Saturday, September 24, 2011

Another dream comes true.

Photo by neiljs
Morocco has always, always been a place that I dreamed of going to and now, after years of dreaming, I'm finally going to do it!  And, I hope to be going with my brother and a couple of friends.  A nice foursome!

As usual, I'm excited beyond words to be going.  Morocco has always seemed like such an exotic place despite the fact that I really know very little about it.   Of course, names of places like Marrakesh and Fes are familiar but Chefchaouen??  Never heard of the place.  I know that Morocco is a land of desert and sea but I had no idea there were mountains as well...very tall mountains at that.

For some reason, when I think of Morocco, I think of the color blue.  Turns out blue is a very popular color in Morocco and so I decided to name this blog after it.   I also decided to pay a bit of homage to the French influence in Morocco.  After all,  a good part of what is geographically Morocco today was a French protectorate from 1912-1956.  Bleu is the French word for "blue" and Maroc is the French word for "Morocco".



Photo by kafeole
"Lost in the souq "
Of all the things that come to my mind when I think of Morocco, at the top of the list is the souq, that wonderful labyrinth of commercial establishments selling everything under the sun.   The kind of place that is filled with narrow, winding walkways lit by sunlight filtering down between the buildings.  The kind of place that you know you will get lost in but you don't really care because it's such an interesting place to be in.  The kind of place that is filled with sights, smells and sounds that you would never experience when you go shopping in the US.  The kind of place where you can haggle over the price of something and that would be an expected thing to do.  My kind of place. 

Years ago, I was sent on a work assignment to Dubai and there too were souqs but the ones in Dubai looked and felt more like a open air shopping mall.  I was so disappointed.   Since then, I have been very lucky to have spent time (and money) in some world famous souqs.  In 2007, I went to Cairo, Egypt where the Khan el-Khalili bazaar fulfilled all my expectations of what a true souq ought to be.  I thought I was in heaven until a year later when I went to Istanbul Turkey and not once, but twice, roamed the *streets* of the Kapalı Carşı ("Car-pah-luh Jar-shee") which is known in the western world simply as the Grand Bazaar.  

I just can't wait to hit the souqs in Fes and Marrakesh.  According to my friend Lei, who has been to both, the souq in Fes is the better of the two so I'll definitely be checking it out.

"For the eternal foodie "
The iconic dish of Morocco is the tagine which is the name of both the dish and the conical lidded clay pot in which it is cooked.  Tagines in Moroccan cuisine are slow-cooked stews braised at low temperatures, resulting in tender meat with aromatic vegetables and sauce. The traditional tagine pot is formed entirely of a heavy clay, which is sometimes painted or glazed. It consists of two parts: a base unit that is flat and circular with low sides, and a large cone or dome-shaped cover that rests inside the base during cooking. The cover is so designed to promote the return of all condensation to the bottom. With the cover removed, the base can be taken to the table for serving.  The classic tagine that comes to mind is chicken cooked with olives and preserved lemons.

Another iconic food item that I associate with Morocco is couscous.  Couscous is made from semolina which is a form of wheat.

The semolina is sprinkled with water and rolled with the hands to form small pellets, sprinkled with dry flour to keep them separate, and then sieved. Pellets which fall through the sieve will be rerolled into pellets. This process continues until all the semolina has been formed into the tiny granules of couscous.

The proper way to prepare couscous is in a steamer pot known as a couscoussière which is very much like a double boiler.
 
The base of the couscoussière is a tall metal pot shaped in which the meat and vegetables are cooked as a stew. On top of the base pot, a steamer sits where the couscous is cooked, absorbing the flavors from the stew simmering below. The final result is couscous flavored by the stew.  So good!  I only know how to cook the instant variety.  I want to now taste the real thing.

Moroccan cuisine is a spiced based cuisine.  The four basic spices are salt, pepper, ginger and tumeric  Other common spices include saffron, paprika, cumin, cinnamon and white pepper. Of course, the icon Moroccan spice is ras el hanout which is actually a blend of ground spices.  It is to the Moroccans what garam masala is to the Indians. 

