Donkey carts clatter across cobblestone streets; butchers wielding massive cleavers hack away at sides of lamb, beef, and camel; women and fruit sellers haggle over prices in Arabic, French, and Tamazight, the local Berber language. We are in Fez’s meat, produce, and spice market, maneuvering through the chaos under the watchful eye of Mr. Lahcen Beqqi, a master chef, restaurant owner, teacher, and expert on Moroccan cooking.
My wife Ruth and I signed up for a one-day class taught by Chef Beqqi to learn more about Morocco, its culture, and its world famous cuisine. Beqqi, a baby-faced Berber from the tiny village of Amellago in the High Atlas mountains, is a highly qualified teacher–he moved to Fez, the country’s food capital, in 2002 and cooked at some of the city’s finest restaurants until opening a school, Fes Cooking, in 2006. His classes provide not only culinary instruction (and eating, of course) but also an introduction to Moroccan agriculture, shopping, and mealtime traditions. It is a wonderful way to learn about the many influences contributing to modern Moroccan culture.
Ruth and I, along with the chef and two other students, begin our day in the open-air marketplace of this 1,200-year-old Imperial city. Since our menu will be dictated by what is available (“eat seasonal, buy local” has long been a way of life), we wander the narrow walkways surveying the possibilities. The sweet scent of cinnamon and rose water fills the air; stalls overflow with tomatoes, onions, celery, garlic. “It was a good year for farmers with lots of rain, so there are no shortages,” Beqqi said as he helps us select items for the midday meal.
As we stroll he points out foods that many American kitchens would consider specialty items but which are central to Moroccan cooking: dates, figs, apricots, chickpeas, mint. He also points out products that draw our blank stares: wild artichokes, argan oil, cardons, camel fat. We wind our way through the market touching, squeezing, smelling, buying. Finally, laden with bags of meat, vegetables, fruits, and spices, we head for the kitchen at Riad Tafilalet, a traditional Moroccan hotel and restaurant (riad is the Arabic word for garden or courtyard) that will be our classroom for the remainder of the day.
Although thoroughly modern, the kitchen contains no electric mixers, blenders, or food processors. According to Beqqi, Moroccan cooks enjoy “being close to their food,” so all chopping is by hand, all mashing by mortar and pestle. We don starched white chef tunics, looking like contestants on “The Next Food Network Star,” and dive into our assigned tasks. Lahcen watches carefully and explains proper techniques: “Don’t add spices until the liquid is hot,” “Grate the tomatoes, don’t chop them.”
A few hours later, our six-course lunch is finished. In the riad’s sunlit courtyard, we sit around low tables dining on harira, a tomato, lamb, lentil, and chickpea soup traditionally used to break the daily fast of Ramadan; small triangles of phyllo pastry, called briouates, filled with goat cheese and olives; zaalouk salad prepared with pureed eggplant, tomato, and zucchini; artichoke hearts with preserved lemons and orange water; a chicken, prune, and date tagine; and, for dessert, date and almond rolls and the ever-present mint tea.
As we gorge on the delicacies, Beqqi relates stories of the multi-ethnic influences that produced this distinctive cuisine: the Berbers of southern Morocco who brought tagines and couscous; seventh century Arab invaders who introduced grilled meats and a love of dried fruits and nuts; the Moors who contributed their taste for olives, oranges, and lemons; Sephardic Jews of North Africa who popularized the pickling and preserving of fruits and meats. It is a history seminar complete with massive amounts of superb food and drink!
After eating for more than two hours I sit back on the sofa and sip my last glass of tea, feeling like a pampered pasha. At 4 p.m., after a busy but gratifying and highly informative day, Beqqi calls a taxi to take us back to our apartment, a trip whose cost is, thankfully, based on distance not weight.
Read more about our adventures living and working in Africa and the Middle East in my latest book, On The Other Guy’s Dime.