Story and photos by the Staff
In the Medina
Marrakech is an ancient city located at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, in the center of Morocco. It has the largest and oldest medina (walled city) in the country which is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Walking through the narrow, labyrinthine alleys of the city’s old town one realizes that life has continued here much as it has for hundreds if not a thousand years. The muezzins still call the faithful to prayer five times a day, but the calls are now pre-recorded and no one seems to pay much attention, as the ebb and flow of commerce continues unabated. The old caravanserais that were used as hostels and stables hundreds of years ago are now housing souvenir sellers, herb and spice vendors, antique markets, butchers, sweets bakers, tile merchants, cloth and carpet weavers, carpenters, metal workers and a variety of other retailers. If it is produced anywhere in Morocco, it will be found in this medina.
A number of the ancient family-owned mansions have been purchased by new owners, restored and refurbished and turned into luxurious Riad hotels. A Riad is a traditional Moroccan home built around an interior courtyard; actually the word “riad” derives from the Arabic word for “garden”. The buildings are designed in Andaluz-styled architecture; the courtyards are tiled with geometric or naturalistic tile designs and should have plants in planting beds and a central fountain. A few courtyards feature a shallow oblong pool. Some of the larger hotel Riads are composed of adjacent houses and have two or more courtyards.
Riads were originally built as palaces and lived in by very wealthy merchants or courtiers and housed several generations of the same family. In order to make the most of the limited space available in the crowded medina, riads are narrow and tall, with two or three stories overlooking the courtyard. These stories have balustraded balconies and walkways, allowing residents to enjoy ample light and fresh air. There is only a single entrance door to the outside street and there are no windows in the exterior walls; all windows and doors look into the open-air courtyard.
A very interesting place to visit in the Marrakech medina is the new, very recently opened, Moroccan Culinary Arts Museum. It is a combination museum, exhibition space and culinary center where one can learn the ins and outs of Moroccan cuisine. There are modern demonstration rooms with closed circuit TV where an instructor will demonstrate a dish and participants can follow and prepare their individual versions.
The main cooking implement for Moroccan dishes is the tajine, a two piece, mostly terracotta or stoneware, peaked baking dish.
The dishes are also named tajines. They are usually casseroles made with vegetables and either lamb, chicken, beef or rarely fish and a large variety of spices cooked in a medium fire for a considerable time.
Couscous is sometimes used to complement these dishes.
Dishes served in a tajine are traditionally eaten communally; diners sit around a low table and eat with the right hand, using pieces of Moroccan flatbread to scoop up meat chunks, vegetables and sauce. The taste is very distinctive because of the use of a traditional spice blend which is: Paprika, Ground Coriander Seed, Cassia, Allspice, Chili Powder, Cloves, Green Cardamom and Garlic. There are regional variations in the spice blend that can also include Saffron, Turmeric and Preserved Lemons. Raisins, dates, dried apricots or dried prunes are also used with chicken, beef or lamb to sweeten the dish.
For a Lamb Shank tajine recipe, please see: Lamb Shank Tajine with Ras el Hanout Spice
Sometimes, slivered dried almond meat or pine nuts are added to tajines; but those are not found in traditional versions that have their origins in the North African Maghreb. These two ingredients originated in cooking preparations of the Ottoman Empire and are transplants; the Ottomans never actually conquered Morocco, though they culturally influenced the country and especially the cuisine.
Another classic, traditional Moroccan dish is Harira. Harira is a soup made with dried legumes -- lentil, chickpeas and fava beans that have been soaked overnight – onion, celery and carrot cubes, turmeric, cumin, paprika, cilantro, crushed tomatoes, preserved lemons and a dash of cinnamon, and is traditionally cooked with lamb shoulder or in mutton stock. It is popular at the beginning of a meal but is also eaten on its own as a light snack. There are many variations and it is mostly served to break the fast during Ramadan, although it is cooked throughout the year.
There are medinas in all major Moroccan cities, but the one in Marrakech is the oldest and largest. The passages are so intertwined and convoluted that one could get lost, even using GPS. While walking through the labyrinth I expected a flying carpet to appear overhead any minute, but quickly realized that flying carpets come from a different part of the world (the Arab Middle East) and no matter how many brass oil lamps I rubbed, no jinn would appear to grant me three wishes!
For information about Morocco visit The Moroccan National Tourist Office: www.visitmorocco.com
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