Monday, April 22, 2013

Cooking in Casablanca


April 21, 2013

Today we had the whoooole day off in Casablanca, so Matt and I signed up for the Moroccan Market Tour and Interactive Cooking Class.  It was meant to be for fun purposes only.  The only camera we brought were the ones on our iPhones.  Our good friends Tori and Kevin happened to be along on the tour as well, so we enjoyed spending more time with them.

Matt and I ate breakfast on the ship and then, after buying our ticket to the tour, we headed out to the bus.  We were joined by some students, lifelong learners, RA's and then Tori and Kevin who are part of the communications team and work with us.  We met our tour guide, Mohammed, who said that we could call him, Mo.

Mo took us around Casablanca for a little bit because he wanted to show us some places just in case we missed them while we were here.  I was appreciative of the gesture since I hadn't had much free time to explore yet.  He took the bus first to the Hassan II Mosque.  It's technically the tallest mosque in the world even though it's not allowed to be bigger than the one in Mecca.  People here just say it's pretty big.

Mo explained to us that it was built between 1987 and 1992 and it was funded by the people of Morocco.  He was living in Las Vegas at the time and he was sent a letter from the Moroccan government asking if he would donate to the building of the mosque.  He said that he gave $25.  He explained that the Koran tells that anything built here on earth is duplicated by God in heaven, and many people will give a lot of money toward beautiful couches and tiles, but he is in love with the kitchen, so he hopes his fund counts toward that and he could spend all his time in heaven's kitchen.  We all had a good laugh.

We toured around the outside of the mosque very quickly and Matt and I posed in front of it.  It was a very open design on the outside with a lot of space leading up to the mosque.  The architecture was interesting, but classy.  Not too busy like many cathedrals I've seen.  Mo said that 20,000 people fit inside and another 40,000 fit outside for worship time.

We headed for our next stop which was to see Rick's Cafe from Casablanca, then to the consulate's residence (where I had lunch on the second day here) because of the significance of Eisenhower and Churchill staying there and their impact on Morocco during the world war.

After a little more city tour, we stopped off at the central market in Casablanca.  The market tour was meant to show us where the chefs get their fresh meat and vegetables for cooking around the city.  The farmers and rural people bring their goods here.  We got to experience some new sights and smells.  I appreciate the lack of rotting fish smell like in Vietnam and Myanmar, but the dangling cow, sheep and rabbit were as surprising a sight as the fish were a smell.  It was fascinating to me that they leave the little feetsies on the rabbits that they've skinned.  I told the man that we keep the feet for good luck in my country, and he said he didn't have any duck and pointed down the aisle.

Mo stopped in front of some grotesque slabs of pink flesh and explained how the bull tongues were prepared.  I stared at them for a long moment, then realized that my gag reflex was alerting me and my eyes were tearing up.  I was trying to imagine where that tongue connects in the lower abdomen of the creature.  It was far longer than I thought it should have been.

There were little kitties all over the market.  They were hanging out on the floor, behind doors and in boxes waiting for scraps from the food vendors.  The people there were very kind to them.  They patted them on their heads and gave them shrimps or little sardines that looked a little funny.  It was an interesting change from how we saw the animals in other countries treated like pests.

Mo picked up a tiny, live turtle and began passing it into our hands to hold.  If it turned its head left or right and if it decided to move forward or backward, we were wished a different type of luck.  Apparently the turtles are master givers of good fortune and they decide your fate.  Just like in Hong Kong, I was wished children.  Look out parental units, this trip just might bless a child out of me.

We left the market and walked to the cooking school a few blocks away.  We entered a tall, white building with wonderful smells pouring down from the marble, spiraling stairway.  Mo offered the lift to anyone who was old, which made us chuckle and the people who legitimately needed the lift feel offended.  He went along his business not noticing the scowls from the lift-takers.  He was an easy-going guy who told things like they were.  I found it funny.

We hiked up and up the stairs and wished we had taken the lift because the four stories weren't up to American building code stories.

