Photos and Words by Daniela Ratner
When asking a person their favorite type of cuisine, one might expect a variety of answers. Most people tend to say Italian, Japanese, Chinese or even Greek. But what about Middle Eastern and Arabic cuisine? Sure, those also tend to be very popular, especially among people with a slightly more adventurous palate. However one Arabic country that people usually don’t consider when they think of their favorite type of food is Morocco. In fact, most people don’t even know what types of foods are served in Morocco. This may be because Moroccan traditions and cuisine are very different from other Arabic countries. The influence of Berbers and Riffians and the domination of the French, Spanish and Portuguese at different times in history have made Morocco more unique not only in its traditions but also in its cuisine.
I recently took a trip to Morocco with my family over the summer. I got to experience first hand the truly exotic and lively culture. Besides the beautiful mosques, stunning architecture, outdoor markets, and unique cuisine, the highlight of my trip was a cooking class.
The place was called La Maison Arabe in Marrakech and it was located right in the heart of the medina (the old city). On the way there, we walked by countless vendors selling a variety of Moroccan spices (saffron, paprika, cumin, cinnamon, and white pepper) or sweets such as dates and baked goods. We finally arrive to this stunning hotel and the owner greets us in Arabic. I was not expecting what came next. They took us to a quaint little room with couches and plush pillows where they had set up a welcoming tea ceremony for us. Tea ceremonies are a huge part of Moroccan culture and impressing guests by holding the kettle as high as possible when pouring it in to the cup is very common.
After the tea ceremony, it was time to get to work. We walked into the kitchen and each stood in front of one of the multiple cooking stations. All of the ingredients were laid out in front of us. I was immediately excited when I saw the eggplant and tomatoes because I knew it meant that we were going to make aubergines salad. A typical part of Moroccan dining and cuisine are the salads that they serve before the main course. They generally consist of bowls of different vegetables prepared in a variety of ways. The best salad, by far, is the aubergines. It is basically just eggplant and tomatoes cooked together with traditional spices. The result is a succulent eggplant salad that goes great with Moroccan pita bread.
We learned how to make this bread, which certainly isn’t as easy as it sounds. The kneading part is actually quite difficult as the dough used tends to be very thick. After the bread is baked, it comes out as a very thick pita bread. This bread is a classic component of every meal and is a staple in Moroccan cuisine.
Also laid in front of me was a tagine pot with chicken, lemons, and herbs. It was obvious that we would be making lemon chicken tagine. Tagine is probably the most typical and well-known Moroccan dish. It usually consists of a slow-cooked stew braised at low temperatures, resulting in tender meat with aromatic vegetables and sauce. The tagine pot has conical cover and a knob-like handle at its top to facilitate removal.
Overall, the dishes that we made were simple to make and the teachers did a wonderful job of explaining how to make everything. I have never cooked using a tagine pot before but it is much simpler than it looks. You simply put it on top of a stove and add the ingredients together or one by one. While simmering, the cover can be lifted on or off without the use of a mitten, enabling one to inspect the main ingredients, add vegetables, or mix the contents. Moroccan tagines are usually made using lamb or chicken with a medley of ingredients or seasonings such as olives, quinces, apples, apricots, raisins, dates, nuts, fresh or preserved lemons, honey, and a mix of traditional spices. I must admit, my lemon-chicken tagine turned out pretty good although the same cannot be said for my aubergines. My eggplant seemed a bit undercooked.
Before we sat on the patio to try our delicious dishes, it was our turn to pour the tea for the ceremony. Moroccan tea in typically a mint green tea with added sugar. Pouring the tea from a higher point is actually very hard as you have to pour the tea into small glass cups. It’s easy to miss and make a mess everywhere. Although it was difficult, I am proud to say I won the award for best tea pourer.
The cooking class was a great learning experience for me. I discovered the different spices and ingredients used to make Moroccan food taste so delicious and the essential techniques they taught us were very useful. And at the end, they didn’t let us leave empty handed. We received an assortment of spice samples, a cookbook and our very own tagine pots. If you ever find yourself in Marrakech and want to learn excellent cooking skills, I highly recommend La Maison Arabe.
Although there probably aren’t many Moroccan restaurants in the Boston area, you can still get a little taste of Morocco close to BU! Nile Hookah Lounge on Brighton Avenue has excellent Moroccan mint green tea and it’s very close to BU. Although their pouring technique is not as impressive, its still a great alternative. If you like tea and want to try a taste of Morocco, stop by Nile Lounge for their excellent mint green tea.
Nile Lounge is located at 70 Brighton Avenue Allston, MA. The phone number is (617) 202-3011