I felt intimidated. Walking down a hectic, dusty street in Azemmour, our tummies growling with lunchtime hunger, I felt utterly and totally intimidated.
I’d wanted to try my first Moroccan meal. But now that I was walking past cafés filled with men drinking mint tea, food stalls exhibiting animal carcasses, and hole-in-the wall restaurants with giant vats bubbling over charcoal stoves out front, I was having second thoughts.
Finally, my stomach won out over my fear. I approached a few restaurants, looked inside their vats and platters, found one that looked like American baked beans, and sat down at an empty table.
My anxiety was a thing of the past; my curiosity at the food customs of a new country took over. I watched others around me dig into their dishes with pieces of bread torn off of saucer-like loaves, then round off their meals with pots of sweet mint tea. I did the same. It was delicious. And fun. And it cost me $2.
I couldn’t wait to visit another dive restaurant the following day in El Jadida. This one, tucked in a narrow alley behind the souq, was even more grubby and local than the first; we were the only foreigners, and I the only woman. On offer were five metal vats containing various stews. Luckily, three of them were vegetarian – loobia (baked beans), ‘addis (green lentils), and hodra (vegetable stew).
More confident than the day before, I pointed at two stews, washed my hands, and dug into my meal with my khoobz (bread), tearing off one solid, crusty chunk at a time and dipping it, with my right hand, into my stew. I automatically love any food that requires a utensil other than a fork or spoon.
It was only weeks later, during our family reunion in Taroudant, that I got the second instalment of my Moroccan food education. By this point, I’d tasted a variety of foods – briouat (Moroccan samosas), harira (a fragrant tomato soup containing chickpeas, lentils, rice, and vermicelli noodles), pastilla (mille-feuille pie), bessara (fava bean purée, called foul in many Arab countries); msammen (Moroccan crêpe), and beghrir (Moroccan pancake).
With the help of Hafida and Atika, our two Moroccan cooks, I began to deepen my understanding of their complex cuisine. I was in charge of coordinating our daily menu with them, and each day Hafida would suggest Moroccan dishes. Each suggestion was a tagine, one of Morocco’s two world-famous dishes (the other being couscous). I remember thinking to myself that everyone was going to get really sick of such a repetitive menu.
What I slowly realized was that tagine wasn’t just a dish – it was a cooking method. A tagine is an earthenware pot in which food is cooked. It consists of two parts: a flat, circular base, and a cone-shaped cover. Food is layered into the base – spices and onions at the bottom, followed by meat (if there is any), carrots and potatoes (which take longer to cook), and finally, fast-cooking vegetables like zucchini, tomatoes and peas. The tagine is placed over medium-high heat (traditionally over charcoal, but now also on gas or electric stovetops), covered, and left to its own devices, except to add small quantities of water at frequent intervals. This is the key of the tagine cooking method: food is cooked both from the heat below and the steam created by the water and kept in by the cone-shaped lid.
There are a plethora of different tagine dishes – chicken with olives and preserved lemon; lamb with prunes, almonds, and sesame seeds; kefta (beef meatballs) with a spicy red sauce; chicken with hard-boiled eggs; vegetables topped with chickpeas and caramelized onions; fish and carrots – so many, in fact, that we weren’t able to try all of Hafida’s meal selections in our two-week stay in Taroudant.
Not only that, but since each chef uses a different spice mix to flavor the tagine – Hafida’s often used ginger, cumin, salt, and pepper, but some people use saffron, paprika, or coriander – you can try tagine kefta in twenty different places and never eat the same dish.
I really want a tagine in my camper van now. Too bad they’re breakable.
I became friends with Hafida and Atika. It was inevitable, really, what with my passion for world cuisine. I watched them layer thin buttery pastry sheets over a spicy vegetable curry to make a vegetarian pastilla. I asked about the spices that went into their harira. I even helped stuff and fold briouat.
When the family reunion was over, and I’d taken my parents on a tour of eastern Morocco in a rented camper van, I returned to Taroudant and called them.
“Please come to my house for dinner,” said Hafida without a second thought. “And please come to my parents’ home for dinner, too,” said Atika.
What was meant – in my mind, at least – to be an evening with my two new Moroccan friends turned into thirty hours, a sleepover, and four meals. What’s more, I was invited back the following week, with my friend, Sahnah, who would be in town from New York. I knew Sahnah would love the opportunity to meet my friends, taste their food, and experience their family life, because that’s exactly what we’d done a decade before, on our first trip together, to Mauritania.
