I have never cooked anything Moroccan and don’t know a lot about Moroccan foods so I thought it would be great to take a cooking class while we were in Marrakesh. I remember my cooking classes in Thailand and Vietnam being so much fun that I had very high hopes for another great day of cooking and eating in Marrakesh. We reserved the class months ago via e-mail but we finally heard back just days before our arrival in Marrakesh, so we were skeptical as to whether this was legitimate. When we arrived at our meeting point in front of Cafe France in Jemaa El Fna, I spotted a stylish young woman dressed in Western clothing who turned out to be our cooking instructor for the day. We weren’t sure whether we’d be her only students but when she asked us to wait in her car, we knew there would be others. A few minutes later we were joined by a couple, Rose and Edward, from London. On a side note, I loved the names of the couple; I thought them so old fashioned and lovely… especially for a young, hip, and well traveled couple like the two of them. They proved to be excellent company for us and I really enjoyed spending the day with them. We actually ran into them again the next day when we were chilling out drinking a bottle of Moroccan rose at a cafe in the New City. An odd coincidence but it seems to me that people of certain age groups traveling in similar circles and with the similar likes and references, you’re bound to see the same people again. Anyway. Back to the cooking class.
Lalla, our instructor, drove us to a local spice market first where we spent the next half an hour or so touching, sniffing, and tasting the various Moroccan spices and oils. I learned that Morocco produces saffron along with Iran and Spain. We were told that in order to make a proper Moroccan tagine, you’d need a mixture of 39 spices ground together. Lalla called it Moroccan curry, which has more fennel than Indian curry. While we were applied with orange oil, rose water, given spices to smell and taste (total sensory overload), we also drank what the spice guy called “Berber Whiskey.” It’s the national drink (mint tea) of Morocco, a Muslim country with limited alcoholic beverage options (the Old City where we stayed was basically dry). Everywhere we went we were offered their strong mint tea which I found tooth-achingly sweet. The version at this spice shop seemed to have a little something extra I could not at all figure out. But then again, we were at a spice shop so who knows what the guy put in there. After getting a good basic lesson on Moroccan spices, Lalla then asked us what each of us wanted to cook. I wanted to try making a fish tagine, Paula picked a sweet chicken tagine. Edward’s chosen dish was a lamb tagine and Rose a savory chicken tagine. Looking back, one of us should have picked a couscous dish but at the time, we were all happy with our choices. Next came the livestock and produce market where we had to pick up the rest of our ingredients.
As soon as we walked into this market I was hit with a very strong smell of livestock. I’m certain what I got was just a fraction of what it’s like in the summer time but it still hurt a bit. So I swallowed hard, took a breath through my mouth, and followed Lalla to her poultry guy. There we actually picked out a live chicken. It was this one-
He was weighed first and then walked over to the “slaughter corner.” The really graphic part, Paula and I both opted not to see. But Edward and Rose went right up to the counter for a better view. I know that I’ll always remember what I heard (and thankfully didn’t see). I don’t need to go into where our food comes from and the circle of life and all that. But I do have to say that this part of the class was not at all contemplated when I signed up for a day of cooking but I welcomed the opportunity to see how the local Moroccans shop for their everyday needs. We followed that unexpected stop with a quick trip over to the vegetable and fruit stand, picked out a fish for my tagine (I picked the one on the left, the bigger fish), and then we got back in Lalla’s car to drive over to her house.
Lalla was very proud to show her house to us which she said was the first for her Grandparents, her parents, and her. It was set up differently than a riad and there were separate buildings that housed the living quarters, the kitchen, the toilet, and their hammam. The large garden in the middle had olive trees, orange and lemon trees, as well as some of the herbs she cooks with. Her two assistants had set up a large table in the middle of the garden for us, with cutting boards and bowls already laid out. We put on our red and white checkered aprons and got to work chopping onions, peeling tomatoes, and crushing some garlic for all of our tagines. Where as the cooking classes in New York I’ve taken focused mainly on various techniques (knife skills, sauteeing, braising, souffle-ing), here it was all about the fresh ingredients and the combination of herbs and spices. We happily followed Lalla’s instructions and put in a pinch of this, a half teaspoon of that, a tablespoon of something else… I lost count after the first 5 or 6 spices, but cooking outside under the African sun had me so happy and excited I didn’t really care about the actual recipe.
