I have been knee deep in a fabulous new book on Moroccan cuisine, Mourad, by Mourad Lahlou. He is the owner of Aziza, the only Moroccan restaurant in North American to be awarded a Michelin star. Mourad is a friend and an inspirational chef, and the team who produced this book for him is the same team that produced Oceania Cruises’ Taste the World this year. Chef Garanger and I were invited to dine at Aziza when Marina was in port in San Francisco, and it was one of the most memorable feasts of our careers.
During Marina’s recent crossing, we stopped in Tangier, so Chef Garanger and I decided we’d do a culinary demonstration on our favorite Moroccan dishes: carrot and orange salad, bastilla, lamb tagine and vegetable couscous. Off we headed to the medina for spices, rose water and argan oil—not ingredients we stock on the ship!
Tangier is located in North Africa but is only eight short miles from Spain. It was once the playground for the rich and famous, from the Rolling Stones to Monet to Tennessee Williams. The medina is in the old city and is a labyrinth of alleys and cobbled streets where local vendors place their items for sale in the doorways of small closet-sized shops.
Women covered in headdresses and bright cotton garb sit quietly and trim and arrange vegetables to attract shoppers.
Our cab driver introduced us to Mohamud, a local guide who would escort us through the old city for 10 euro. Chef Garanger bristled, as he claimed he spoke the language (French), but I insisted that we play by the “when in Rome” rule, and we were glad we did! We would have never found the shops, merchants and deals that we did without the help of our new friend.
Our first stop was right on the street, where we bought chickpeas for our couscous. The merchant operated his business out of the back of his car! His scale resembled the one in my grandfather’s poultry plant in the 1950s.
Feeling pretty proud of ourselves for our first purchases, we moved on to the spice merchant down the road. Mourad claims that in Morocco, “spice is a verb,” and I believe it! The most famous spice blend in Morocco is ras el hanout, which is much like traditional curry spices in that every spice merchant, family and chef has his or her own blend. The competition amongst the merchants is fierce, and some claim to have over 100 spices in their special blend. Home cooks in Morocco make their own special blends, buying individual spices, toasting and grinding them and then blending them into their own secret family recipes.
I was in awe: cumin, caraway, cayenne, dried cilantro, mint and parsley, cardamom, aleppo pepper, cinnamon, mace, fennel, ajwain, coriander, allspice, cloves…the list goes on and on.
As we strolled through the streets (with me playing the role of ridiculous tourist and snapping photos like a fiend), the children were running home or to their parents’ shops for lunch. Every few feet there was a street cart vendor with kalinte, the Tangier street bread that is made with chickpea flour. There were also many varieties of harcha, a bread that is stuffed with meats and cheese. I wanted to stop and try some of the street food, but Chef Garanger grabbed my hand and reminded me we had plans for lunch at the famed Hamadi restaurant.
The next stop was a charming shop where they sold herbs, spices and oils. The shop offered a curious combination of health products, pharmaceuticals and cooking supplies. The owner guided Chef Garanger and me to the rose water, orange flower water and argan oil that we could use for culinary purposes. We were charmed by his hospitality; he offered us sweet mint tea as we shopped and explored. In the front of his shop, he had a 40 kilo bag of fresh tea, which is used to make the highly sweetened green and mint tea mix for which this region of the world is known.
With all of our spices and ingredients in hand, it was time for lunch! A restaurant had been recommended by a friend in the States. Mohamud knew it well and described it as “the best restaurant in this part of Tangier,” so off we went to Hamadi. We hiked up a flight of stairs with our bags of treasures to an oasis of red and white walls, cushioned seating and lovely Moroccan music from an ensemble of four men in the foyer. The menu was exactly what two chefs would want to sample, so we ordered (as we usually do) “one of each.”
We started with a lovely harira, the chickpea and lentil soup so closely associated with Morocco. I learned from my cooking class with Chef Annie Copps in Istanbul that the slice of lemon served with lentil soup is essential in order to make this soup really pop. Next was the bastilla (also translated as pastilla, bisteeya or bestela). As Paula Woffert puts it in her fabulous book, The Food of Morocco, this flaky pigeon pie is “a lavish, rich extravagance that evokes Arabian Nights.” We also enjoyed a spectacular lamb tagine with prunes, a delicious vegetable couscous, and of course, some more sweet, hot tea.
After lunch, what else is there to do but by a tagine? For those unfamiliar with tagines, these are the special earthenware pots in which the dish of the same name is prepared. So off we went to the local ceramics merchants to shop for the perfect mementos of our spectacular day. I bought a beautiful blue tagine to add to my collection, and Chef Garanger purchased a few salt cellars and spice jars for his home in Spain.
It was a magical day. I’m now home in the States for a brief holiday visit, and it strikes me that the everyday atmosphere in Tangier is much like the holiday season here—rich with smells, sounds, tastes and bright colors. May your holiday season be as spirited and colorful as the markets of Tangier!