— by Rebecca Johnson, RFT Contributor —
“Moroccans have no money, but are millionaires of time!” boomed Mustafa, our market tour guide. “We love to talk, drink tea, joke, and, most of all, eat!” He laughed heartily, slapping his over-sized belly and doubling over at his own joke.
So began our cooking day experience with Souk Cuisine in Marrakech, Morocco.
On arrival, our Souk Cuisine contact furnished us with shopping bags, purses (complete with money), and shopping lists that detailed our assigned ingredients for our subsequent Moroccan cooking class. Then, Mustafa whisked us away to the market (souk).
Mustafa skillfully weaved us in and out of the Marrakech souks, multicolored clusters of tiny shops and market stalls that sit shoulder-to-shoulder in a swirling labyrinth of winding lanes. Eager traders, selling anything and everything from beautiful bright scarves and blankets to shiny teapots and trays, wooden crafts, musical instruments, carpets, lanterns, leather bags, ceramic dishes, and seas of multicolored tagines (clay cooking pots), tempted us relentlessly with offers of “best price.”
Eventually, we arrived in the souk’s food area. Freshly slaughtered meat and fresh fish now dominated our eyes — and our noses. The alleys and passageways began to swell with local housewives in search of the best bargain for that day’s meal.
Mustafa guided our purchases for our cooking class — fresh mint, preserved lemons, a selection of spices, bread, flour, eggs, olive oil, and fresh vegetables. As we shopped, he chatted happily to us about day-to-day life in this bustling exotic city. “Baboushes (Moroccan jeweled slippers), fabrics, crockery, leather goods – all of this you can barter for in the souks,” he told us. “But not the food. Food only has one price.”
We finally returned to our Moroccan style “riad” accommodation and felt relieved by the tranquility of the traditional courtyard. The courtyard remains cool all day long, thanks to fresh green palms and the three floors surrounding its square interior. For this occasion, the courtyard was magically transformed into a huge kitchen, equipped with stainless steel work stations, kitchen utensils, a row of gas stoves, running water, and a sink.
Another group of six with their own freshly purchased items joined us at the riad. Together, we pored over Souk Cuisine’s recipe book of beautiful Moroccan dishes, sipping glasses of refreshing mint tea, and deciding which of the sumptuous dishes we’d cook.
Under the careful supervision of Souk Cuisine and three very patient Moroccan ladies from our riad, the twelve of us set to work on a wide selection of hot and cold salads and tagine dishes. We peeled and roasted peppers for one; marinated zucchini in paprika, cumin, and olive oil for another; folded small triangular parcels of thin pastry over finely diced vegetables for briouates” (filled pastry pockets); mashed and fried eggplant for “zaahlou” (eggplant salad); and chopped thyme, coriander, garlic, and fresh tomatoes.
As our dishes took shape, aromas of cumin, cinnamon, chili, ginger, and garlic began to swirl though the air, teasing our growing hunger pains and increasing desire to sample these sumptuous dishes.
We sipped drinks of sweet cucumber with thyme and hints of sweet cinnamon and citrusy lemon and orange to cool us and awaken our palates. Our feast was well worth the wait. A silence ensued as the tasting began — shortly followed by a chorus of “oohs” and “mmms.” The wide range of flavors surprised us — sweetened carrots and spicy green peppers and tomatoes, melt-in the-mouth, crisp “briouates,” delicious garlic-laced eggplant salad (zaahlouk), and, finally, the star dish, the ubiquitous tagine-cooked fish and preserved lemon.
As we congratulated ourselves on our accomplishments and savored the day’s experience in the souks and in the kitchen, we felt satisfied. Marrakech is a beautifully fascinating city and its culture, architecture, food, and people reveal an understated pride that is both compelling and humbling.
The ladies from our riad served us the final round of treats — “fakkas” or spiced biscuits, accompanied, of course, by more mint tea, a refreshing smell that is now reminiscent for us of a city filled with millionaires “of time” and rich in senses.