Morocco: Cooking Cultures

The author amidst the markets of Essaouira.

Morocco is a country perhaps too complex for some simple metaphors. When our company took all 90+ employees to Casablanca, Marrakesh and Essaouira, I was trying to look for a singular image or idea that encapsulates the big blessing of an experience. Going through the many images in my camera and my head, I have finally settled on what I feel might be what best describes Morocco best: one of its own icons: the Tagine.
Mostly seen on the ends of keychains and as mocked-up miniature versions in every corner of the Souk, the actual tagine is a serving clay pot that keeps the heat of the food inside through its cover with the unique top (maybe one of the reasons for it being iconic). If you didn’t know any better, you would have even thought it was some sort of a top with a sauce dish for a cap.
Once the lid is taken off (sometimes with a flourish, a few flips, shouts and gasps from the audience), steam and aroma emanate. Inside is what appears to be steamed chicken, vegetables, kouscous and more things of which I do not know the origin or pronunciation. Different foodstuff co-exist in one single steaming delicious serving. Morocco, similarly, is not just one dish. It’s a pot of different cultures heated through history.

a tagine from a google search

Geographically, Morocco is in Africa. However, most of its people is Arabic – so there is a lot of Middle Eastern tradition and influence. It is also French. Almost all of their street and store signs have a French “subtitle.” It’s their second language, their “English.” They’ve got one foot in Africa, another in the Middle East, one hand in France, and yet another hand in Spain. It’s a wild game of continental Twister.
When you haggle at the Souk (it has to be an Olympic event), the  sellers are often adept at almost three languages, at least. English (Excuse me, my friend! I give you good prices!), French (Pardon! when they bump you), and Arabic (Shukran!). Sometimes, they even throw in an occasional Spanish.
Cafes around the cities show you how they have adopted the French culture of drinking espresso while watching people, birds, the sun set, or the dust gather. For coffee lovers, consider moving here.

view from one of the cafes

Movies have often portrayed Morocco in this way, too – as somehow here but not quite. It’s exotic enough, but safe enough. Europe-West, yet African-Middle East. Casablanca, Sex in The City, the Man Who Knew Too Much, the Bourne Identity. When you need a chase scene, a getaway, a hideaway, or a faraway place where you unexpectedly see the love of your life again (You must remember this/ A kiss is still a kiss…), you know where to go.
Food and drink are also manifestations of the coming together of the cultures. European-Middle Eastern traditions fuse in restaurants and cafes. The Moroccan Mint tea, another national trademark, is also a testament to the tea-sipping cultures that Morocco had been exposed to: China and Europe . Yet, its own twist is that it is made from a naturally-grown ingredient: the mint. To a first-timer, it tastes like heated mouthwash.

moroccan mint tea from a google search

one of my first moroccan meals. it wasn't served in a tagine. but a later lunch would have a tagine that had almost the same stuff inside.

we had our first meal here.

Even its own cities are not only far away from each other geographically, but even in their color palettes. Essaouira has a blue sky with no cloud whatsoever. Facing the sea, it’s almost decidedly cerulean. Marrakesh is the red city, with the ochre color of the buildings (even though they weren’t clay anymore, they still had to have that color) in that shade. Casablanca has the clouds reappearing in the sky (more whites for the white house-named city!).
“Melting pot” is the usual term for these “port countries” but to say that the cultures simply melted in this country throughout the years diminishes the vibrancy and life these cultures have become. Morocco is its own tagine – a steaming pot of mixed cultures – exotic, delicious, and goes well with a bottle of wine.

lunch in Essaouira


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