With Kay McGowan of A Curated World, I had the opportunity to visit Marrakech, Morocco a few months ago. Now that the online magazine (and store) is live, I am excited to share some of my adventures learning about Moroccan food culture. One of the highlights was a couscous lunch with caftan designer Nawal, owner of Aya’s. When we first met, she spoke passionately about the work she was doing with local seamstresses and of her star-studded international customer base. And on one of our last days in Marrakech, she offered to have us visit her shop for Friday couscous – a true show of Moroccan hospitality. During lunch I asked her about the traditional couscous lunch, a meal many Muslim Moroccans were sharing across the country at the same time as we all sat around her table, and her eyes lit up. It was obvious: she was also passionate about food and what it represents in her culture. That meal – fluffy couscous topped with roasted carrots, onions, turnips, pumpkin and lamb, smothered in an rich, unctuous broth – was one of my favorites from the trip. Please read more about this meal and the origins of couscous excerpted below.
My first meal in Marrakech was Friday lunch. Our guide, Stef, had led my friend Kay and I to a small square within the medina – the walled inner city – and to an open air café. The view was everything I would have expected from a city known as a cross-roads for tradition and progression: we sat side by side western travelers with cameras and young Moroccans in pants and blouses, conversing in French or Arabic. The café looked out upon a small marketplace, where unvarnished tagines – the conical cooking vessels that are used in the average Moroccan household – were sold next to cages of birds and lizards. A spice seller with geometrically shaped towers of rich-hued powders was next to a man who sold the typical souvenirs of brightly painted dishes and woven baskets with the country’s name stitched along the side. The three of us, with a packed week’s agenda of visits with local designers and artisans, ordered café des espice – coffee brewed with a proprietary blend of spices, including cinnamon and cardamom and considered the best in the city – and chicken sandwiches and Moroccan salads. It was good, fresh food not entirely unlike what I might order in New York or Boston – but enjoyed in the warm December sun of Morocco. And while I loved this intersection of Moroccan culture and western tourism, I wondered to what extent this first meal represented the true food culture of Morocco.
What I did not know that first Friday, was that despite the city’s seemingly fervent energy it was Muslim Morocco’s holy day. Many storefronts in the souk were closed – something I had not noticed in my excitement to take in the sights and smells of my first walk through the winding paths of the market – and the reason we saw as many tourists as locals was because many Moroccan Muslims were home for the week’s most holy of meals: Friday couscous lunch with their families, served after midday prayers….