I was hungry. My feet ached after three hours in the Moroccan cooking school’s stifling kitchen after we returned from shopping in the Fes medina with bags full of ingredients.
“Yalla! We’re going shopping! In the ancient food market close to the main gate.”
“Where are the others?” I asked as we galloped up the alley to his SUV.
“You’re the only one today.”
How marvelous, I thought, as I followed him. But the undivided attention was to prove double-edged!
I had long anticipated this food shopping experience in the medina, the ancient walled city, and watched Lahcen sniff, taste, and crumble food before haggling over the price.
>> If you love Moroccan food, you need to read this article about this food tour in Rabat.
First stop was the stall where he bartered for fresh spices, which were wonderfully pungent. He taught me how they should smell and where they came from. Thence to the butcher’s for lamb for the soup and stew; here Lahcen declined two suggestions and bought the third that was chopped, bones and all.
Food markets in Morocco are a far cry from North American farmers’ markets. Vendors chopped off the heads of chickens, live ducks, pigeons, and rabbits for the pot wandered freely, snails seethed in a huge barrel, and a camel’s head swung above a butcher’s stall.
Lahcen bought two kinds of flatbread and some phyllo-like pastry called warka hot off a grill.
Carrots, tomatoes, fava beans, parsnips and more veggies filled two baskets with chickpeas and lentils tucked beside some fruit. Last of all came the fresh herbs, cut earlier in the fields around Fes. Mint, parsley, cilantro, all in gigantic bunches.
“We need all of these. Westerners don’t use enough herbs.”
By now I was lugging one of the baskets. Back at Riad Tafilat, the riad next to mine, where Lahcen used the kitchen, he insisted I rest with mint tea and nibbles while he washed the ingredients and set out our mise en place. The quantities were overwhelming to someone who cooks for one or two.
“This will feed four,” said Lahcen. More like ten, I thought.
In a basic kitchen, not the commercial kitchen I expected, I met the riad’s two female cooks. Both were friendly and were cooking lunch for twenty in a space 12 by 7 feet. We worked around each other amiably, though Fatima clearly teased me in Arabic — kindly, I should add. This kitchen had no dishwasher, one sink, only six gas rings in a line for cooking, no working oven, and a counter of about six feet by three for the prep.
On went my apron. “Are there any sharp knives, Lahcen? I wish I’d brought mine.”
He just laughed at me. But he was pleased I knew a bit about cooking, so he didn’t have to teach me how to use knives or prepare food.
Ingredients were piled high. The lamb stew started first — I chopped onions and sweated them while I mixed Moroccan spices and flour for the rub. After I lightly seared the meat, I added it to the onions to cook gently for a couple of hours with a small amount of liquid.
Our lunch would be a banquet:
- Harira soup, a staple in all Moroccan kitchens
- Lamb stew
- Tomato sauce
- Vegetable tajine
- Goat cheese canapés wrapped in warka
- Fava bean salad
- Light cucumber salad to cleanse the palate
- Six spreads and dips for the bread
- Seared apples with cinnamon sugar
- Dried grapes on the vine
I endured a vegetable chopping frenzy while Lahcen grated 1.5 kgs of tomatoes for the soup, marinades, and salad dressings. I roasted eggplants and peppers over the open gas flame and chopped bouquets of herbs. The stockpot filled up with everything, including onion skins, that we didn’t use in the dishes. Sweat soon dripped off my nose as the gas rings were fired up and pots bubbled away.
“I won’t remember everything you’re telling me.” I wailed.
“Don’t worry!” Lahcen said. “I’ll email you my recipes.”
I stirred, swirled, and sliced. I made sure the onions for the soup didn’t brown and added the stock, herbs, and chickpeas. We made the sauce for the tajine, poured it over the veggies, and popped it over a burner to steam. I wrapped the goat’s cheese in warka in triangles. Lahcen madly made more accompaniments in small bowls.
“Yalla! Yalla!” he shouted. “Quick! Quick!” Lahcen, a typical chef, gave orders and worked fast.
The fava beans steamed and were dressed with the home-made tomato sauce, lemon, and olive oil. Delicious, I ate two before Lahcen smacked my wrist. “Tasting’s good, but only one.”
At about 3:30 pm, we plated everything but the lamb stew and the tajine. Fatima kissed me on both cheeks. We were done.
The dishes piled up on a huge circular tray, and I wondered how it would fit the narrow, winding stairs to the courtyard. But one of the young men working in the riad for the season whisked it away.
Lahcen untied my apron and hugged me. “You’ve done well. Lunch is served.”
The Harira soup was a triumph, better than any I’d eaten during three weeks in Morocco. My taste buds were in heaven with flavors bursting from every small dish. Not spicy hot, but so, so tasty. I paced myself, taking a small amount of every dish on the table and savoring each mouthful, knowing the vegetable tajine and the lamb stew was to follow along with fresh flatbread. The lamb was butter-tender and so delicious I yearned to take it to my room next door for dinner.
The desserts came but defeated me. I couldn’t eat another mouthful and sat immobile like a Buddha. Lahcen reminded me that everything would taste better tomorrow when the flavors had more time to mingle.
Yes, I’ve cooked the healthy Harira soup since returning home to loud hurrahs from my son-in-law who is also a chef. A definite success! I wouldn’t have missed Lahcen’s full-day cooking school in Fes, which compares well to others in price.
“Yalla Yalla!” Moroccan Cooking School © Julie H. Ferguson 2017 – All are © Photo by Pharos (Julie H. Ferguson) 2017
- Morocco is a Muslim country and visitors must dress and behave appropriately.
- Alcohol is usually unavailable outside the cities and big hotels.
- From mid-April to late-September Morocco is very hot, though more moderate on the coast. Travel in spring and fall.
- Morocco is cheap but prepare to tip for every service, even when you take photos of Moroccans’ donkeys, camels, and children. I carried small change in a handy pocket.
- Carry cash, most places do not take credit cards (the big western hotels do). ATMs are prolific and dispense Dirhams, the Moroccan currency. Remember to exchange your left-over Dirhams at the airport, otherwise, you’ll be out of luck.
- Do NOT drink the water and use bottled water to clean your teeth. Beware of washed, raw veggies. Take a supply of Imodium—everyone on my tour got sick at least once.
- Try and stay in a riad or guest house, for it is there you will experience real Moroccan hospitality, cuisine, and culture. A sumptuous breakfast is included in the room rate and you can usually order lunch and dinner too.
Lahcen Beqqi’s Moroccan Cooking School is called The Fez Cooking and Cultural Tours: www.fescooking.com
Dar Anebar, the riad where I stayed in Fes. Check for best prices here! (Riad prices vary from expensive to reasonable.)
Moroccan National Office of Tourism: http://www.visitmorocco.com/en
Fes Office of Tourism because there is so much more to Fes than cuisine: http://www.festourism.org/?lang=en
Explore, the company I used to tour the Kingdom of Morocco before I returned to Fes to cook at the Moroccan Cooking School: www.explore.co.uk
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