Moroccan food is my new favorite flavor. In fact, what I think I will miss the most, other than the friends I met, is the food. I love that at each meal olives are served. Green, black. Spiced, plain. Pitted and pits. And the bread! Little 6″ rounds that are torn apart and used to sop up the juices and oils in everything from omelets to tagine. It’s a great way to be completely immersed in eating, this sopping with the bread. As it is often done in a communal dish of some kind at the middle of the table.
When I signed on for this trip a large reason was for the cooking classes in Marrakech. It turns out that that was overrated. Rather than a “class”, we were more given a demonstration – – and a fast one at that! – – on how to make traditional foods. From people who don’t speak English and there was no interpreter. For the bread lesson we had Mokhtar to translate, which helped, but it turns out that bread is the most obvious and straightforward food as far as ingredients so an interpreter isn’t as much needed. And, there were only three dishes we were introduced to: bread, Chicken and Preserved Lemon w traditional Moroccan salads, and Chicken and Vegetable Couscous. While I will endeavor to cook Moroccan food upon my return, it isn’t with any more knowledge than I had before I left. Now I just know how much I love Moroccan food; that’s the only difference. I did learn this: couscous requires a pot called a ‘couscousery’ (I sang it to the tune of “Chim Chimney”). And I learned this: contrary to what they tell the tourists, tajine does not require a tajine to make it! This was probably the most stunning and difficult blow to deal with! And I know this: making tajine in a regular stainless steel kettle does not taste the same as a slow cook in a tajine due to the lack of crispy burntness on the bottom. Everybody knows the best part is the burnt crispiness on the bottom. That’s why I’m coming home with a small tajine in my suitcase. Mokhtar bought me a larger one that he is sending me. No soup pot for me!
At one of the casbahs where we stayed we were given our first cooking class, a baking lesson from A to Zed on the art of bread baking. Zara, the 22 year old daughter and grand-daughter of the caretakers of this place, measured out the flour and water and salt on the floor of her kitchen as we watched. She set it to rise and then pulled out another batch she had prepared earlier, just like a cooking show. She kneaded it out on the floor on a wooden platform used to size the bread. Then she let a few of us try it. While I was able to knead it correctly, I was not able to size it properly and we ended up with a grande sized example! There’s definitely a knack to it! We went to the room where the fire was being stoked with palm fronds by Zara’s mother. A metal disk sat in the middle on which the bread was to be placed during baking while the flames swirled all around inside the oven, cooking the top of the bread. It was really amazing to watch and I tried the best I could to capture it all on film. Not easy.
Bruschette is also a tasty treat. Little pieces of meat that are spiced, placed on skewers, and grilled. Sometimes served with pomme frittes (French fries). I had bruschette with chicken, lamb, and my all time favorite, liver with fat! Every other piece was liver or fat – – the kind of fat that’s flavorful and crunchy. Very tasty!
Harissa is a spicy red sauce that’s like hot pepper sauce. It varies according to the household and region. Variations can include the addition of cumin, red peppers, garlic, coriander, and lemon juice. In Saharan regions, harissa can have a smoky flavor. Prepared harissa is also sold in nearly every style of container, including jars, cans, bottles, tubes, and plastic bags. It is also used as an ingredient in a meat (goat or lamb) or fish stew with vegetables, and as a flavoring for couscous. It is also used for soups usually eaten for breakfast. It was different every place we went, some mild and some hotter. Some with visible ingredients, some pureed to a sauce. No matter what, it’s great with bread and it is something I will miss.
Tanjia is slow-cooked meat that falls off the bone and is richly flavored. My favorite was lamb. Yum!
Moroccan salad is delicious! Turns out I’ve been making a traditional Moroccan salad all along and just didn’t realize it! Tomatoes, onions, cilantro, an acid (lemon, vinegar,…), Moroccan olive oil, cucumbers, sometimes peppers, etc. It’s like the salsa I make! And it’s so good, again with the bread served morning, noon, and night.
Moroccan olives are ubiquitous. Every meal: olives. And therefore olive oil is also ubiquitous. No butter is used; only olive oil. And Moroccan olive oil has a completely different taste than the oils I’m accustomed to. Very, very olive-y. At first I thought it a little bit strong but I adjusted quickly to it and am not sure how I will now handle the blandness of the oil I use at home. I never knew that I thought olive oil was bland until now!
Argan oil is another delicious oil that is rarely used due to its expense. Argan oil is touted for cosmetic use as well as cooking. I’ve heard of its cosmetic benefits in The States on commercials. Now I’ve seen argan trees and have tasted the oil (and now own some of both!). The flavor is almost like sesame oil only richer. Again, good with the dipped bread.
Omeletes made in the tajine is another thing I will do from now on. A bit of olive oil in the tray of the tajine over a low flame with some cured meat popular in Morocco and often used in wintertime when fresh meat might be difficult to come by. Add the eggs with some salt and put the tajine cover on until the whites and the oil is bubbling and sizzling but the yolks are still soft and bring to the table. Remove the lid, hopefully for the first time so the steam rushes out, and serve! It is delicious served with bread to sop up the now-flavored oil. I made this for my fellow travelers one morning and it was delicious except that I cooked the yolks too hard and we didn’t have the joy of sopping them up with the bread. But it was still good. And had I had harissa, it would have been even better.
Oranges and dates are common in Morocco. Each is found everywhere! And both are delicious. But an especially delicious taste is when the two are combined and cinnamon is sprinkled over all of it! Very nice and very light.
More about tajine in general. It is a stew of sorts. Like a slow-cooked roast on a Sunday with vegetables and broth. But it’s more than that. Maybe it’s the olives that add such a tangy flavor, or maybe it’s the cumin and other spices. But I just can’t resist a tajine. The best one I had was at a restaurant I went to a few times with Mokhtar and Richard. It was lamb with prunes. A sweet, cinnamon-y broth covered in sesame seeds and almonds topped it all off. Amazing! And the last tajine I had in Morocco (this trip) was another favorite: figs and lamb. Only slightly sweet in the broth, the figs provided all the sweetness on this one. It was spectacular! And the tajine I had on the first day proved to be my all-around favorite: chicken and vegetables and olives with a crispy and crunchy burned bottom. I was fortunate enough to cook tajine on my own with Mokhtar at his apartment one day. We used a soup kettle and slow cooked lamb in oil, added onions and spices, and continued cooking for over an hour. Then we added the huge bags of peas and fava beans I shelled, two potatoes, and some tomato. I’m not listing the ingredients in the proper order, but close. We ate this with olives, bread, and Saharan red wine and it was delicious! So glad I had the chance to actually cook instead of just watching, as was the case during our “cooking lessons.”
There are many other reasons I will return to Morocco, but if I returned just for the food, it would be well worth it!