The Magic of Morocco (& Its Meals)

Part I: As Salaam Alaikum

Before even embarking on our trip to Morocco, the food entranced me. I had never had it before, not even amongst the throngs of New York cuisine options, but I knew we were in for a culinary adventure.  

Now that we’re back, the thing I miss most about visiting Morocco is the food.

Regardless of the culture, which provided two layers of red tape to me given the language and my embodiment of a western woman, food was always warm and welcoming. There was never any tummy turmoil after eating the local cuisine–actually. Actually, the only bad experience I had was with eating sushi. Among the true Moroccan faire, nothing was ever sickening or pungent. We ate it most days, save for the dreadful sushi and the obligatory trip to McDonald’s. But most days, we opted to keep it authentic with Moroccan eats.

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Plenty of street art around Casablanca, including this 3-story personification of their cooking staple: the tagine.

The hallmark of their cooking is the tagine. A hot clay pot with a conical lid, a tagine dish was always a good bet. It was brought to the table as a presentation. Still cooking in its juices as the waiter removed the conical top and unleashed the steam within. It was both flashy and humble, the embodiment of a full culture committed to modest rustic cooking that creates a masterpiece within each meal.

I tried quite a few tanginess, but the chicken with preserved lemon and olives dish became my go-to. The safety of this dish really surprised me. Normally I’d go for something far more adventurous. But it was comforting to find something so exquisite in a dish so simple.  

Morocco is a country of many meats, exclusive of pork. There was lamb and beef, goat and sheep, and, in the coastal city of Casablanca, plenty of fish. Each of these options was able to adapt and evolve to fit into any meal, any time of day, beginning with breakfast.

In fact, my first meal there was a sizzling tagine of eggs with pulled beef chunks, served only after a bowl of oatmeal and olive oil, and aside the ubiquitous basket of bread, sweet fragrant mint tea, and glass of the most untainted fresh squeezed orange juice on the planet.

The astounding flavor that I was met with at this simple first meal, on our very first day of arrival, seemed a promising sign of the days to come.

As if kissed by the patron saint of paragon plates, dinner that night also faced me with food that was made with a mind-blowing attention to detail; a masterful dance of full natural flavors and powerful Moroccan spices. Three courses, fresh-made juice and tea; each element had such a strong and confident sense of itself that it would be hard to choose one as a favorite.

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the amazing pastilla: fish and chicken.

It was this evening that I had my first experience with local lamb. Three tender, juicy, and fragrant hunks of lamb atop sheets of gorgeous “tryd”–freshly made paper-thin dough reminiscent of a crepe, but lighter. An almost paste-like sauce smeared the papyrus-colored sheets which were also sprinkled with an element of crunch that, I guess, was almonds. 

Our host taught us the proper way to eat Moroccan food. Not with a knife and fork, but with a slice of bread to soak up all the flavor of the sauce. In my case, all I needed was to wrap those delicate sheets around a hunk of lamb and enjoy. 

Call it foreshadowing, but even before I dove into hunks of melt-in-your-mouth lamb that were fit for an offering to Allah, a particularly inconspicuous and flavorful culprit met my mouth first: a pastilla appetizer packed with masterfully shredded and seasoned chicken. It wasn’t masking the flavor of the chicken or spicing it into oblivion as my culinary ventures had been apt to do in the past. In Morocco, they find a way to make each bite a dynamo of taste. There was cinnamon and turmeric and nuts and oil. The crust was flaky and the meat was moist; pillows of pleasure on a plate.

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tryd with lamb and the beef tagine in the background.

Without corn syrup or hormones, the chicken preserved its own integrity (even presumably having had its neck snapped and slashed in a busy market.) So after this first meal, I had been more open to rerouting my intentions of launching a lamb-dish inquisition and seeing what else chicken had in store. 

This dinner was close to the central part of town. The route to get their involved walking through the busy central square, awash with pigeons and child-sized remote-control Cadillacs for hire.

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They love a good remote-control car here.

On our next night’s dinner, we went another direction. It was dusk when we made our trek, and the streets were surprisingly silent and sparse in comparison to the mayhem that was overflowing through the central square. It was more residential, and clearly more wealthy. A few blocks off our designated path was, literally, the palace of the King. 

We walked through two alleyways that sent our street smarts into alarm (spoiler alert: it was totally safe, just unfamiliar), and eventually encountered a different type of bustling street. One long strip of road flanked on either side with homes, small shops like 99 cent stores, and walkup eatery counters seemed to make up the main drag of this side of Casablanca. 

We took a left off of main drag and, opposite a small park and a mosque (can’t outrun God in a Muslim country) we took a table out front for dinner.

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The quieter side of town.

