During the drive throughout Morocco the past 12 days, Moha, the Dude (aka dad) and I have gotten to know each other rather well. In addition to Moha providing background on the sites we were visiting, we have spent hours upon hours talking about our families, values, movies, hobbies, etc. and with even more time spent on the more taboo topics in America – religion, politics, economics and social issues. Despite our basic differences, Moha and I have SOOOOOOO much in common – down to our love of cooking and food. We had briefly discussed my interest in taking a cooking class while in Morocco, and Moha suggested that Essaouira and/or Marrakech would be the perfect place. As it is high season in Morocco (both from tourists and locals due to spring break), Moha found that most cooking classes in Essaouira were full. However, just as we were pulling into the Essaouira city limits, Moha was able to find an opening at a small family-owned restaurant that also offers cooking classes. The only catch – it was starting 30 minutes after our arrival into town, giving us just enough time to check into the riad (with a hurried reception of “Berber Whiskey”), and to walk through the medina’s maze of streets to the restaurant.
I, along with two French ladies from a small town outside Toulouse, France – a grandmother and her teenage granddaughter – took the class. (The Dude said he was going to support the Berber custom of no men in the kitchen 😜). Despite me knowing very little French and the instructor (and the other two students) knowing very little English, we seemed to understand each other quite well. I became very familiar with Moroccan cooking spices – especially saffron, cumin, and turmeric) and learned to make Harira (soup made from tomatoes, lentils, chickpeas, lamb, and lemon juice), Zaalouk (cooked salad of eggplant/ aubergines, tomatoes, and garlic), Pastilla or B’stilla (paper-thin pastry crust filled dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon, and filled with pigeon/squab meat (or chicken), almonds, and eggs spiced with saffron, cinnamon, and fresh coriander), and Tagine (stew, consisting of meat and vegetables in a rich broth, cooked and served in a round earthenware dish with a conical lid). While I was taking the class, Moha took the Dude around his old stomping grounds and to meet some of his friends, and occasionally peeked their heads in the class.
Although we only made enough food for us students to eat a nice-sized meal, the restaurant owner extended a complimentary dinner invitation to the Dude, Moha, and the French ladies’ family – a total of 6 extra people – all who coincidentally appeared when all of the food was finished cooking 😋. We were ushered to the restaurant’s rooftop terrace to taste our creations (along with a few that the chef quickly prepared to provide a filling meal for the additional guests). This is where I got my first glimpse of Essaouira’s PHENOMENAL views of the Atlantic Ocean, and right at sunset. Who could ask for a better way to dine and with better company than the Dude and Moha???
Surprisingly, the restaurant owner adamantly refused to let us pay for the extra mouths. Another instance of the INCREDIBLE hospitality of Moroccans! I was able to sneak money to cover the cost of the extra meals and a generous tip into her apron pocket when she wasn’t looking…
After dinner, the Dude and I wandered the streets of Essaouira with Moha – taking in such sights as the medina, fishing harbor, art galleries, and artisans’ workshops selling all sorts of handicrafts. Essaouira is just as Moha described, a cute, quiet, little seaside town. It’s a walled city, with a maze of narrow alleyways just like many other Moroccan cities but Essaouira has yet to be overrun with tourists. It’s a very culturally diverse city comprised primarily of Arabs, Berbers, Europeans, and Gnawas (West Africans originating from the ancient Ghana Empire of Ouagadougo). Although it is known around the world for windsurfing and kite surfing because of its strong winds and currents, I didn’t see anyone in the water beyond children splashing in the surf and young boys diving off the pier. Maybe the winds weren’t strong enough or the undertow was too strong… Essaouira has seen the likes of Orson Wells (who filmed “Othello” here), Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Marley as well as many other artists. Every June, Essaouira hosts the esteemed Gnawa Festival of World Music, which is equivalent to Woodstock. The Dude and I might have to check it out on a future visit 😉. Moha has already been asking us about our return date…
The Dude and I were originally planning on spending 2 full days in Essaouira and then venturing toward Casablanca, but Moha invited the Dude and I to his house in Marrakech for dinner on what would have been our 2nd night. I felt honored that he would extend another invitation to share a meal with his family. (The first invitation was for lunch, the main meal of the day in Morocco, at his parent’s house in Erfoud (near the Sahara Desert) where we met his mother, father, sister, brother, sister-in-law, young nephew, and baby niece). This invitation was for dinner at his home that he shares with his wife and two small children. (He even offered a cooking lesson given by both his wife and him). I was eager to go as I had heard so much about his wife and children, and even heard the voices of his young boys asking him to come home. His youngest, who is not quite 2, would call his mobile and repeatedly say “back”. TOO cute!! In any event, the Dude and I were DELIGHTED to be able to spend the evening with them.
I was greatly surprised that we were directly ushered into the beautifully decorated sitting room (which is typically restricted to family members and very close friends) vs his OPULENT bet diyaf (guest room). Moha explained that now we are family… He, respectfully, calls the Dude – Dad, and me – his sister. The Dude and I feel the same way about him. We have thoroughly enjoyed our time with Moha and couldn’t imagine a better person to explore Morocco with!
Moha turned the TV in the sitting room to an English language channel for the Dude while I was off to the kitchen for my cooking lesson. His lovely wife showed me how to make couscous w/ vegetables and lamb, while Moha instructed me on how to make beef tagine w/ vegetables. Despite being a Berber man, Moha is a wonderful cook! (His mother was concerned that he would never marry – as he seemed more interested in business – so she made sure he knew his way around the kitchen). While the entrées were cooking, I had plenty of opportunity to play with his two young sons. Just like in America, his 4 year old is addicted to playing Angry Birds on his iPad. His youngest, who is a bit reserved and quite shy, surprisingly warmed up to me rather quickly (according to Moha and his wife). My favorite heart melting moment was when he came and sat next to me, scooting as close to me as he could possibly get without sitting in my lap, and then laid his head on my leg 😘. Such a cutie!!
Keeping with tradition, dinner was served at a knee-high, round table in the sitting room. Typically, Moroccans eat from a common dish, scooping up food with the fingers on their right hand and/or bread. For this meal, all of us adults ate more Western-style using plates and utensils, while the kids ate traditionally. I have never seen little ones who loved tea, meat and vegetables as much as these two. You would have thought they were eating candy… Although both the lamb couscous and beef tagine were QUITE TASTY… Kudos to the chefs 😉!!!