Hafida lives with her husband and three children in a 4-storey townhouse near Taroundant’s medina. I’d met the family at our New Year’s Eve dance party; her youngest, Ihsan, was already quite attached to me. Over the four nights I spent sleeping on cushioned benches placed along the perimeter of her second-floor salon, I got to meet Hafida’s mother, sister, and niece, as well as Atika’s sister, brother, parents, sister-in-law, and nieces.
It was wonderful to foster a friendship with Hafida and Atika that had begun as an uncomfortable employer-employee relationship. Despite our inability to communicate complex ideas, I learned a lot about Hafida’s family and home life. It was fascinating to experience firsthand their customs and routines. A lot of them centered on food.
Breakfast is taken in two stages – a small bowl of plain porridge with ahwa (coffee) upon waking (this was perhaps just for the sake of Saaid, the husband, who left early for his bicycle repair shop), and later, an incredible feast that reminded me of Turkish breakfast. A variety of spreads – butter, olive oil, jam, honey, and amlou, a divine southern Moroccan spread of almond butter, honey, and argan oil – are laid in miniature dishes in the center of the table. Around then is fresh khoobz, of course, but also msammen (which I loved immediately), and beghrir (which, because of its spongy, bubbled texture, I didn’t love until I had it served with warmed butter and honey). Olives and yogurt are available, as is lots of Moroccan tea, but fresh fruit, my own breakfast favorite, is served only for dessert after lunch and dinner.
Because of the late breakfast, the timing of the other meals is very different from what I’m used to. Lunch, the largest meal of the day, is served around 2pm; a light dinner is served anytime after nine.
To make it that long between meals, Moroccans eat an early-evening snack. I had asked Hafida’s kids which meal they liked best, and it’s no surprise that snack-time was the unanimous favorite, for snacks consist almost entirely of sweet things. There’s msammen or beghrir doused with honey; French croissants and pain au chocolat; gooey, dripping dates; and a variety of Moroccan pastries, or helwa.
Bruno and I had definitely caught onto the helwa. In even the smallest of Moroccan towns are patisseries, bakeries with massive windows displaying a variety of delicate pastries – displays that just beg you to create your own variety pack to-go. We’d tried almond cookies, anise biscuits, frangipani briouat, honey and almond cigars, chebakia (deep-fried dough with sprinkled sesame seeds), and the lovely and much-loved crescent-moon-shaped cornes de gazelle.
Sugar definitely seems to be a Moroccan staple, as sweet things even find their way into savory meals. Harira is always served with either dates or chebakia; dried fruits find their way into couscous, caramelized onions into tagine. There’s even a dinner dish called sfaa that consists of either couscous or vermicelli noodles topped with raisins, crushed peanuts, powdered sugar, and cinnamon.
And, the sweetest – and most-beloved – thing of all is Moroccan tea.
Moroccan tea is such a fascinating topic that I could probably write an entire blog post about it; a little interlude here will have to suffice. Tea, in Morocco, is drunk as a relaxing, afternoon pastime amongst family and friends; as a way for unemployed men to while away seemingly-infinite hours watching the world go by at roadside cafés; and as a preamble to any important business transactions.
I’ve spent many hours watching people – mostly men, as women only drink tea at home – drink tea. It is served in metal pots on metal trays with shot-sized glasses; the pots are generally stuffed full of fresh mint. The man offering the tea will pour a drop into a glass and taste it before adding his desired amount of sugar to the pot. He will fill a glass and dump it back into the pot, repeating this process a couple more times to melt and mix the sugar before filling all the glasses for his friends.
The key to this ritual is that the man will pour the tea, each time, from astounding heights. The spouts of the teapots are long and thin so that the tea can be poured into such narrow glasses from distances of at least – and often more than – sixty centimeters.
Depending on who you talk to, this pouring technique serves to aerate the tea, to cool down the liquid, to look cool, or to create foam at the top of the beverage. Whatever it is, it’s a lot harder than it looks. I’ve been practicing the technique for three months, and from only thirty centimeters away I still create loads of spray with my wavering hand.
If you’re invited for tea by a Moroccan, it’s always a lengthy affair. In Marrakech, I learned why. Sahnah and I had befriended two shop workers after buying some spices and perfumes from them, and they invited us to lunch the following day. Mohammed noticed my interest in all-things-cuisine and invited me to learn how to prepare tea.
