By N’Kaela Webster
RABAT, Morocco — One-on-one sessions with restaurant owners or in the kitchen with your host family are the best ways to explore the hidden secrets of Moroccan food. Since the moment I knew that I would be coming to Morocco, I have been on a quest to learn more about Moroccan food. After gathering evidence from three authentic Moroccan restaurants, I learned that the simplicity of a Moroccan meal is enhanced by the use of the tagine.
My first taste of Moroccan culture and food was back home at Marakesh Restaurant. When we arrived, the room had Moroccan decor and pictures of places in Morocco. The design was similar to the living rooms of riads, traditional Moroccan homes. American restaurants have your typical table, chairs, and possibly some artwork on the wall; this place felt like I was no longer in America and like I was already across the world. My family and I were the only people there, which gave us an ample amount of time to fully question our waitress, a Moroccan-born woman whose name I cannot remember. After I told our waitress that I would be studying in Morocco for three months, she proceeded to give me a crash course on Moroccan culture and cuisine. I ordered the vegetable tagine. This dish is similar to a stew; however, it is not your normal vegetables just tossed in a bowl. The vegetables were perfectly sautéed with Moroccan spices such as cumin and saffron that make the dish unique.
The tagine is mistakenly believed by many non-Moroccans to be the name of the meal itself. The tagine is the name of the pot that the food is cooked and served in. The tagine is special because it keeps the food hot throughout the remainder of the meal.
A quote on the restaurant website, which was also constantly reiterated by the waitress, states, “[Moroccan cuisine] is considered by many culinary experts and famous chefs to be among the top three cuisines in the world.” This got me even more excited to study abroad and find out if this is really true.
Once in Morocco, I decided to take a weekend trip to Casablanca; there I had lunch at Casa Fish. Coincidentally, my friend and I were the only people in the restaurant again, which prompted another private session with the cook. For this meal, I ordered the fish tagine because I wanted to compare the tagines from restaurants across the world with each other. Cash Fish definitely validated the authenticity of the Marrakesh Restaurant. In addition, the waitress/cook of Casa Fish raved about Moroccan tagine and how much fun it is to make. I knew I had to try it! Casa Fish made the tagines in a separate space rather than in the normal kitchen; they made it near the door so passersby could watch as they walked pass. Our waitress allowed us to observe her process; the fish, vegetables and sauce are all made separately before coming together in the tagine. The sauce is comprised of olive oil, cumin, onions, and salt, and set to a simmer while the vegetables were steamed, and the fish was baked. When tagine is served, Moroccans traditionally eat with bread instead of a fork which makes the meal taste much better. I taste every flavor as it seeps into the bread; with every bite I start to understand why Moroccans love cooking with the tagine.
After traveling, I decided to come home and help my host mother, Mama Hayat, cook dinner. It is only right to keep up the theme of my journey with the tagine in Morocco. For the snack, we made rghaif, a type of bread similar to a crepe often served with Moroccan snacks or breakfast, in the tagine. The rghaif is put in the tagine on top of the stove to heat up the bread. This highlights the many uses of a tagine whether it be to fry dough or as a plate; but its main purpose is to preserve heat in meals.
Next, I assisted Mama Hayat making spaghetti for dinner. The process of making spaghetti in Morocco is very similar to the process of making spaghetti in America, but the experience was much more interesting. Not only was I excited to help, but she was also very excited and surprised that I was eager to help! I learned Moroccan etiquette and culture when helping cook in such an intimate space. From Mama Hayat, I understood the joy of feeding your family.
Although I recently arrived in Morocco, I am beginning to see why Morocco has one of the best cuisines in the world. I can’t wait to explore more restaurants and help cook at home.