Friday, October 02, 2009

A Couscous Cooking Story.

There are hundreds of people blogging about their travels in Morocco and, as you might expect, they vary in quality. Once in a while we see a story that we really like and today we have such a one from Megan O'Keefe. Megan's account of her culinary adventure in Fez was published in The New Gastronomes, a student blog from the University of Gastronomic Sciences.
The University of Gastronomic Sciences was founded in 2004 by the international non-profit Slow Food, in collaboration with the Italian regions of Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna. A private, state-recognized institution, it is the first university of its kind, giving academic credibility to the field of food studies and creating a new definition of gastronomy.This blog is a project of the master’s program at the university, both as a tool to develop writing skills and a portrait of student life–from classroom to farm to internships. Megan's article is published with permission.

Samira tossed me a large straw shopping bag before fastening a freshly pressed lavender scarf over her hair and tightly around her face. She stepped back, looking me up and down, studying me carefully. I thought for a moment that maybe I was improperly dressed or that she expected me to cover my head as well, but Morocco, though a traditional Muslim country, has a somewhat progressive view of women. After a long, heated discussion in Arabic and a lot of emphatic hand gestures, the group of women from the kitchen that had now gathered around me came to a decision. I was sure that I was being sent home for some sort of impropriety. Samira, the head of the kitchen at Riad Laaroussa, delivered the verdict. “Your new name is Amina,” she pronounced, “because Megan doesn’t make sense anyways and no one will remember it.” Not wanting to give everyone in Fez temporary amnesia with my complicated name, I graciously accepted the new one and headed off to the market with Samira.

I had been invited to work in the kitchen for a day at Riad Laaroussa, a posh, newly renovated guesthouse in the heart of the old Fez medina. The rich and powerful culture of Moroccan cuisine, which has woven its way through Northern Africa and Southern Europe (and has now overtaken my first name), has always intrigued me. The vibrant spices, exotic ingredients, and chaotic markets drew me in and left me spellbound. From the moment I got off the plane two weeks earlier my senses were overwhelmed. So when I arrived at the riad for my day in a real Moroccan kitchen I was a bit disappointed to find out that we were only making couscous, a dish, I thought, as simple and plain as white rice.

The bag boy at the butcher's shop

Our first stop was Samira’s favorite butcher who hacked away at the lamb butt Samira had ordered with an old hand saw. Thick chunks of meat and bones were tossed into a plastic bag and handed off to a small boy who seemed to appear out of thin air. The boy followed us up the crowded market, weaving our though vendors selling everything from fragrant orange blossoms to terrified kill-and-eat chickens, past the snail-cart man, around several sweaty, overworked donkeys carrying dozens of propane tanks, and finally to the best vegetable man, according to Samira, in all of Fez. His selection was small, not because he had didn’t have much to offer, but because what he did have to offer was hand-selected for its quality. It took over 30 minutes for Samira to choose the right produce for the evening’s meal. Each new item was examined, sampled, re-examined then weighed and given to the boy who was now bogged down with heaps of produce from overflowing bags. I was beginning to wonder what my straw bag was for. I guessed it was just to help me blend and appear that I was actually shopping.

We returned to the kitchen, where somehow the boy with all of our bags had already arrived and was now patiently awaiting payment on the back steps. Preparation of the couscous finally commenced after a few glasses of sweet mint tea and semolina pancakes. Vegetables were washed and chopped, lamb and chickpeas were set to boil in a pressure cooker, and the couscous was steamed over a propane burner set up in the back of the kitchen. Once the preparation was complete, Samira asked for my help with her English homework. Fatima, who’d been cutting vegetables with us, threw a mat down on the floor in the direction of Mecca, dropped to her knees, and answered the afternoon call to prayer. Fatima #2 made more mint tea for the group that had gathered around to listen in on the English lesson, and Fatima #3 made more semolina pancakes. The kitchen was alive with action not from cooking, but from people buzzing around gossiping, snacking and praying, while the whole time I was wondering, Where is my exotic Moroccan kitchen experience?

After a few hours the smoky smell of couscous and cumin wafted through the room, making me think that there must be cooking going on somewhere. I sought out the action, but sadly there was none, only one lowly pot atop the propane burner. I had waited so long for an opportunity like this, to step out of the conventional American kitchens I had been accustomed to and into someplace wild. But this was it, just a pot on a single burner. I wondered why I’d come here in the first place, what I was hoping to find.


Dinner came at 8:00 pm. After the uneventful afternoon I was not excited when a dish of couscous arrived in front of me. A took a bite. I was dumbfounded. Somehow this dull, boring, hope-shattering, one-pot wonder had become over that past few hours a dish full of rich, intense flavors. How was this possible, I thought? I took another bite. Smoky cumin-scented couscous gave way to tender lamb whose flesh had been sweetened by raisins and perfumed by caramelized carrots and onions. After each bite a new scent would reveal itself—cinnamon, saffron, orange blossoms, and so on—as layers of new flavors unfolded before me. I could not believe that such a complex dish came out of such simple actions. I realized then what was so overpowering and intoxicating about Moroccan cuisine. There was no elaborate preparation, no secret methods or magic ingredients. It was the surroundings and the culture that made the food so intense, and it is something I’ll never forget.

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Editor's note: Samira runs the blog A Moroccan Kitchen. It is a remarkable blog in that when she began it she had never used a computer before and spoke no English. Check it out here: A Moroccan Kitchen.

Samira updates her blog

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