By Lisa T.E. Sonne
Ginger, cumin, sweet paprika, turmeric, and ras el hanout (a special Moroccan blend of dozens of spices) fill my kitchen, fragrant souvenirs from a very savory adventure to the northwest corner of Africa. The aromas call to mind tales with native Berber, and multiple European and African accents — just like the cultural olio that is Morocco.
But every time I tell old friends about my culinary exploits, I only get so far before someone says something like: “Hold your horses, camels, snake charmers, and flying carpets! You cooked?”
I just smile (me, the epic eater who prefers campfires and fireplaces to ovens and stoves) and explain that I wanted to travel to an exotic place where I could learn something I might use the rest of my life. And the opportunity to discover my inner chef in Morocco seemed like a wish come true.
It’s only been a couple of months since I was eating Berber crepes and fresh pomegranate sitting in the rooftop restaurant of the Riad Mimouna with a view of the Atlantic splashing against the rocks, and the ancient walled medina outside below. Perched above the seaside city of Essaouira on the northwest coast of Morocco, our turbaned guide with Access Trips, Yosef, was briefing me and my five new charming travel mates (ages 24 to 74) about our first cooking lesson.
In 12 hours we would be back in this restaurant eating a fish tajine with chermoula sauce and a traditional Moroccan chopped salad that we had prepared ourselves (follow in our footsteps with the recipes below), with four live musicians performing Gnaoua — a kind of sub-Saharan Islamic rhythmic spiritual music — with tassels aswirl as they played and sang.
But first we would work up an appetite, and delight in a sensory overload, walking the narrow passages of the medina below us jammed with fabrics, spices, ceramics, woodcrafts, and gorgeously carved doorways that hinted at great mysteries inside.
We would also visit the busy port to peruse the beautifully displayed fish and crustaceans of the day. Those of us who weren’t off photographing minarets and fishing boats (that would be me) learned to pick out the white fish we would take back to our riad to cook for our supper.
The kitchen was on the highest floor, and I must admit that for this first cooking lesson, despite the enticing raw ingredients laid out for us and the lovely instruction we were given, I was quite distracted by the “magic hour” sunset calling to me from the windows.
After some good chopping, I even left my more talented cooking partner so I could take photos of the irresistible panoramic scenery. While she layered our fish and vegetables in the ceramic tajine, I was outside clicking and musing about the ships that had come for centuries before bearing goods and new ideas.
The cooking lessons did end up hooking me over the next few days despite the allure of equally sensuous locales. Instead of clicking photos, I spent my time mixing up marinades, fluffing couscous that was lighter than angel’s wings, and kneading sugary almond pastilla dough fit for angels.
I seem to remember that the trick of the tales of Arabian Nights was to leave the story unfinished, so I will leave you to unleash your own inner chef with these tasty recipes…
Fish Tajine with Chermoula (Serves 2)
1 large tablespoon parsley, finely chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
1 teaspoon hot paprika
1 or 2 tablespoons cumin
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons lemon juice
6 tablespoons water
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix all ingredients together in a bowl, and add the fish steaks to marinate.
2 fish steaks (mild white fish, such as sea bass)
1 or 2 medium carrots, cut into thin slices
1 or 2 celery stalks, cut into thin sticks
1 or 2 large potatoes, cut into thin slices
1 tomato, seeded and cut into thin slices
1 bell pepper cut into thin slices, any color
A handful of red olives
Distribute the carrot slices across the bottom of the tagine. Criss-cross the celery sticks on top of the carrot slices. Arrange the potato slices on top of the celery sticks, forming a bed for the fish.
Remove fish from marinade and place on top of potato. Reserve the extra marinade for later use.
Arrange bell pepper strips and tomato slices on top of fish. Top with rest of marinade and garnish with olives.
Cover the tajine, and cook over low to medium-low heat for about 1 1/2 hours, or until the fish and potatoes test done. Reduce the sauce if necessary until it is quite thick and mostly oils.
(Note: If you feel there is an excessive amount of liquid in the tajine, it’s easiest to ladle the sauce into a pan to reduce it, and then pour the sauce back over the fish before serving.)
Traditional Moroccan Chopped Salad (Serves 2-3)
1 tomato, chopped
1 large cucumber, seeded
1⁄4 cup red onion, chopped
1⁄2 teaspoon cumin
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon of Argan oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon chopped parsley (optional)
Small handful of red olives (optional)
Chop tomatoes, cucumbers, and red onion into small pieces.
Add cumin and the rest of the ingredients to taste.
Recipes courtesy of www.AccessTrips.com.