Since this country is Muslim, one particular norm of our typical vacation escapades was missing: alcohol. The bars in Morocco make it seem like an impending resurgence of speakeasies. Mostly only men go, and from the street, clubs and bars are practically shuttered up, without so much as a penetrable window or neon sign as an invitation to debauchery. 

Instead, the country as a whole indulges in juice. There is juice everywhere, in every cafe, on every street, and in every flavor. The first one I encountered and would go on to have a love affair with throughout the week was lemon with ginger. Simple, exciting, and for a traveler with a susceptibility for motion sickness, comforting. 

It was at this restaurant on the other side of town that Rich met his own exotic flavor muse: peach juice. We’re still not quite sure what the protocol for making their fruit juices was, but by the taste and texture of this peach concoction, it seemed that they simply juiced it to a smooth, slightly pulpy consistency and put it in a glass. 

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An array of vegetable dips and spreads. Looks like shit, tastes like heaven.

On this same night, I stuck with a sparkling water and, after looking over the menu, kept it slightly simple with my dinner, too. At least, that was the plan. It was the here that I had my first encounter with chicken tagine with preserved lemon and olives. Rich got something akin to skewers. 

The food was pretty good. It wasn’t a sensational life changing experience like we’d had the night before. It didn’t feel overly exotic nor confronting. It simply was dinner. But I liked it. The whole vibe of a preserved lemon, somehow pickled in it’s own acidity breaking down the tough skin making it soft to eat, was ethereal. The olives, also, cooked into the juices, were ripe, juicy, and godly. The chicken, on this occasion, fell flat. Like its neck had been snapped a few weeks ago and it was salted to stay preserved. 

Still, the lack of artificial flavors, hormones, or preservatives always left us with happily filled tummies and no sign of Montezuma seeking his revenge.

As we walked through our days and our nights, we came more and more familiar with what we were encountering and what we were ordering. French translations began to come second nature, and we knew what to look for even if we weren’t quite nailing the pronunciation. 

On an overnight trip to the North, we caught a break. 


Part II: The Trip North

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Emerging from the Meknes train station.

We arrived in Meknes by train, about three hours from Casablanca. We chose a first-class ticket hoping for a bit of solace on what could have potentially been a busy foreign train. It was reasonably priced, and the most modest first class experience I imagine there is. The toilet emptied directly out onto the tracks of the train, moving or stationary. There was toilet paper though; I’ll give thanks for that. 

We booked our night in a riad; one of the traditional lodgings in Morocco. To add to the immensity of cultural tradition we were about to experience, it was in the center of the maze of streets known in Morocco as a medina.

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Locals, always eager to help.

We had plenty of help getting there, including the cab driver who took us to the gates and then communicated with a local, who apparently had nothing else to do that day, who took us to the door of our stay, carrying our bags in a cart he drew (and quite possibly made) himself.

The Riad was totally amazing. We ducked into the ornate front door and sat at the shared table on the first floor. Light poured in from the windows at least 4 stories above our heads. As hot as it was in North Africa that day, the walls of the riad encased us in a sweet coolness. 

After filling out a few carbon copies of our information, we were ushered up to the top of the building to our room. As it turns out, we seemed to have scored the best room. The door lead us to a windowed lounge room with an L-shaped couch and coffee table. Through the slight corridor was a bathroom on the left and two more doors opened into a bedroom, complete with its own couch, bureau, and pair of nightstands. 

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Stepping into our room.

The windows of the bedroom opened up to the terrace. In my excitement, I climbed right out of our own window, taking in the 360-views of the medina that surrounded us. The terrace itself was equipped with sun-soaked chairs and a corner housing yet another couch concealed by a reedy-sunshielding canopy. 

After just a few moments of observing the somehow-secluded surroundings, I found I wasn’t so alone after all. In a similar excitement I barreled back through the windows and shuttered them up. Right beneath our window frame were wasps, in pairs, tending to their nests. 

Window screens aren’t common in Morocco.

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The shutters that are blinking open in the far left? Yeah, that’s where the wasps live.

The sun that we had escaped below found us in our 4th-floor room. We sat sweltering in the lounge room with the windows and doors open, sharing a bag of chips.

*Travel tip: every country has their own profile of flavors that inspire even their potato chips. As a chip-connoisseur, I always seek to try at least one. 

We could hear footsteps coming up the same way we did, and soon were met with a young man who ducked into our line of vision. He was looking for the terrace, which he accessed through a door that was just outside of our own, introducing to me the civilized manner to explore the rooftop rather than my own hazardous route. 

He went out for a moment–presumably unencumbered by wasps–and returned inside, stopping for a moment by our door to say hello. We invited him in.

