Morocco – My Culinary Journey

A cruise around the World would probably be many people’s fantasy vacation. As a self proclaimed ‘FOODIE’ the most perfect of trips is one that immerses me in a culture’s culinary treasures on and off the beaten track-literally ” Eating my way through a country”. I am fascinated by the way they prepare their food and even more, I revel in the exploration of the food’s origins.

But, why Morocco? Why did I decide to travel over 6,500 miles one way ,32 hours and three airplanes to a continent so foreign to me and ,not only the language but also its’ religion, dress, and customs? All I know is that I had enjoyed Moroccan Food but a few times in my life, but when this opportunity for a 10 day Epicurean Expedition presented itself through a local Cooking school, the clouds parted and my two favorite passions for–food and travel merged!! Within 3 days I was booked on an amazing culinary journey!

A secret dream of mine has long been to trace the world’s infamous SPICE ROUTE. The over 2000 year old history of the Spice Trade and the lure of the Spice Islands with such exotic spices such as nutmeg and cloves that literally drove the ‘Age of Discovery’ and the circumnavigation of our globe.

Spices were the secret of any vast empire-as valuable as gold and silver. Spices were used as commerce encompassing Africa, India, China, Arabia and Europe.

Moroccan Cuisine is notorious for it’s intoxicating flavor combinations and its blends of aromatic spices. The food envelops you, whisking you away to Culinary bliss. So many influences from so many cultures converging in a small country with a very big heart of hospitality.

Marrakesh-Morocco’s hub,named the ‘jewel of the south’ as a trading and resting place ‘at the end of the world’ as it became known as was a stop on the ancient caravan roads from Timbuktu to Tangier and north to Gibraltar. Lined with labyrinths of Bazaars ,Souks and Casbahs The narrow mazes draw you in where you wander for countless hours when over citywide loudspeakers,the call to afternoon prayer just interrupts the chaos but only for a moment.

For me what makes Moroccan food so fascinating are not so much the many spices there are but rather How you use them and in what ratio, which is completely subjective and the most fun when experimenting. The most essential spices in Moroccan cooking are not unfamiliar and most cooks have a spice drawer containing probably most of them, Cumin, Ginger, Coriander, Turmeric, Paprika, Cinnamon, Allspice, Nutmeg, Cayenne, Mustard seed, Cardamom, Star Anise, White pepper and Saffron. This list of spices are not indigenous Moroccan Spices at all but rather great spices of the world that have become the mysterious melting pot fusion of the flavors and aromas of Morocco cuisine.

These Spice combinations are what separate Moroccan cooking from French with its use of herbs, or Mexican dishes embellished with its chili’s or Japanese cooking with fermented sauces.

Buying these spices whole then lightly toasting them,then grinding them before finally using them when cooking a dish makes a world of difference and I would urge anyone wishing to experiment with Moroccan cooking to take these ‘extra’ crucial steps for the very best results. You will smell and taste the magical gift Spices offer. The word ‘Spicy’ when used to describe Moroccan food refers to the many spices it uses rather than ‘Spicy’ in the chili-heat sense as in Mexican cooking.

Creating a short list of 2-3 Moroccan spice blends of your own that you can create and keep on hand is exciting and satisfying.For example since discovering Rosewater and ‘Grains of Paradise’ and Tellicherry Pepper,I now find myself concocting blends that feature those new favorites.

In my cupboard and refrigerator I now have many new homemade Moroccan flavor enhancers for marinades or dips that can immediately shift plain grilled chicken or fish into a new exotic dish

What exactly IS Moroccan Cuisine? From my 10 day culinary experience with Morocco there is a definite basic vocabulary that simply cannot be ignored. It is a list of ‘Must-Haves’ when the word Morocco is conjured up associated with my own food memories that are quintessential MOROCCO!!

