that took a long time to make would be served. “I always wanted to eat it,” he says. He can now share that love for his country’s cuisine through his own products.
One of his favorite recipes to make is shakshuka, a tomatoey, saucy meal with eggs. It’s super comforting, served bubbling and with bread for dipping. It brings back memories of the port in Casablanca, where Boujrada talks of a shakshuka with eggs and shrimp.
As his business grows and he expands into other products like Villa Jerada’s newly-launched tahini, Boujrada continues to collaborate with chefs and brands around Seattle, and across the country. And he loves his adopted hometown Seattle, calling it “an incredible city” with an active food scene. Many of his favorite restaurants are also his customers, in fact. It’s clear that community-building has been a contributor to the brand’s success.
Overall, Boujrada wants to represent the best of the best artisan Moroccan products. “We just want to be known as the brand who has respect in food culture. We just want to be the Mercedes of these products, that are done the right way,” he says.
With the vibrant designs on the packages inspired by Moroccan tiles and patterns, simple processes that celebrate flavor and a commitment to authenticity, Boujrada is well on the way to achieving his goal.