Turns out, he was traveling on his own; a civil engineer from Lebanon living in Morocco for a month for work, and taking his weekends to explore other cities. 

“I don’t think there’s even anything to do here,” he said of the city we three found ourselves in at that moment, “but if I didn’t go somewhere I’d just end up staying in and sleeping!”

We explained to him the little known fact of what there actually is to do in this part of the country, and invited him to join us to the ruins we had booked for the day. In solo-traveler fashion, he accepted. And just like that we had our translator.IMG_7387


Part III: “What is Dead May Never Die”

A strange character in my life once told me a very profound joke that always jabbingly haunted me: What do you call a person who only speaks one language

… 

… 

… 

American. 

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Although I have some shaky Spanish skills and am more or less adept at connecting the dots when reading romance languages, Arabic was a different beast onto itself. It’s written in a unique alphabet and read from right to left. Most people in Casablanca spoke a combination of French and Arabic. In Meknes, Arabic was much more prevalent. Neither of the situations were much of a relief for us. 

Our new friend, being from Lebanon, had Arabic as his “mother tongue.” He also, to our delight, spoke fluent English, and just to flex a little extra, French. 

His hodgepodge of linguistic skills made him the missing link for our travels and the remedy to our travails. On the 40-minute ride to Volubilis, he took the reigns translating the insightful ramblings of our private cab driver, (and later apologized when we stayed a little longer than planned amongst the ruins.)

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Dwarfed between a particularly well-preserved arch; a monument, at the time, for someone who donated the most money to the city. Things never change.

I had read about Volubilis and firmly decided we visit during our trip across the Atlantic. I’m a sucker for all things ancient Greek or Roman, and this incredible and vast city of ancient stones and colorful enduring mosaics was something I just couldn’t skip. Shockingly, our friend with his worldly tongue and adventurous spirit had never heard of it. It was nice to be able to offer him something in return for his translations. 

When we arrived, it seemed not only that Volubilis was still an under-wraps World Heritage Site to our friend, but pretty much everyone else as well. There were hardly any other people there. 

We swatted off a “guide” who offered an hour tour and began on the trail map–per my insistence, backward, so as to reach the highlights first–to see how the vast Roman Empire found a place in Morocco. 

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One of the many elaborate mosaics at Volubilis.

For all that was destroyed by the ages, it was astounding to see centuries-old artwork preserved meticulously in stone mosaics. Hercules and the 12 Labors; Dionysus and the 4 seasons; and even, for a touch of humor, a man riding a donkey backwards adorned the floors of the ruins where noble homes once stood. The site was also ridden with pillars, columns, and a pair of immense arches at either side of the main street. Since we worked in reverse, we spent the afternoon hunting the mosaics and then encountering the descriptive placard that were meant to precede it. It was like looking at the answer guide in the back of the book after coming up with explanations on our own.

Two hours in the hot Northern African sun passed with ease, as we took pictures and polaroids and shared our knowledge, interpretation, and cultures with each other. The tour ended at the “boring beginning” where our translating friend made the comment, “this is going to be us in the future generations, the boring part getting passed by.” Humble civilians. 

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The site affords you a shocking amount of freedom to roam, climb, and explore the ancient ruins.

We left the site and the cab driver quipped in Arabic that we’d taken two hours, but the handshake they shared was a plain indication that he wasn’t very phased.

Body language, like numbers, is universal.

Included in our cab fare was a stop at the neighboring site of Moulay Idriss. A city atop a hill, it’s the resting place of its namesake king who’s buried there. We arrived and I was surprised to see just how much of a bustling town it truly was–like how Thebes was presented in Disney’s cartoon rendition of Hercules. 

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Driving up the narrow streets.

The tomb itself was a centrally-located and protected within a massive mosque. Our arrival coincided with a season of celebration in this holy city. The next few weeks, for this town in particular, would hold celebrations every Friday. As part of it, we saw a goat, sheared and shaken, being led underneath the bar into the holy site, presumably as an offering. 

As non-Muslims, we weren’t allowed inside the mosque. As if our linen shirts and wide-brimmed hats hadn’t given us away already, (our friend was more subtly dressed in jeans and a t-shirt), we stood dawdling outside the entrance as a river of locals came and went, including our cab driver who told us he’d meet us back outside when he’d finished praying.

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“Access is not allowed to non-Muslims”

We were recognized instantly, I’m sure, and were picked up hastily by a man who had the scoop. He spoke mostly Arabic, so our friend helped to translate as he guided us through town. 

He began leading us through the winding streets of this elevated medina, with the intent of bringing us on a 10-minute walk to the top. We had the time, so we took up his offer. 

We learned plenty of fun facts and history from our guide that painted an even more lovely picture of who Moroccans are. 

