Walking through the narrow, crowded alleyways of the Fez medina, I inhaled an explosion of exotic and enticing aromas, some familiar, some intoxicating and some downright jarring. Buckets of gleaming olives overflowed next to camel and goat heads hanging from a hook, while wreaths of dried herbs drifted high above pyramids of rust colored spices. My senses spun a hazy web around my olfactory glands as my brain tried to categorize each new scent, including the trotting donkey laden with bricks that nearly ran me down. But that’s what we like about travel, isn’t it? A sensory overload that wakes us up, stimulates the palate and reboots the curiosity engine that keeps us on the hunt for new culinary experiences. And Morocco is no timid kitten when it comes to the magic of her cuisine.
A great way to launch into your culinary adventure is a visit to the brand new Moroccan Museum of Culinary Arts in the heart of Marrakech. Housed in a stunning 17th century vizier’s palace, the museum decorated with the traditional zellige tiles and intricate mosaics, introduces the history, rituals and significance of key Moroccan ingredients and dishes. The flow from one thematic salon to the other showcases local specialties in a concise and lean fashion with an option to observe brief videos for more details. One room focused solely on traditional Jewish-Moroccan meals prepared at Hanukkah, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah complete with photos and historical context. Highlighted meals include El Hamam del Aroussa, a traditional dish of stuffed pigeons with an onion and honey sauce served on the wedding night of newly married couples to bring them luck. Samples of the many Moroccan spices and herbs dressed in giant tubs and glass jars line the wall in the “Spice” room with legends in French, English and Arabic. Spacious courtyards with bubbling fountains and keyhole arches provide respite from the heat as well. Lastly, if you care to try your hand at making tagine (a slow-simmered stew), head up to the rooftop and take a cooking class where you’ll find a traditional wood fired stove for baking bread and a state-of-the art kitchen complete with your own computer screen. Entrance to the museum is 40 dirham (US $4.00) and don’t forget to stop by the gift shop on your way out to pick up a ceramic tagine pot or embroidered place mats.
Commandeering a wheelbarrow from the local mason may be in order after your next meal. One of the best lunches I had in Fez began with 13 dishes. A traditional meal in Morocco often begins with several small dishes that usually include plates of olives, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, cucumber, cauliflower, zucchini as well as Briwat, (puff pastry) with cheese or meat. These tasty small plates might just be the antidote for a long day of shopping and bargaining in the markets. After getting your blood sugar back to normal, dig in to Chicken Tagine with preserved lemons. A perky dish with just the right amount of lemon zest and an entourage of cumin, ginger and turmeric, this signature dish will get you back on your feet in no time, especially when accompanied by sweet mint tea.
For those of you looking for something with a little more weight, look no further than the Andalusian inspired pastillas. These savory meat and seafood pies are made with warka, a light dough that resembles a cross between a crepe and a pancake. The chicken pastilla, prepared with layers of butter-splashed warka, spiced meat and egg mixture, fried almonds and topped off with powdered cinnamon and sugar, will launch your taste buds into the next universe.
On The Street
Touring can make you thirsty, so don’t miss the fresh squeezed pomegranate juice found on almost every street corner. Pomegranates have always been a labor of love for me, but in Morocco they have practical juicers that make it simple to extract a refreshing libation from all of those little seeds. The same goes for orange, apricot and apple juices. May your cup runneth over!
In addition to fresh fruit juices, mountains of vegetables and fruits line the narrow lanes of the medinas and roadside stalls, as do live chickens, rabbits and fowl. Seasoned skewers of meat are easy to come by, as well as various breads such as beghrir and batbout. For road trippers, drive-by tagine restaurants provide plenty of fuel at your fingertips as you continue on your journey.
If you have a sweet tooth, not to worry as a plethora of options await. Stalls adorn the markets with chewy nougats, almond cookies, and flaky pastries, including one of my favorites, Kaab Ghzal, a delicate, buttery pastry that melts in your mouth like wildflower honey covered in nuts. Holidays such as Ramadan call for Chabakia. Shaped to resemble a flower, the dough flavored with turmeric, cinnamon and anise, is deep fried and then covered with rose water, honey, and sesame seeds. A sticky, chewy treat perfect for your 3pm pick up.
Only In The Desert
Vegetable Couscous prepared by a Berber family in the Sahara gave a whole new meaning to a ‘home cooked’ meal. A small tent held together by dusty blankets and thick, craggy branches housed the kitchen, comprised of a small wood burning stove and a mud-covered mound in place of an oven. The smoked couscous laden with fresh carrots, zucchini and sweet potato was by far the best couscous I’ve ever had. Perhaps it was the incredible hospitality shown by the young woman cooking, her mother and three small children eager to play hide and seek, or the cozy pillows and carpets we lounged on while sipping mint tea.
Next stop, Berber pizza! Think calzone North African style. This inverted pizza is made with garlic, onions, carrots, beef, parsley, and eggs topped with peppers and garnished with dates and apples. After a long camel ride in the desert or listening to the local Gwana music, this pizza will blow your hair back faster than a Saharan sand storm.
Products To Go
Have you ever seen a goat in a tree? If so, it was probably at the Burning Man Festival or somewhere on the outskirts of Marrakech. Native to Morocco, Argan trees bear fruits that contain seeds eaten by goats who either spit them out or eliminate them naturally (which often leads to the re-generation of trees). When harvested, the pulp of the fruit is used to feed other animals and the nuts are laboriously extracted and roasted to make Argan oil. The arduous task of cracking open the nuts by hand with large stones is performed by several women’s co-operatives who then sell their products roadside or to stalls in the markets. The oil pressed from non-roasted Argan nuts is used for cosmetic products (great for the skin!), whereas the roasted Argan oil is used for cooking. Mimicking a hazelnut oil, the nutty flavor of Argan oil makes for delicious salad dressings, peanut and almond butters, or cooking oil for vegetables and tagines.
No trip to Morocco is complete without purchasing a few sachets of spices. Mounds of spices stacked in the markets sport the usual suspects like cumin, turmeric, and chili pepper, but my favorite is a local Moroccan concoction called Ras El Houat or ‘head of the shop,’ made up of cardamom, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, paprika, allspice and a host of others. This is a great seasoning to upgrade your Friday night chicken or faro.
So, remember not to miss the myriad of mouth-watering culinary delights in the Moroccan markets, but buyer beware, if you hear, “Belak! Belak!” it means get out of the way or my donkey will run you over!