Once we filled out own individual tagines with our own selection of spices, protein, and vegetables we set them on top of burning coals. I was eager to help fuel the fire and I think the assistants thought I was a little nuts but again, I just didn’t care. What can I say? I loved it all.
In addition to our main dishes, we made a beet salad, fried mashed potatoes, baba ganoush, and a pepper salad. We were also given grilled sardines (the most delicious and delightful things! Paula loved it so much she had two whole sardines) and an egg omelet with preserved lamb (lamb preserved in its own fat, I think). I had seen Andrew Zimmern eat this dish on “Bizarre Foods” and looking terribly disgusted, so I was definitely a bit afraid of it. But it was actually not bad at all. Not even that lamb-y to be honest. I think Andrew exaggerated to make good TV or he’s just not into bizarre foods. We also had a large basket of amazing Moroccan bread with some fresh cheese, made by one of the assistant ladies that morning. It tasted a lot like cream cheese and we ate it with so much gusto (and I think because I was so eager to run around taking photos and do everything), she actually asked us if we wanted to come to her house for tea after we were finished with our lunch. Of course we all said “YES!”
Finally after about 45 minutes (during which we ate our appetizers and also tasted our tagines for additional seasoning), our main course was ready. And we feasted. We ate as if this was the only meal we were ever going to eat. But if you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I’ve been eating like this for many weeks now so this isn’t news. We ate so much that we all wanted to crawl under the table and go to sleep, but there was dessert to be had and more tea to drink. And little did we know what awaited for us… Lalla had us pile into her car again but this time with the two assistant ladies stuffed into the back (not the trunk but where you’d put your bags/cargo in an SUV)! They just grinned and took a bumpy ride with us not too far away from Lalla’s house.
Now. This is where the most surreal but real part of my day unfolded. We walked through a set of large metal doors and found ourselves in a muddy courtyard surrounded by tall mud walls. To our left a small opening led to another mud colored structure, which we found out was their hammam. We were allowed to duck under and go inside the dark hammam to look around (we learned that they use the hammam about once a week). We even got to see how they heat the hammam (with wood and plastic water bottles, by the way). Back out to the entry way/courtyard we turned to the right side and what do we see? A donkey! and then cows. Three cows to be exact, in varying sizes. It turns out that the cheese we ate earlier came from the little cow’s milk that morning. By this time, the whole family had come out to greet us and to introduce us to their livestock. And before I could say “moo,” small glasses of milk showed up in front of us. Paula and I “chickened out” and declined the milk but Edward and Rose graciously took their glasses and attempted to drink some. After a quick sip, Rose turned to us and said she might be sick… Edward did his best to drink some more but once he saw a few things floating in the glass his valiant effort came to an end as well. I didn’t want to ask them what it was like so we just left it at that.
The family was kind enough to also bring out cookies and more mint tea for us, and we sat on small stools in the stable area with the rest of them to eat and drink. Lalla explained to us that the Berber families are usually poorer than the Arab families but they are always generous to show their hospitality and love to share with others. Since we were sitting right next to the donkey and the cows, our conversation naturally turned to the livestock. Paula asked about the name of the donkey and when we heard that she was called “Shakira” we just rolled with laughter. Apparently this Berber family watches Western TV! And then we learned that the young cow whose milk we were offered is named “Michael Jackson.” Really. I could not possibly make this up!
What a day.
With the sun slowly setting we said good bye to this wonderful family and Lalla, and returned to Jemaa El Fna. I could not have asked for a better cooking class or a better way to learn about the way of life in Marrakesh. Throughout the day I thought of how lucky and blessed I am to live my life, meet such amazing people, and have these experiences.
What a day.
Les ateliers Lalla Fatima: Cours de cuisine Maroccaine
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