THE MOROCCAN TABLE All tables whether a an outdoor café, restaurant or a home begin with small bowls of Moroccan ‘Salads’ as they are referred to. Not salad as we know it at all but rather raw or cooked vegetable dishes such as an assortment of local olives, olive ois, sliced cucumber and Lemon zest, a tomato or Eggplant ‘Jam’ and several loaves of flatbread to accompany all of these condiments

CHERMOULA A North African marinade that can either be red or green in color depending on the recipe base, but is kept on hand for fish, chicken,vegetables, lamb or beef….used in Tagines or Kabobs. Composed of many spices it is very aromatic and versatile.

TAGINE The iconic totally functional cooking pot in Moroccan Cuisine. With a turban top lid it is used to make countless slowly braised dishes such as Lamb and prunes,a traditional favorite. Made of simple terra cotta they are designed to circulate the heat in a way like a convection oven- the tapering lid forcing the hot air back down onto the food. Positioning the meat on the very bottom, the vegetables over it with the softest ones on the very top so that everything cooks perfectly but in the same amount of time. What I discovered is that the home cook may in fact have 4 or more Tagines, each one used for a specific dish-one for chicken, another for fish, yet another for vegetables, each naturally seasoning itself over time with the juices and flavors of that main ingredient. Along roadsides are outdoor shops fronted with mountains of orange clay Tagines for sale ranging in size from 6″ for smaller servings to much larger.

Then for those who entertain or have larger families,there are more opulently decorative pots of colorful enamel,hand-painted or even stone encrusted. These Tagines can be as large as 20″ across or more. They are used as serving pieces only on a buffet and meant to impress, and so they do!!

COUSCOUS This word is a way of life for the Moroccans-a culture. Couscous is slowly steamed coarsely ground semolina. In Morocco it is a labor of love, hand rolled and NOT a side dish but rather steamed sometimes 3-4 times over broth with meat and vegetables.This allows it to double then even triple in mass,providing a filling dish for as many diners as the house keeps. It is then mounded on a large platter and topped with the ingredients it was steamed over. For an Islamic family, Friday is the holiest day of the week and on that day, the mid-day meal is Couscous-almost never served on any other day. It is a once a week treat prepared by the mother or the wife for the hungry family after prayer at the Mosque. There is the belief that each granule of Couscous is a blessing from God, so it is about sharing with others.

PRESERVED LEMON Believed to be Moroccos greatest culinary gift to the world.These yellow explosions of flavor show up in practically any savory dish on a table. It is truly Morocco’s National Anthem of flavor! Cured,and fermented in Kosher Salt, they bring a perfumy, acidy, citrus quality to everything from Tagines, to salads, to stews. A little goes a very long way and because of the intensity of Preserved Lemons, I prefer to use the thin skinned floral Meyer Lemon. The technique to preserving these lemons is different and you get a milder more aromatic flavor I like better. Mincing the rind and pulp into a fine paste and adding it to taste into an Aioli for deviled eggs, or in a savory yogurt dip for pita or even in a salad dressing will keep even the most sophisticated palate guessing!

MINT TEA This steaming hot overly sweet fresh minty brew is a blend of black and green teas and is the national drink offered with each meal, at every café and to guests in every home. It is the symbol of Moroccan hospitality and always poured dramatically from a teapot raised up higher than one’s head so to to release the aroma and aerate the tea, and always served in 3″ tall glasses.It is a mild stimulant and a digestive as well-the very heart of Moroccan culture and cuisine.

VALENCIA ORANGES For everyone in Morocco, this is the dessert of choice following any meal…Valencia Oranges,skin removed, then sliced in 1/4″ slices crosswise,fanned into a spiral on a plate with a sprinkling of Cinnamon on the top. So simple,yet so satisfying and refreshing.

In the mornings and thru out the day, freshly squeezed Valencia Orange juice. Apologies to the Florida Orange Juice Commission but you have NEVER tasted OJ this fabulous in your lifetime. Thick with pulp and sold at countless small juice stands on every corner decorated with “curtains” of long winding curling strands of orange skins-these are the same thick-skinned oranges that English orange marmalade prides itself on. I have officially been spoiled and now juice my own every week at home. If they are not available,then Tangerines can substitute.