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Access by foot (or donkey) only.

Of the neighboring Volubilis we learned the country doesn’t dare to taint the history, and their government maintained that the land cannot be reestablished for modern-day development.

We also learned the significance of the spheres that project from the minaret of every mosque. They’re sometimes a set of three, sometimes four, occasionally one, but never two. The significance is a worldly one. Three represents Islam, Christianity, and Judaism; Four, the holy books of the Old Testament, New Testament, Quran, and Talmud; and the single ball which represents the one ultimate shared Creator, regardless of what you call Him.

He told us all of this as we looked over the mosque in which we were not permitted. It was a beautiful view at the top, and even in the stinking heat and through a horrible hunger, we were happy to have made the ascent. 

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Views from the peak of Moulay Idriss.

We were led back down to the excitement of the street to find our cab driver and he took us back to our homestay medina. Tired and hungry, our friend told us there was a place recommended to him to eat, so we followed his lead. 

Kind of. You see, it’s hard to navigate through the winding streets of a medina as it is. Google maps doesn’t quite pick up the exact coordinates, so the labrinth will easily swallow you up and spit you out wherever it pleases.

It took some time, but with perseverance we found the place (with not much help from locals and a little help from a proudly-posted Trip-Advisor sign outside.)

In this little tiny shop there seemed to be just enough space left to seat the three of us across from another obvious tourist couple who was deep into their meal. This Dutch couple was visiting with a tour group, but broke off for some solo exploration and great food–which led them here. 

The place was called Aisha. It was small, but welcoming. Opening out into the street, the refrigerator and modest home kitchen was visible for all to see. That’s where they cooked our food, and this homestyle vibe delighted me. 

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This is it; the whole restaurant. You’re lookin’ at it. You’re also looking at some of the best damn food there is.

It was here that we both found our favorite dishes. Slightly queasy from heat exhaustion and traveling, I played it safe with a familiar meal: chicken with preserved lemon and olives. 

Rich, at the recommendation of our new friend, got the sweet and savory chicken with couscous. 

A few bites in and our life force was restored. We made small talk with the Dutch travelers across from us, and the evening ended with a visit from Aisha herself. 

She was clearly very proud of her food and of her place; unassuming to us westerners but practically lavish in terms of locality. We were served delectable tea (taking a break from the mint tea) and ceremonious bowls of olives. The food, on their steaming clay tagine bases, was perfection. 

Again, I found myself glad even for the misfortune of the slightly underwhelming chicken with preserved lemon I had back on the rich and residential side of Casablanca. The comparison made the plate that was before me on this night in Meknes that much more satisfying and legendary.

By the end, we were ready for bed, and Aisha graciously offered one of her employees to guide us home. 

After the deafening prayers that wafted into our top-floor windows from the nearby mosque ended, we slept well. In the morning, we joined our friend again, along with another traveler from Texas who was staying in the riad, at breakfast for a Moroccan meal of flatbread, fruit spreads, freshly boiled eggs, and of course, mint tea. 

There was only one regret from this trip to the North, and that’s that we didn’t stay at least another night in this magical place.

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The Riad from above, with me below.

Part IV: It was all a dream…

Call it the jet lag, if you will, but thinking about it keeps me awake. Something about traveling always feels so surreal. It’s outer body; as soon as you land and realize you don’t quite belong; you don’t quite blend into the way their culture was taught and practiced and learned over the centuries; that you hadn’t quite been through or understood what made them the full shape of human beings that call this land home—all together identical and alien to you in their complexity; it feels like you’re in a dream. A made-up land of enchantment that is fleeting from your life, soon to evaporate and impossible to keep a hold of. But you try. You take pictures. You talk to strangers. You order the unknown. You purposely get lost. And you remind yourself every step of the way that the journey is the destination.

I remember distinctly, on day one or two, feeling that everything around me was so temporal, my own breaths signifying the tick of minutes as it pushed me closer and closer to my departure and return to the expected and the familiar.

It’s realizations like that that remind you to savor every morsel of a moment you have, here, there, or anywhere. When there’s a sizzling plate of food in front of you, it makes it all the more enjoyable and meditative to be allowed to just sit and actively savor the time you have, in the place you are. Getting to choose how you spend that time; with who and what and where fills you up to the brim with nothing else but vibrant, uncut, sensations of gratitude, is the greatest gift in life you can get. 

Time, on your own terms.

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Casablanca’s crown jewel: Hassan II Mosque.

4 comments

  1. […] travel experience than staying in an AirBnB. We do it everywhere we go–Colorado, Mexico, and even Morocco. Going to Canada was no different. Though we booked through AirBnB (not an #ad), what we got was a […]

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