A Clay Pot Lesson in Flavor and Culture
The only way to truly experience northern Africa is to taste it.
WORDS FLIP BYRNES
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In the middle of Fez’s bustling food souk, while carting our tanjia (an elongated clay pot) to the local communal furnace for cooking, we’re causing a small scene with the locals.
They’re all pausing in the street to inspect our aromatic ingredients of lamb, carrots, potatoes, parsley and olive oil, nodding approval or offering suggestions, "Garlic! You need more garlic!"
Smiling in approval, they’re happy to see foreigners attempting their traditional Moroccan dish.
Tanjia cooking on the communal furnace.
The medieval medina of Fez in Morocco, which dates back five hundred years, has always had a thriving food market bursting with bountiful, seasonal products – and the local enthusiasm in sharing their gourmet goods makes this one of the most welcoming and mouth-watering corners of Africa.
Gail, a British expat guide and long-time Fez local once organized chef Heston Blumenthal's visit to the city. She’s now leading us on a series of food experiences through the labyrinth of ancient streets, ranging from snack-sized to main course.
The sheer diversity of flavors, anchored in the quality of simple produce, is the unexpected calling card of Morocco.
Fez is an ancient city, having been founded around the 9th century.
Yes, Morocco is famous for the tanjia, golden couscous and pastilla, a cinnamon dusted pigeon or chicken pie (the best of which is studded with orange flower scented fried almonds).
Yet a history of blending Mediterranean, Arabian and African cultures, involving a hot pot of Andalusian, Berber, Jewish, Arab and French influences, has given birth to exotic and unexpected taste combinations.
Morocco was doing fusion centuries before it ever became trendy in major US restaurants.
Morocco was doing fusion centuries before it ever became trendy in major US cities.
It’s a country where you’ll find a penchant for both the sweet and savory (think dried fruit mixed with meats), fresh seafood including the most succulent oysters from the nutrient rich Atlantic coastal city of Oualidia, and dishes that are enhanced by a smorgasbord of spices from top-shelf saffron, to chilies, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, cumin and paprika. All of which is usually topped off with greenery like coriander, parsley, and mint that create mouthfuls of fresh flavor.
Baking: Fez style.
Spices galore in the souk.
Both sweet and savory can be found in Morocco...often on the same table.
But when it comes to cooking a tanjia, we’re told to keep it simple. Setting up in a butcher's alleyway, my guide Gail sends us to purchase ingredients at stores all within eyesight, enforcing cultural immersion.
It's a cooking lesson unlike any other, surrounded by skinned horse hooves, lamb brains and a bouquet of goat's legs bundled up like long stemmed roses with hooves for blooms. The butcher checks our progress, adding saffron, ground mince and onions to preserved lemon and herbs.
The ancient entrance to Fez's medina
Fez is home to 1.15 million people.
Criss crossing the laneways for ingredients and returning to our butcher-cum-counter base involves donkey dodging in the car-free alleyways. As the only transport in Fez’s medina, donkeys have various employment; there are food-carrying donkeys, material-carrying donkeys and the garbage donkey, who clearly drew the short straw. But being whisked by a passing donkey tail while slicing carrots certainly elevates making lunch to a cinematic “pinch-me-is-this-real” experience.
While our tanjias cook in embers for four hours under the watchful eye of a farnatchi (the man with the unenviable job of remembering every household’s cooking demands) we amble to the honey souk.
The locals shopkeepers in Fez are happy to share advice with travelers.
Even just moving from location to location in Morocco is a visual feast. Stolen glimpses through doorways reveal intricate mosaics and limpid atrium pools, figures float by doorways in kaftans with hoods and leather slippers with curling toes and we’re distracted by an Aladdin's cave of exotic loot, including the world famous blue and white Fez pottery.
And in the sun-bleached courtyard of Fondouk Kaat Smen we find (literally) honey pots. Everywhere. We dip scoops of the sweet elixir into jars. The colors dance from light and yellow as desert sunshine (lavender honey) to deliciously clear amber (thyme flavored) and a alluring honey as dark as molasses (carob). The final dollop of charm in this experience being the ancient weights used by sellers to perfectly measure our portions.
Moroccan architecture provides a visual feast.
Spices galore in Fez's souks.
Our search for a mid-morning snack leads us into a tiny streetside bar with stools for only eight diners, where we join locals for their daily B’sarra. If not initiated, a visitor wouldn’t even cast a second glance at this hole in-the-wall, filled with men with work roughened hands eating green soup from basic earthenware bowls.
A mere fingertip from the general calamity of the small lane, the tiled room is a cool oasis and the simplicity of the B’sarra delicacy is a taste revelation. It’s a thick soup of soaked broad beans topped with a generous swirl of olive oil, sprinkled with cumin and scooped with bread still radiating oven heat.
Regulars come and go, surprised to see three foreign women, but no less welcoming. It’s not just the nutrients that keep them coming – it’s also cheap sustenance at only a few Moroccan Dirhams for a generous heap of the stuff.
Harira - Moroccan lentil, tomato and bean combination.
But this isn’t the only superstar soup in northern Africa, there’s also Harira, a Moroccan lentil, tomato and bean combination which is drunk at dusk during Ramadan. Or if you’re in Marrakech you can slurp the signature street stall staple of steaming snail soup (tastier than it sounds when combined with 15 different spices).
If the common garden mollusc is not your street food snack style, then you can also try an eggplant fried in paprika batter on the go – one of these is never enough.
An fruit vendor in Fez.
Where to start?
Back in Fez, collecting our now cooked tanjia, we realise it’s clear we’ve made more than a meal. On one hand we’ve cracked the food market code, able to name previously mysterious African goods. But we’ve also made friends - passing the butcher he smiles and waves, the sweet seller offers us pastry dripping in honey for dessert and the vegetable vendor wishes us bon appetit.
Food is the ultimate shortcut to cultural understanding and immersion, and the sweet after taste of Moroccan hospitality will linger long after you’ve left.
Carb me up
This is not the place to start a carb-free diet. Bread is an event in itself, from typical crusty Khobz to Harcha (a buttery bread), Rghaif (a flaky flatbread) and Baghira (spongy-style crumpet).
Morocco is famous for a special blend of spices called ras el hanout, which is a mixture of 10 to 30 spices. Shopkeepers use their own unique (and secret) recipe. You can’t go past the most mouth-melting pain au chocolat’s outside of France or Smen, a salted butter. And while meat reigns supreme, vegetarians will love meze platter, a mixture of small dishes often including a spiced eggplant dip called zaalouk, herbed baby potatoes, honeyed carrots, puréed pumpkin with cinnamon, and roasted tomato relish.
Perfect to a Tea
The ‘long pour’ of mint tea is a spectacle that never ceases to impress. The arc of liquid hitting a small glass with nary a splash. It's always tea o’clock in Morocco, and this fresh mint, sugar, water and Chinese gunpowder concoction is a welcome constant, whether concluding a business deal, haggling in the souk or accepting the endless friendliness of locals.