RAS EL HANOUT “35 Spice Blend”-Morocco’s national Consummate Spice. This unmistakable blend defining the flavors and aromas of Morocco. Spice shops in every town create their own concoctions of this “all in one spice” to sell.some even boasting even up to using as many as 128 spices to create their signature RAS EL HANOUT. Everyone has their own preferred vendor and purchase it by the ounce.

HARISSA “Seasoned Heat” Originally from Tunisia, Harissa is used sparingly to flavor such dishes as soups,stews, brochettes and coucous as a finishing touch. It is used as we would use Tabasco or Sriracha to kick up a notch, anything you put it in It is my newest best friend in the kitchen. Before journeying to Morocco I had never tasted Harissa let alone heard of it. You see it for sale at every spice shop but making it from scratch yourself is well worth the effort. It is a condiment/paste comprised of garlic,lemon or lime juice,and heat from chilis with herbs and spices in the background. Keeps in a bottle in the fridge for months.

I made up a Smokey Harissa ( using a recipe from Mourad’s cookbook) He also offers a recipe that features it in a Bloody Mary Mix……Sunday mornings will never be the same my friend!!

ARGAN OIL This oil is synonymous with Morocco. I had never heard of this product either until my travels there.Once abundant across North Africa it is now only found in small areas of Morocco close to the Atlas Mountain range. We visited a women’s cooperative where Argan Oil is painstakingly extracted by hand and sold not only as a culinary ingredient but it also has tremendous health and beauty elements.. For centuries Argan Oil has been a well kept secret known to the Berber Women of Morocco who use it to nourish their skin, hair and nails. If you are not familiar with it yet, it won’t be long until you begin to notice it on the shelves, and not just in shops like Pharmica and Whole Foods but in your neighborhood drug store as well. I now have a source for pure Argan oil from Morocco that I am happy to share with you since I myself have begun using this “liquid gold”

The Argan Oil I purchased for culinary use and has been used for thousands of years not unlike Olive oil. It is used mostly as a delicate finishing oil for salads and main dishes. It has a nutty golden flavor that is delicious and I use it on very special dishes.

COMMUNITY KITCHENS In every town,there were numerous outdoor eateries just off the sidewalks of busy streets or lining dark passages of the Souks and outdoor marketplaces. Many had 6 or more tagines lined up over Brasserie style open flames. Each morning the cooks prepare his vegetables,fish or meat and gets the fires going which are constantly stoked . Each tagine are filled with the ingredients placed in their respective order topped with the conical top and a few hours later lunch is served to any hungry passerby for a few dollars. In fact one café we had and amazing seafood lunch at in the seaport town of Essouira had an impressive and ingenious idea. As they say-necessity is the mother of invention… because.Morocco’s climate tends to be quite hot and humid in the spring-summer months, resident’s living quarters are quite small and the luxury of owning a full kitchen is neither practical or attainable for many. Often one eats meals on the run outside the home or the mother shops that day for produce/meat at her favorite local marketplace and then stops by their neighborhood community kitchen to drop off those items to the cooks . She then pays them to cook a meal just for her and her family which she picks up later that day. These community kitchens have a gill, flat top, outdoor oven, a Brasserie for Tagines and kabobs.

There is really no need to cook at home at all! Such a smart practical way to eat, not to mention safer and no pots and pans to clean! Older women are the cooks who guided us through our hands-on cooking classes in Morocco. They are experts in traditional Moroccan cuisine passed down from countless generations keeping Moroccan cuisine alive and well.

PERSPECTIVE on MOROCCO After being back home a month after my trip to Morocco I still have so many vivid flashbacks of all the sights,sounds,smells, and tastes of one of the most extraordinary Countries I have ever visited.One full week of Jet lag my mind was busy during the “wee hours of the night” digesting not only the food but the colorful images. piecing my memories together like the complex mosaic tiles I saw there on almost every wall,in every room lining both ceilings and floors from huge Mosques to the smallest public restroom. Each time I closed my eyes the playful architecture of the alcoves,porticos and hallways and entrances-those amazing ancient hand carved studded and weathered doors one after other up and down each narrow street,one appearing just like another you passed 10 minutes ago you think- but no! .Without street signs,the panic of getting hopelessly lost is always in the back of your mind so our guide was never far from sight.

