The unbreakable Moroccan souvenir
Don't need another travel tchotchke? In a cooking class in Marrakesh, Lindsey uncovers the recipe for creating souvenirs you can savor for years.
“So we will see whose bread turns out the best!” said our instructor after she finished her kneading demo in Marrakesh’s renowned La Maison Arabe's teaching kitchen. The wife of the hotel restaurant’s head chef, our dada (a traditional Moroccan cook) was a charismatic leader clad in a dramatic teal blue headscarf and brocade sweater. My husband Pat and I watched with our fellow classmates as she divided the dough into two halves, one half each for the students on either side of the long semi-circular countertop. Bread, or at least the beginnings of bread, had been broken. Now it was up to us to impress her with our newly acquired skills.
“Now you,” our dada said, calling her first victim to the front. The young British guy to her right abandoned the safety of his station, assuming his position at the head of the class. The rest of the students chuckled, glad we weren’t in the hot seat—yet.
Moroccan spice stall in a Marrakesh market
Pat and I were vacationing in Morocco for Thanksgiving weekend 2013. While friends and family back home had recently feasted on turkey, stuffing, and gravy, we were about to learn how to make zaalouk, taktouka, and chicken tagine from an exacting teacher. More so than a museum or guided tour, the destination cooking class has become a favorite tradition for Pat and me when we travel. Whether we’re dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Berlin or eating street food in Hanoi, we’ve found that everything from the ingredients to the presentation of the food to the utensils and even the seating can reveal volumes. And learning how to cook the dishes ourselves has given us an even deeper understanding of cultures both new and familiar.
After we all had a turn kneading—the dada clucking over the impracticality of gel nails or anyone betraying a hint of timidity—the loaves went into the oven. This dough, when baked, would become khobz (Arabic for bread): round, an inch or so thick, and wonderfully crusty. I’d been eating the same with jam for breakfast every morning since we’d arrived.
Each student’s mise en place included chicken thighs, preserved lemon, garlic, onion, and a sampling of spices, including cumin, paprika, saffron, turmeric, cinnamon, and the spice blends harissa and Ras El Hanout, which translates from the Arabic as “head of the shop.” We selected our own tomatoes and eggplants from a giant basket by the door. Along with the ingredients were a pan, a spoon and a tagine pot. This distinctive clay vessel, with its cone-shaped lid, was for the eponymous dish.
Tagines in a market in Marrakesh
Before we started in on the tagine, though, we had salads to prepare: a zaalouk, or mashed eggplant, dish; and taktouka, a simple mixture of raw tomato, onion, and cucumber. For the former, we had to peel a tomato, and the instructor suggested we try to keep the skin intact in one long ribbon for a “rose.” I tried to emulate her method of stabbing the knife into the bottom of the tomato at an angle, carefully peeling a strip deep and wide enough that the skin would not break as it separated from the flesh. My tomato skin fell to the cutting board in one curly piece, and, when coiled into a tight circle, resembled a perfect bloom. I looked over at my husband’s progress. While I've had no formal training in the kitchen, Pat has taken a knife skills course and is an exceptional cook. I noted with unseemly pride that his peel had broken. I restrained myself from teasing, sure that the instructor would notice his failure and say something herself. So intent were we all upon executing her rapid fire instructions and impressing her as nearly as we could, there was little talking amongst the students.
As we stirred our mashed eggplant, the dada circulated with a massive bag of harissa, a spice paste predominated by ground chilis. I asked for a heaping spoonful, both because I love spicy food, and because she was praising those students who asked for the biggest helping.
I lifted the lid off my tagine and poked the chicken thigh with the sharp tip of my spoon’s handle to make sure it was done. Then we all garnished our steaming pots with a handful of colorful olives and the preserved lemon peel, which we’d cut into decoratively scored leaves. Those who’d executed the tomato-peel rose adorned their tatouka, and the dada removed the khobz from the oven.
Our work completed, we retired to a long table in the courtyard. Waiters served us our dishes, and we tucked into this feast of our own making, happily losing ourselves in the delicious flavors and aromas. I had been right to add so much harissa to my zaalouk salad. The cooling acidity of the tatouka complemented its scorching heat. The preserved lemon and olives lent a delightful tartness to the unctuous chicken thigh, braised to perfection in the olive oil and spices. I felt sure our side of the room had the most successful bread, though no one did a formal comparison.
After savoring the dishes that we now knew intimately, we were treated to two surprises. First, dessert from the chef: a milk pastilla of crunchy pastry, ice cream, nuts, and honey. Followed by the sweetest finale of all—the chef and our dada gifted us with recipes and a small tagine pot.
Jamaa el Fna, a market square in Marrakesh's medina quarter (old city)
In the time since our trip, my favorite keepsake has been my ability to recreate that authentic Moroccan meal, evoking all the smells, colors and textures from our time there and the many discoveries we made through the lens of food. Even more than the rug, scarf or jewelry we brought back, it’s those recipes that recall Marrakesh the most.