A Moroccan Culinary Journey and Honeymoon
by Joyce Jue of Asian Food and Travel
I went for a culinary journey and received far more than recipes. I got the famous warm and enchanting Moroccan hospitality and their community spirit as well. At almost every turn of our 8-day adventure, I felt an emotional reminder of my own past; I sensed a kinship with the spirit of community that reached out to everyone. Until writing this story I wasn’t sure why I had these emotional moments.
An hour’s drive from Marrakech, at the foot of the High Atlas Mountains is Amizmiz, a village of 11,000 inhabitants. Geographically and economically, Amizmiz is the natural juncture of the areas Berber farmers trade at the town’s weekly “souk” (marketplace). It was the old-fashioned Moroccan ways, life in a Berber village and the traditional Berber cooking of Amizmiz that was got my attention. The culinary escapade, arranged by my colleague Terri Paetzold and her daughter Ami, a 3 year veteran Peace Corps volunteer in Amizmiz who speaks the local dialect, was wonderful as we were able to experience genuine honest Moroccan cooking, real-life encounters with rural Berber home life, and savored hospitality fashioned by the cultural ages – like stepping back into the 50’s when times were simpler and uncomplicated.
Through Ami’s extended Moroccan adopted families, we delighted in traditional meals in Berber homes. In an extraordinary array of private home cooking lessons, Berber women shared their family recipes in the same way my Chinese mother, grandmother and aunt taught me – at their side while tugging at their apron strings – without measuring spoons and thermometers. It was a flicker of salt, a mindful calculated pour of sugar and flour, and the invisible nurturing seasonings tossed from the confident cooking hands possessed by only by mothers, grandmothers and Aunts throughout the world.
Our Moroccan culinary lessons were held in basic unadorned kitchens in private homes, and a unique commercial kitchen (which is defined by a 4 burner gas hot plates!) staffed owned and run by a women’s cooperative. All meals were prepared by an array of talented non-professional cooks who served traditional meals; although ingredients for our meals were upgraded with more lavish ingredients. Meals at the Marco Lodge, included chef variations on the tagine; lamb, chicken, or beef tagines cooked with olives, pears, tomatoes, dates or almonds simmered with seasonal garden vegetables, and generously spiced with blends of ground ginger, cinnamon, pepper, and ground coriander. Each culinary experience was extraordinarily special and unique in that it is simple and honest without pretense – in other words taste was the ultimate goal. On our trip to Essouria, an ancient seaside town we headed to the local favorite fishmarket/café where we picked shimmering sardines and within minutes in the adjacent kitchen they were grilled, salted, and served in a basket with lemon wedges.
On a warm afternoon, we were invited to see Moroccan flat bread made from scratch. A slight petite woman filled a very wide ceramic platter with a slight lipped edge with flour and water – of course, using no measuring tools. After a thorough mixing with her hands similar to making fresh pasta, she kneaded it with her short powerful arms like a pugilist facing his opponent. While the dough was resting, she attended the outdoor igloo-shaped tandoor-like oven filling it with wood sticks and chips and firing it up to ‘preheat’ the oven. She tested the temperature with a short reach of her hand into the oven. While ‘preheating’ the oven the family gathered around the yard with the cow, sheep, cat, puppy dog, and chickens in their pens and served more tea, tea cakes, honey, nuts and dates accompanied by plenty of conversation.
When the fire was right, – judged by her internal thermometer, she divided the dough into pieces, patted it into flat thin ovals and reached into the oven through the top and slapped them one by one against the inside of the precisely heated oven. They adhered to the inside oven walls like glue. The fragrant baking aromas signaled the baking was done. With a rather primitive unknown tool she gently slipped it under the bread’s edge to release it from the oven’s wall. Without a kitchen mitt, she removed it from the hot oven and immediately pulled and tore it apart then handed me a very hot piece. I fumbled with the hot bread passing it back and forth between my hands until it was cooled enough to handle but still hot and I bit into the most memorable scalding hot bread I may ever have. On a second piece I slathered sweet nutty flavored butter and spoonfuls of honey. I later found out the butter was made from the cow I had just met minutes before in the family yard, and I trust the honey came from most likely the family’s bee hive. If not that, locally, no doubt. As locavores go, this was the ultimate experience.
By some this may not be considered an upscale culinary and cultural extravaganza but rather humble and modest but in my estimate its unpretentious and honest character made it one of the most awe-inspiring culinary experiences in my career that will never leave my memory. I was impressed by the middle-aged woman of this family. A mother of four sons and two daughters with three generations living in the house, she interrupted her busy day by throwing together this flat bread – in some way like how we in America would make a cup of coffee served with a store bought pastry for visiting guests.
We were welcomed to each home by the warm and enchanting hospitality that Moroccans are known for – always initiated with a shot-glass like tumbler of Moroccan mint tea and various tea cakes. These moments created long lasting nostalgic memories; the hospitality was simple, uncomplicated and totally sincere. During my visits of the many homes and families, I realize as I write this story, why I was so emotionally moved by the many familial activities. I have continuous flashbacks of growing up in Chinatown and how similar my family interacted with visiting friends and family. I remembered how my mother, grandmother and auntie gathered in the kitchen to prepare a meal as a family. I recalled how my mother took care of guests – just as the Moroccan woman did. She spared no expense or effort and unleashed her culinary skills to make guests feel welcomed and most of all – nourished. I too came from humble beginning where what we had best to offer was not a lavish house for entertainment but a warm welcome to share at our table. It’s about the food – and ultimately family values. That’s how I felt in Amizmiz – at home.
Oh yes I forgot about him, my husband of two months joined me on this extravaganza! Serendipitous, Amizmiz was also our honeymoon destination.