Juicy Olive

The quest for “the good life” should never be complete but it should definitely begin now.

Learn from the Locals March 23, 2009

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During her trip to Italy, my friend Stephanie took a cooking class. For her, it wasn’t so much about learning to prepare a bangin’ bolognese sauce, but rather that she left the class understanding the cultural idioms and nuanced practices that make the Italian people so special. Stephanie said that she’ll always take a class in a foreign destination from now on.

With that tenet in mind and my trip to Morocco around the corner, I began my research and came across Souk Cuisine. The  class promised to convey the intricacies of Marrakchi culture. It did not disappoint.

The day of the class came, and I met seven other tourists at Cafe la France. We split into groups to shop. My team was assigned to buy herbs, oils, grains and vegetables. Remarkably, this simple grocery list became the most unique cultural syllabus of my journey to North Africa. Through the two hour shopping trip, our guide took us to stall after stall of food vendors – each selling something different: preserved lemons, cured meat, fresh mint, giant pumpkins and dried beans – to name a few.

This gentleman sells numerous kinds of mint - each with a different purpose. The green bags hanging overhead contain dried mint - just add water (and a ton of sugar) and you've got yourself "Moroccan Whiskey" (also known as sweet mint tea.)

A mint vendor - each variety with a different purpose. Fresh for cooking and dried for "Moroccan Whiskey" (AKA sweet mint tea.)

We learned that the Moroccan women awake early each morning and make an extensive trip through the markets to buy all of the food for the day.

Lunch is the primary meal. Served in the early afternoon, it is a huge feast and includes multiple courses. The women begin preparing it each morning while their husbands leave the home and their kids go to school.

Moroccan cuisine is based on such few ingredients: cilantro, mint, cumin, paprika, cayenne, salt. Tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, carrots and onions. Raisins, dates and apricots. Couscous, lentils and bread. Chicken, fish and lamb. Yet do not underestimate the power of such a simple shopping list. The wondrous and varried meals that can be concocted with these items can make any mouth water.

Our shopping continued, and I learned the proper way to barter and the times when you just give in and pay the $1.50 for a huge bag of salt. I learned that butter sits in enormous vats in the open air, and olive oil is dispensed to the truly savvy into the clay vessels they bring to the vendor. 

Grain Souk

Grain Souk

I tasted the salty-bitter tang of preserved lemon and watched in wonder as a man pulled six fresh eggs from a chicken cage (feathers and gunk still attached to the shell!) and plopped them into a plastic baggie for transport. I marveled at the way the spice sellers knew not only how to measure the perfect amount of tumeric onto the scale, but also how to prescribe homeopathic remedies with the same herbs and spices.

Perfect Pyramids of Juicy Olives

Perfect Pyramids of Juicy Olives

Being a person who is sincerely interested (perhaps obsessed?) with the process of food going from farm to table to mouth, I knew this was going to be fun for me. But it became instantly obvious that this was a special experience for anyone partaking in Souk Cuisine when we joined the other groups in the kitchens. Everyone was abuzz with tales of whom they had met and what they had seen in the labyrinthe-like food souks. We talked about whether we felt we had recieved the best deal on squash and what it was like to watch the fishmonger quickly skin, fillet and mince the sardines right there on the wooden board. We all agreed that witnessing the lamb meat being lowered into the subterranean ovens was fascinating and that the remaining sheeps heads were exciting and repulsive at once.

Over the next two hours, we prepared a multi-course luncheon that included several vegetable salads, including my favorite, Zaalouk – an eggplant puree heavy on olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and cilantro. We made a couscous with carrots, onions and raisins and sardine meatballs, which were surprisingly flavorful.

Simple cookies and sweet lemon-mint tea. A lovely close to a gorgeous meal.

Simple cookies and sweet lemon-mint tea. A lovely close to a gorgeous meal.

And we baked two different cookies – my favorite being a sesame shortbread. Our hard work was rewarded with eating the incredible food on a sun-drenched terrace. We sipped rose wine and lounged on pillows on the warm terracotta tiles.

I learned virtually more in those six hours about life in Morocco than I did throughout the rest of my vacation. I gained an immense appreciation for the concepts of family and commerce and gender roles – just by buying groceries, preparing and eating lunch. I spent time with Moroccan women who firmly imparted their knowledge of good food, cultural mores and simple traditions. I think I shall never forget the image of one woman carrying a steaming tagine full of our couscous royale on top of her head. I’ll probably never chop cilantro again without recalling how another woman scolded me for not being precise with my knife. I may always look at lentils and want to dip my warm hand into the cool underlayers of those smooth, pebble-like legumes.

Should you find yourself in the position to journey to a unique locale, don’t forget to learn from the locals. They will teach you something a guidebook never can, and you will appreciate the destination so much more!

Cooking instructor or cultural guide?

Cooking instructor or cultural guide?

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