by ELLA BANKA
To sit around a table and share a tajine with a Moroccan family is to take a journey through generations of gatherings, festivities and recipes. The secret to such rich, sumptuous dishes is the oodles of spices and dried herbs that every woman hoards in her kitchen cupboards.
“Nothing tastes better than Moroccan cuisine,” declares Mohammed Hmidi, a young man who works at a nameless spice store in the souk. For over 70 years, his family has proudly served the community in the old medina of Rabat. Western products line the stalls of the open-air market while the essence of traditional Maghreb lingers in the pungent aroma wafting through the air; shawarma…snails…sheep’s head. Spices are essential to these and every Moroccan dish. Without them the food would be bland, colorless, lifeless.
Mohammed’s boss, Ali, runs the store along with his 13 male cousins. He wears a makeshift Gucci baseball cap and points animatedly at various condiments and accessories and artifacts when he is trying to make a sale. The store is a grotto-like structure, with individual booths and hundreds of beauty products lining the shelves. Mohammed says the store has “been this way forever.” The space is dusty with archaic spider webs draping the tin roof. The varicolored, earthy spices are molded into pyramid shapes atop blue plastic-covered boxes.
Regular customers are women who prepare homemade food every day for their families. Rush hour is in the morning, in anticipation for lunchtime, traditionally the biggest meal of the day. On Fridays, most pious families wait to eat couscous after their afternoon prayer; the delicious reward is often infused with pepper, basil, cilantro and saffron.
When asked if she could cook without her spices, Rahma, a widowed Moroccan housewife, responds with a resounding “la, la, la, la, la!” (‘no’ in Arabic.) While Westerners tend to rely on a handful of seasonings—usually salt and pepper—Moroccans cannot fathom preparing a dish without a rainbow of spices. Mustafa, Rahma’s 22-year old son, affirms, “In Morocco spices are cultural.” His favorite dish is bastilla, a chicken or fish filled pastry seasoned with turmeric and topped with powdered sugar and cinnamon.
Rahma buys some of her spices every week, at the Saturday souk in Sale across the river. This is a ritual that her mother taught her when she was young, along with the motley of recipes she now concocts daily.
Cumin, curry, coriander, pepper, paprika…the flavors and colours are always blended to perfection in the Moroccan household. The Hmidi family offers over 15 spices and 45 herbs in their store. Every month they get a new shipment of raw products from Marrakech; the inland city is particularly favorable for storing goods with its dry, warm climate. Every 3 days, the store grinds new batches to keep them fresh; according to Mohammed, business is steady—they sell over 370kg of spices every week.