We got to the top and were welcomed by a nice lady named Laila and a cook who spoke only French.  He would be our teacher for the day and Mo would translate.  They first taught us how to make proper mint tea.  They showed us what to put in first and how to boil the water and wash the tea. Then, they added the sugar.

Mo asked if we wanted no sweet, half sweet or Moroccan sweet.  The younger people were all for the full Moroccan experience, and the few older gennies in the room voted for no sweet, so Mo settled for half-sweet and stuck in the equivalent of two cups of sugar in sugar cubes into the tiny pot of tea.  There was an audible gasp from the no-sweet side of the room. I found the drama of this particular moment highly entertaining and inappropriately laughed out loud.  This encouraged Mo.

Mo and the French-speaking Moroccan chef began their teaching.  They showed us how to make traditional Moroccan pastries, how to fold them, bake them and lay them out nicely for display when presenting them to guests or hosts.  They then moved on to the ever-so-complicated couscous.  Then, they showed us how to make tajines which is both the pot they are cooked in and the actual food that comes out of it by being prepared this way.  It would be like calling something a fish bake because you prepared it in an oven.

They showed us prune-almond lamb tajine and also ginger-apricot chicken tajine.  They didn't cook anything in front of us, just taught us how to prepare it and brought it out in multiple phases because it would have taken hours to actually follow through with cooking all of these traditional items.  It was tantalizing to watch all the fresh ingredients go into all of these deliciously seasoned dishes.

On the ginger chicken, they often use preserved lemon.  The room got so excited at preserved lemon, and we knew we couldn't bring any on the ship and finding it in the States and for cheap was difficult.  We wanted the know how of how to make these ourselves.  Laila scooted out of the room and came back with a giant jar of weird looking masses floating in brown liquid.  She showed us how to cut the fresh lemons, stuff them with salt and then said that you just jam them in a jar for two weeks and they juice out, fill the jar with their juices and the salts and will last for a good year.  You use the skins of the lemons to flavor the chicken tajines and you can also spoon out the salty, citrus liquid and put it on cucumber salads to impress your guests.  Mo said we would be the most popular cooks in our neighborhood if we did that.  I believe him, and I'm going to try it with our new neighbors.

After the lemon excitement died down, the cooking demonstration was over.  Laila gave us her e-mail address and said we could e-mail her any questions we had. I wrote it down just in case my lemons go south.

They led us up to the next floor where there was a dining room and four gold covers on four giant plates on a long table in the front.  They had prepared us all the dishes that they had just taught us to cook, and it was time to gorge ourselves on the delicious food.  They had planned to remove the silver covers all at once, and they counted down and then whipped away the covers while Mo yelled, "surprise!"  It was a fun moment.  I happened to capture it in action, and I'm quite pleased with the blurry photo.

We went through, buffet-style, and were served up a spoonful of each of the dishes plus two slices of orange with orange blossom water and cinnamon sprinkled on top. Matt and I sat with Kevin and Tori and thoroughly enjoyed every bite.

Once we all finished eating, it was sadly time to say goodbye to our new culinary friends.  On our way out, I was gifted a bouquet of fresh mint, which I gladly took with a gracious thank you in English, then French, then Arabic.  I'm working on my deca-lingual counting and thank you's.  I knew we wouldn't be allowed to take it on the ship, so I gifted it to our bus driver hoping he could take it home to his Mrs. and she would whip him up some delicious mint tea.

We drove back to the center part of Casablanca where we had 45 minutes to do our final shopping.  Matt and I had 42 dirham left, and we decided to spend it on whatever tickled our fancy.  Mo took us to an over-priced souvenir shop, and we left for the madina where local shops and street vendors had the same goods for haggling prices.  We bought a few things for the last of our dirham (which is about the equivalent of $4.50) then headed back for the bus to take us to the ship.

We arrived back at the ship, thanked Mo and our bus driver and then climbed the steps of the MV Explorer for the very last time.  The next time we'll see these stairs will be in Barcelona and once we exit the ship, there will be no getting back on.  We'll have our stuff packed up, and we'll be off on our 10-day Spanish adventure.

What a life I lead.