Before we even arrived in Morocco, we decided we would like to do a cooking class. It is something I have done a few times before, and always really enjoyed – a great way to get an insight into the food and culture. We did look up a few different courses, but were shocked at the cost (I had never paid more than US$20 for a trip to the market, few hour lesson, and a three course meal with drinks) so we decided to take a different approach.
Despite the language barrier, we managed to establish that Mohamed – a member of staff at ‘Chez Les Berbers’ – was a good cook. Again, despite the language barrier, we somehow got across that we would like to cook with him, if at all possible.
Now seems a good time to mention an incident from a few years back. In Indonesia, we thought we had set up the same sort of arrangement with a girl in a cafe (her English was quite good which made it seem way too simple). As arranged (or so we thought) we arrived at 5am as they were setting up, to help them prepare soup for the day. Confusion ensued, and we spent half the day just drinking coffee at their café, while they shot us slightly concerned looks every once in a while! We didn’t learn how to make that soup.
Luckily, history did not repeat itself. At 11am, Mohamed informed us he was going to the market to buy food for our meals. Did we want to come? Result! We ‘helped’ him to buy all the makings of Kefta Tajine – meatballs in a tomato and onion sauce – then joined him with his friends at a local restaurant for coffee.
We met Brahim, who owns a trekking company in Imlil. His English was fantastic, and we listened intently as he told us of the flash flooding that had destroyed the area in 1995, killing 27 in this valley alone. To Brahim, however, the flood had a silver lining; in rebuilding Imlil, its population had felt the need for more structure and reconstructed their town in a way that would better support its tourism. As they had lost the majority of their mature walnut trees (a major produce of the area), and most of their agricultural land, tourism would become the main source of income. Brahim soon changed the subject to something more upbeat, by producing pictures of himself with Mark Zuckerberg, and others with Daniel Craig on past tours.
Once all our purchases had been made, we returned to the guesthouse.
We were under the impression that the tajine would be for our dinner, however Mohamed got stuck in the moment we got back. Turns out, we were making both dinner and lunch! I rolled up my sleeves, washed my hands, and did as I was told.
First, we prepared a Moroccan salad: diced cucumber, tomato, and red onion – lots of red onion! Mohamed and I squatted on low wicker stools around a small table in the cramped kitchen. Devin hovered around with the GoPro, getting close up to the action for the perfect shot (cooking video coming soon!) The salads were set aside and we turned our attention to the tajine.
Tajine is named after the pot it is cooked in; a shallow terracotta bowl, with a tall conical lid. There is a venting hole at the top of the lid. The ingredients are placed into the bowl, then cooked for a long time over an open flame. The vapor rises up inside the lid – with only minimal steam escaping – and then slides back down into the dish, trapping the flavour within. It is like the original Moroccan pressure cooker.
We placed diced onions and tomatoes into our tajine, mixed with spices (cumin, turmeric, salt, and pepper) and let it simmer away over a gas hob before adding some water. Once it had started to form a saucy base, we set to making out kefta meatballs. We rolled the kefta (can be any minced meat) into tiny balls and placed them into the sauce to cook for a further fifteen minutes, while we ate our starter.
We were horrified to discover that Mohamed did not plan on eating with us, partly because we were enjoying his company, but also due to the daunting amount of food we had prepared! We managed to convince him to join us, and all sat down for lunch.
We finally managed to finish off both courses, and when Mohamed made it clear he did not want any help tidying away, Devin and I decided to go on a walk around Souka. We followed the winding path up the hill for views of the sandy little town from above, keeping an eye on the time so as not to be late for our afternoon cooking class!
Vegetable couscous was on the menu for dinner, which meant there was lots of washing, peeling, and chopping to be done. Mohamed and I resumed our positions at the little table and got to work. The veg went into a large pot of water to boil, along with a spice mixture to create a stock, and in the meantime, we got started on the couscous. When Mohamed pulled out the bag, I joked that we would be able to feed ten people with that much couscous! It wasn’t far from the truth…
The dry couscous was placed onto a tray and drizzled with oil. Mohamed then demonstrated how to rub it between the palms of your hands to ensure it was coated in oil, and free of lumps. Then, we placed it into a steamer that balances on top of the pot. This method of cooking means that the flavour from the vegetable stock rises and cooks into the couscous, which is left plain. The pot is called a couscous steamer and is a common household utensil in Morocco, just like the tajine.
Every so often, the partly cooked couscous is emptied back onto its tray, fluffed with forks or spoons, and then rubbed once more between the palms before being returned to the steamer. This way, you are left with nice, fluffy couscous… and slightly burned hands.
It was around this time that there was a knock on the door. The three of us exchanged looks that clearly said ‘who the hell is that?’ We were the only guests, with no others due to arrive. Devin and Mohamed went to the door, while I kept an eye on the food.
Enter Dominik and his dad, Adrian. They had read about the guesthouse restaurant on TripAdvisor and decided to check it out. Although ‘Chez Les Berber’ does offer food, it is usually only in peak season, and upon request. Luckily, we had plenty of food to go round, so of course they were welcome to join us!
Mohamed and I quickly prepared some mint tea (also known as Berber Whisky) for our new guests, and giggled away as we picked up the pace in the kitchen. Cooking an unknown dish for ourselves was one thing, but cooking for company was a whole other kettle of fish! The atmosphere had relaxed as we got to know each other better, understood each other’s sign language more, and got used to the small work space. We found a rhythm and even raced to see who could fluff their couscous quicker (laughter and scalded palms ensued), while Devin played host in the dining area.
As the final touches were made to the couscous, Mohamed somehow conjured up white bean soup as a starter. We didn’t need to tell him to join us this time.
What followed was an impromptu, international dinner party – one of those great moments that just seems to happen when you travel. Between the company, the food, and the accomplishment, it was easily one of my favourite days of our trip.