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Mastering the art of Moroccan cuisine

After a 10 days holiday in Morocco my American acquaintance made clear in his status feed on Facebook that he was “ready to eat anything besides tagine, kefta or cous cous”.

Snail soup, anyone?

For most of us Moroccan food is all about cous-cous and tagine, and many come back from their Moroccan holiday with a deep distaste for food served in conical dishes. There is however much more to the Moroccan cuisine then just those two omnipresent dishes.

Popular cookery lessons
Lately, Moroccan cuisine has been gaining popularity all over the western world. Spicy but not hot, with lots of vegetables and low on fat, it is cherished by the followers of the Mediterranean diet. As an answer to this growing interest, a number of private entrepreneurs, riads, and hotels are offering cookery lessons for foreign tourists.

A typical lesson starts with shopping for ingredients in the souks. Apart from everyday vegetables, food sold in the souks varies from olives in all sizes and colors, spices, and preserved lemons (the uglier, the better!) to sweets, meat from tiny butcher shops, and even whole sheep carcasses smoked in underground chambers. The most memorable experience however is the smell of Moroccan breakfast treat called khaliaa – scraps of meat cooked in its own fat, and then left to pickle in room temperature. The shock to the olfactory system is only partly alleviated by the aromas coming from nearby herb stalls, selling nothing but fresh herbs, with several types of mint for traditional Moroccan tea as their main merchandise.

As no Moroccan meal is complete without a loaf of white wheat bread, a visit to a bakery is also a part of the shopping experience. The bakery we visited was situated in a cellar behind an anonymous doorway somewhere in the maze of the Medina.

The room was dominated by a huge oven with rows of bread loaves in different stages of baking process inside. The oven was continuously fed with new loaves be a man standing almost inside it. Despite the intense heat, he did not seem to break a sweat! In the room next door several other men knead the dough and formed the loaves – the scene probably has not changed since the Middle Ages. The only nod towards modernity in the whole bakery was a rudimentary machine mixing the ingredients for the dough in a huge bowl.
Loaded with spices, vegetables, bread, meat, and fish bought in the souks, students return to the cookery school where the food is prepared under the watchful eye of the local cooks. The lesson’s most exciting moment arrives when all this delicious food is ready to be served and consumed by hungry students.

Eating out
For those not cooking themselves, the best place to taste authentic Moroccan cuisine in Marrakech is on and around Jemaa el Fna. The square is lined with restaurants and cafes serving a variety of Moroccan dishes. Simple, delicious, and cheap food is served at Chez Chegrouni. For a hassle-free and unobstructed view of the square included in the price, one has to climb up to the terrace of the Café Glacier. Both restaurants serve a variety of typical meals, such as harira soup and a choice of tagine dishes.

For more adventurous however, no restaurant can beat the experience of dining out at the night food marked on the square itself. After sunset the stall employees, men only, set up dozens of stalls and tents furnished with long, paper-covered tables and benches. The food on offer varies little from stall to stall, and a full meal usually comprises a round loaf of wheat bread from the local bakery, a variety of salads and appetizers, pastilla (chicken or more rarely pigeon pie, spiced with cinnamon and sugar), and a choice of shish kebabs from the barbeque. Some of the stalls however invite hungry passer byes to a totally different kind of culinary adventure – sheep heads, snails in spicy broth or just boiled eggs. There is even one stall serving mint tea only, displaying dozens of dispensable plastic cups filled with fresh mint leaves and huge lumps of sugar, waiting to be filled with hot, black tea when a customer arrives. This entire culinary extravaganza is washed down with a glass of freshly squeezed orange or grapefruit juice from juice wagons lining the eastern and western side of the square.

The night market is not just a feast for the stomach, but also for the senses. The smells, music from gnawa bands playing nearby and smoke from tens of barbeques conjure a magical atmosphere. The market is popular with tourists and locals alike, and allows a visitor to immerse him – or her – self in culinary tradition far from the initially delicious, but eventually repetitive and boring, cous-cous or tagine.

Cookery lessons are offered by:
Souk cuisine
Maison arabe
Dar Liqama
Jnane Tamsna
Riad Merdoudi

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