Ras el hanout means "the best of the shop" and reflects the fact that the secret blend of spices represented the best of what the shop had to offer.

Ras el hanout frequently includes cardamom, clove, mace, nutmeg, anise, mace, cinnamon, ginger, ground chili peppers, pepper, and turmeric.  In the US, we can only buy ras el hanout already pre-bottled.  I'm hoping I can bring back a bag of freshly ground ras el hanout.




Food wise, Morocco is also known for dates and olives.  I'm not much of a fan of dried dates but then again, I've not really had a good one.  I don't know if it is date season or not when we're there but if it is, I will try them. 










In contrast, I love dates and they are plentiful in Morocco.  My colleague, whose wife is Moroccan, tells me I need to try the red olives.  I've never had a red olive before so that is a definite must try for me. 







"My darling Clementine "
Morocco has a long tradition in producing wide varieties of citrus fruit.  As in the whole Mediterranean region, cultivation of citrus in Morocco goes back to Roman times.  However,
the real development of the citrus industry only started in the beginning of the 19th century. At that time large orchards were created by French occupants. Nowadays, two distinct sectors coexist in Morocco. One modern, where the production is geared for export and the second, traditional, where the production is oriented to local market.  Morocco is classified the 4th largest fresh citrus exporting country in the world and it is the 2nd largest exporter of clementines.

Clementines are definitely a winter time fruit here in the US and although I'm not the biggest fan, I do enjoy them occasionally.  They should be in season when we're there and I'm expecting that my brother will be buying them by the kilo full.  I think I might bring my reamer with me - fresh clementine juice would be a wonderful treat!!

Riad Eden, Marrakesh
"Home sweet riad "
A riad is a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard.  Riads are designed to allow for family privacy and protection from the weather in Morocco.  The interior of a traditional riad is characterized by centrally located interior gardens and courtyards. In the there are often four orange or lemon trees and possibly a fountain. All of the rooms of the riad will open into the central courtyard.  Riads are also characterized by the lack of large windows on the exterior clay or mud brick walls. The walls are often riads are adorned with tiles, usually with Arabic calligraphy, with quotes from the Quran. Although the style of  riads has changed over the years, the basic form is still used in designs today. Recently there has been a resurgence in interest in riads and many traditional ones have been renovated and are now hotels.  Privately owned riads are plentiful for rent so I've begun to check them out as overnight accomodations. I find them a much more appealing than the standard Western style hotel.

"Desert & camel "
Oh, there is plenty of desert in Morocco.  Sahara Desert to be exact.  Everyone who I know who has been to Morocco has told me that I must, must, must go on camel trek through the desert and spend the night in a Berber camp.  So that is what we will do.  I just need to figure out how :-)

I haven't spent a night in the desert since I was in Jordan in 2008.  On that trip, my friend Lei and I were traveling with tour group.  We got to spend the night in a Bedouin camp in the Wadi Rum.  We had so much fun.  The plan is to go to Morocco in mid to late December which is perfect weather for most of the country.  I just hope it's not going to be unbearably cold at night in the Sahara.

"I want leather "Morocco is known for its leather.  In fact, one of the Morocco traveler "must-do's" is to visit one of the tanneries that Fes is famous for.  We definitely have to make our way to one.  I think it will be a fascinating sight though I'm told that the stench can be overwhelming and to bring a scarf to cover your mouth and nose.  I'll bring a scarf with me but I wonder if it's really that bad.  Of course, friends have been telling me to check out the bags and shoes but I'm not interested in either.



What I do have my eye on are Moroccan leather poufs :-)  Yes, some people might think that's an odd thing to want but a pouf brings back wonderful memories for me.  My mom still has two in her house and growing up, my feet spent many hours resting on them.  And....., for some reason, Moroccan leather poufs are extremely expensive to buy in the US.  I need at least two.  I read you can just buy the covers and then stuff them when you get home.....though I wonder what I'm suppose to stuff one with??



As I write this introductory post, I realize just how little I know about this country that I have dreamed about, going to, for so long.  We have just about 3 months left before we go and there's so much learning and planning yet to do.  But I know I will love every minute I spend getting to know Morocco better and making a long time dream come true!