Then, there are the colors!!! When I think of Morocco I think immediately of so many colors, Hot colors, acid yellow, intense fuchsia and magenta, neon cobalt blue,searing into your brain.

In fact, I think there should be a line of crayons created by Crayola called the Moroccan collection!!

I consider myself well travelled to over.40+ US states,including Alaska and Hawaii,the Eastern Caribbean,Mexico,Canada, Nova Scotia, Hong Kong all of Europe, living in Germany, England and Japan., but I was the least travelled and the youngest of this group of 12 well seasoned travel companions who searched for culinary adventures in Morocco of all places, let’s face it, Morocco would not be a first choice destination for most, especially the novice tourist. This group had one main thing in common -.FOOD!!- We love to chop it, cook it, eat it, dine out and try new things! I tried to do some homework by reading as many travel books as I could on the airplanes about Morocco, but none really prepared me for the next 10 days. Luckily I went into this with no preconceived notions or expectations which turned out to be a blessing. I surrendered to Morocco and allowed it to happen right before me. It is country with geography ranging from the blustery rocky port of Essouira to the green Atlas Mountains dotted with Berber villages, to the modern Atlantic coastline of Casablanca and finally to the undulating orange dunes of the Sahara desert. With a Mediterranean climate quite pleasant in the month of April, it was definitely the best time of year to visit.

One of thousands of lasting impressions was undoubtedly Marrakesh-Morocco’s most intoxicating city, which is the infamous marketplace known as DJEMAS el FNA – an enormous carnivalesque open square or plaza at the center of the Medina (old city) of Marrakesh. the centuries old heartbeat of the city. Virtually sparse during the day but spoked like a giant wheel by endless alleyways of Bazaars and Souks bursting with Artisans selling their handicrafts, it undergoes an all day transformation by sunset into a bustling chaotic gigantic marketplace overflowing with apothecaries ,fortunetellers, produce and food stalls, piled high with dried fruits, nuts, kabobs, juices ,seafood, and pastries right.alongside snake charmers, dentists, monkey trainers ,storytellers, dancers and henna artists. As in centuries before, it is still where Marrakesh comes out to eat, meet, play and be entertained.

Morocco revolves around its marketplaces-its lifeblood. Every time you blinked- a new even more spectacular image appeared before you- sensory overload! A farmer’s market on steroids! By early evening thousands of locals and tourists collide well into the late night.. I counted no fewer than 12 languages spoken around me while sipping my glass of hot Mint tea. That is when I had wished I knew more phrases in French…that is l the country’s second language after Arabic.

A final note is the unexpected exquisite beauty and peacefulness of the RIAD. I was never aware of their existence before visiting Morocco. The ancient walled neighborhoods reveal almost nothing of these luminous residences largely hidden from outsiders. . A RIAD is a villa, usually a family owned multi level home with several rooms encircling a lush garden like courtyard with a fountain in the center providing a restful,charming atmosphere. The floors are connected by spiraling staircases leading to the top floor which may be an open-air kitchen and dining space.What a gloriously practical idea! In fact in one Riad that is where the cooking classes were given.

There are many Riads, each unique, however,yet sequestered within miles of walled craggy stone paths and behind the most unlikely of unassuming doors. At last when you arrive It is like walking into a secret garden not meant for anyone but you. Riads immerse you and embrace you into the Moroccan culture in a way no western hotel could ever hope to. Rooms may combine intricately carved cedar furniture,mosaic tile embellished tubs and Berber Carpets, all too dimly lit by the oversized lanterns hanging above projecting hypnotic shadows. You watch them play on every wall until your eyes grow heavy and you fall into a deep sleep. Then in the early morning you are suddenly awakened by the braying of a donkey and some laughing baby goats just outside your bedroom window! And that is when you are sure that “you are not in Kansas anymore!”

As a chef, I am so pleased that I ventured so far from home to explore and expand my knowledge and appreciation of food. I will forever be influenced by the magic of spices and the endless possibilities of the flavor, aroma, and surprising twist they can induce on the simplest of dishes. I already look forward to my next destination, my next Epicurean expedition!