ON THE PLATE Cooking in the riad makes for Moroccan magic
I’m finally getting around to sorting some photos, but this will be a protracted project, cos I keep veering off the task at hand and lose hours just reminiscing. I’m sure I’m not alone in this habit?
A marvelous holiday some years ago now, was two weeks spent in Morocco, and even now I can hardly decide where to begin with my stories.
The magic, colour, noise, movement, and general busyness of the main square in Marrakesh, with the labyrinth of hundreds of alley ways of the medina – were all silenced once I passed through the heavy door of Riad Merdoudi.
This was my last day in Morocco. On day one we had been told by our friendly host and tour leader, that for the next fortnight we’d operate on “Moroccan time” which suited us fine. After all, we were on holiday.
Curiously, however, when I phoned to confirm my place in the cooking class as an additional activity, I was asked twice to be there at 8.50. “Righto – will do!”, or however I would express that in French-Arabic! I’m hopeless at languages, and only managed to nail down “Thank you”, and a couple of other phrases.
This riad is one of several that offer day-long cooking classes – but how spoilt was I?
On the day of my class I was the only student, so on top of the already very generous Moroccan hospitality we’d all been enjoying, I was the sole recipient of the careful teaching and coaching of three wonderful people.
First task was to select my leather covered notebook – any colour I liked – to write down the shopping list for the ingredients we’d need for the half dozen or so dishes we’d decided to cook. Literally a crash course in the local culinary lingo!
You’d laugh if you saw my phonetic spelling of phrases, quantities, produce.
Armed with my phrase-book bible, we set off for the Mellah Market just a few minutes’ walk away.
I was expected to ask the fishmonger and the seller of absolutely very alive chickens and the fruit and veggie man for the various ingredients we’d need.
Armed with sturdy shopping bags, I realised why it was so important to know how to say “I’ll come back later”, especially when ordering a whole chicken. The live bird had to be dispatched according to custom, plucked and finally passed back to me looking more like the whole-readyto- cook-chickens we are accustomed to buying!
In the interim we’d been to the fruit and veggie seller who was restocking his displays as fast as customers were buying their goods.
Moroccans often shop daily for what they require for the day’s meals, and it is very much a social outing, of catching up on gossip with neighbours and friends.
The elderly man at the entrance to the market was our last stop. From huge hessian bags we selected large bunches of mint, coriander, rose geranium and other “wild herbs”.
Some of these would be used to make the mint tea I’d been drinking daily.
Now I had the opportunity to learn the various steps to making what our tour guide and others we’d met while touring the countryside, with their wide, wry smiles, often referred to as “Berber whiskey”!
The mint tea is offered on all menus, and often by the shop owners who may be selling anything from soft slippers, rugs, jewellery, spices, etc to sip while you haggle and make your selections.
But back to the classroom-kitchen. One of the dishes I’d like to share with you is the recipe for Lemon Chicken Tajine. You could adapt this to suit either chicken marylands, or filleted breast of chicken if you don’t wish to cook a whole bird.
In fact, these flavours would work well with quail (reduced cooking times would apply). If you have a tajine to cook in – place a layer of thinly sliced red onions on the bottom – this protects the chicken from the direct heat, place the chicken on top – and cook over a low-medium heat 1-1/2 hours.
At so many of the meals we enjoyed part of the pleasure was having the waiter remove the conical lid in front of you. Immediately your senses were alive to the aromas, the steam coming off the often bubbling, hot meal, cooked in the vessel it is served in. Moroccan magic indeed!