Saturday, May 22, 2010

Moroccan Cooking: Tagine and Spices

Moroccan Spice Souk

We were five travelers in this seaside village, brought together in the cozy second floor loft of a renovated almond warehouse by a common passion for great food and a desire to make a cultural connection with the place we were visiting. As we tucked into the first course, a warm, spicy courgette salad (salads are typically cooked in Morocco and bear little resemblance to the leafy greens that are on every menu back home) I wasn’t the only one who was left speechless at just how good this tasted. It wasn’t just because we had prepared the dish ourselves. Could this really be a salad? Is there a way to eat vegetables and actually enjoy them? Perhaps I’d found the answer to increasing the amount of vegetables in my diet. Spices.

Chicken Tagine with Olives

Morocco’s rich food culture has developed over thousands of years and I feel lucky to have had the chance to experience and learn about it during my three weeks here. It’s not surprising that the Moroccans create so much flavor by incorporating delicate blends of spices like ginger, saffron, cumin and cinnamon into their food. After all, North Africa has always been an important transit point on the historical Spice Route. Over the centuries, enormous caravans of thousands of camels crossed the Moroccan Sahara bearing loads of exotic spices between the Middle East, Timbuktu and sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and eventually, the Americas. It’s no wonder that the families who may have guided these foreign caravans across the desert or housed the traders in the medinas of the nation learned to use spices in their food so well.

 Shopping for our Ingredients

In every medina I’ve visited in Morocco, spice merchants have filled their shops with lavish displays of aromatics, herbal remedies, berries, barks, minerals, and spices, often piled high into fragrantly scented, teetering pyramids. I’ve even heard that you can tell where you are within North Africa and the Middle East, simply by closing your eyes, taking a deep breath and discerning the dominant spice scents wafting through the air of the souks. I think I’d have a hard time picking these fragrances out from the less-special odors left behind by all the donkeys and mules…

Fes Market Souk

Several hours earlier I’d met a wonderful group of fellow Chefs-in-training at l’Atelier Madada. It is an exceptional facility offering cooking workshops for visitors to Essaouira seeking to create Moroccan cuisine using ingredients produced in the region and caught in the Atlantic. Joining me were Heike and Christopher from Germany (near where I’ll be visiting in early August), and Cameron & Amber, two ex-patriot Canadians now living in the Middle East who arrived in Essaouira chasing the wind. Together, we shared a memorable experience, learning to cook the traditional Moroccan cuisine, including the aforementioned Courgette Salad, a mouth-watering Sea Bass Tagine using fresh fish caught just hours earlier in the Atlantic and purchased dockside at this African village’s working fishing port.
Sea Bass Tagine with Vegetables

Tagine is perhaps the most recognizable type of Moroccan food, in part because it is named after the unique cone-shaped clay pot that is used to slowly simmer the ingredients, often over many hours. During the course of this terrific class, we had the opportunity to learn about Moroccan life and rituals. Beyond the great food, it was an excellent cultural experience - just what I was looking for.

You want your chicken fresh?
Lamb Tagine with Caramelized Onions, Dates and Almonds

I’ve since had the opportunity to take cooking courses in both Marrakech and Fes. As I continue my travels over the remaining 12 or 13 weeks of this odyssey, I hope to have similar experiences learning the local regional cuisines throughout Europe and hopefully meeting more great people along the way. I can’t think of a better way to connect with a culture than to participate in it like this.

8 comments:

  1. You are setting yourself up for a lot of dinner parties upon your return :)

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  2. I am very interested in tasting some of your new "specialties"!!!

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  3. I'm really pleased that you will be at my place for a while when you get back!!

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  4. What an experience .... always look forward to your next story! Like everyone else here .... dinner with Mac will never be the same!! Bring it on!

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  5. Hi Craig,

    I look forward to reading your posts every weekend. You are an excellent story teller and reading your posts I feel as if I am almost there.

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  6. hey dude how are ya spent the day sailing just found the blog great writting nice picks have fun hows the cheese

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  7. Heike and ChristopherJune 13, 2010 at 3:09 PM

    Hey Craig,
    back in good old Germany we're still thinking of the realy nice food we cooked with you in Essaouira...
    We would very much like to meet you when you are in Germany in August but need to know an email or mobil of you.

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