“Sure,” I replied, omitting my inward retort that, at 31 years old, I already know how to prepare tea. I was wrong.
Moroccans use gunpowder green loose-leaf tea from China. They place a handful at the bottom of the metal pot, cover them with water, and set that to boil. Then they dump that liquid in one of the tea glasses, add cold water to the pot, swish that around (to clean the leaves) and throw away the dirty water. Next, they pour back the dense tea liquid from the tea glass into the pot, add a large handful of fresh mint – stalks and all – then fill the pot to the top with water and set on low heat. The liquid is now simmered for at least ten minutes, and often seeped for several more. Sugar is added before serving – and trust me, it’s needed to offset the bitterness.
During my tea observations over the past several months, I had been amazed by the amount of sugar Moroccans will add to their tea. In Morocco, sugar cubes are giant rectangular prisms, and each prism must equal ten Western sugar cubes. Most Moroccans add two sugar prisms to pots of tea that can serve three people. That’s about seven cubes of sugar per tiny cup!
No wonder Moroccans have dubbed their tea “Moroccan whiskey.”
I’d read that couscous is the Moroccan equivalent of a Sunday roast – it’s the special weekly meal shared by the family. I’d never been able to find couscous at a local restaurant because it was only prepared once a week (usually on Friday), and then, it was prepared in one giant batch that always included chicken.
I was perplexed that such a simple thing as couscous would be the special meal in a country that has beautifully-plated, more elaborate, seemingly finer foods.
Hafida and Atika helped me understand. Preparing the couscous grains requires impeccable timing and strong hands. First, the uncooked grains are placed in a large basket and massaged with oil. They are then transferred in the top pot of a couscoussier, a Moroccan double-boiler. In the bottom pot, the couscous vegetables are boiling away in a spiced tomato broth. The couscous is steamed for a while, then dumped back into the basket, where it is lubricated with a bit of cool water and massaged by hand to remove any clumps. (I tried this part and burned the crap out of my hands. No joke, they were lobster-red.) The process of steaming and massaging is done three times, requiring over an hour before the texture is perfect.
Finally, the couscous is plated. A huge pile of perfectly-cooked grains are dumped in the center of a large platter, and on top are piled the meat and a huge variety of vegetables, such as eggplant, pumpkin, carrot, turnip, zucchini, and cabbage. There may also be dried fruit, caramelized onions, chickpeas or lima beans. Broth is served in a bowl on the side and spooned to taste onto one’s portion of couscous. During our family reunion, we served the couscous family-style onto our own plates and ate it with utensils; Moroccans, however, share it with their hands out of the common platter.
Hafida prepared us couscous in her home. While she was cooking it, I learned that her 16-year old son, Hicham, knows how to prepare several tagine dishes. I was impressed – I’d thought the kitchen in Morocco was reserved for women. Later, when Sahnah and I shared a meal in Marrakech with our new shop worker friends, I found out that Mohammed had gone to the market to pick out all the seasonal produce needed for the tagines he would serve us at lunch. Since he had to be at work all day, he had brought the ingredients, and his own spice mix, to a shop that would transform them into our meal. It’s a cheap service that many vendors who can’t go home for lunch use.
It appeared men in Morocco were adept in tagine preparation. But rarely does a man attempt a couscous. “No way,” said Hicham, his eyes big, when I asked him if he could make the Moroccan Sunday roast. “That’s way too hard!”
It appeared couscous, at least, has remained a woman’s duty in Morocco.
Not everything about Moroccan food speaks to me. The cuisine is too bread-, meat-, and sugar-heavy for me, and their street food isn’t as exciting, spicy, or healthy as what you can find in powerhouses like Thailand and India.
But I love the markets piled high with gorgeous, cheap, and supposedly-organic fresh produce. I love the bean stews, the fresh herbs used on everything, the gooey, almost-burnt onions at the bottom of a tagine. Despite the sugar, I love washing my meals down with a glass of mint tea.
Most of all, I love what food in Morocco stands for – hospitality, community, and celebration. As I sat at Hafida’s low roundtable, gathered with her extended family around a platter of lovingly-plated couscous, I felt so welcome, so accepted. Saaid said Bismillah (“in the name of Allah”), and we all dug our right hands into the platter. Hafida’s mother nudged some pumpkin into my section of the food. I scooped it up with my fingers, mashed it with some couscous into a ball in my palm, and popped it into my mouth, smiling inwardly. That pumpkin – indeed that couscous – was a celebration of a new member in the Nasser family – me.