Morocco and its cuisine has been a place that has intrigued me for many years, probably starting with when my mother introduced me to couscous. I’ve never traveled there, which I’ll remedy some day, but I’ve tried to explore this country through the tastes and flavors of its dishes in restaurants and even in my own kitchen. Yesterday, I attended a not-to-be-missed opportunity held by the Culinary Historians of New York to hear from one of my culinary heros who is also the leading authority on the food of the country. Paula Wolfert presented her new book “The Food of Morocco” at this event.
What is special about this kind of an author event is that it is not just a chance to hear about the book and to listen to the stories behind collecting and testing the recipes. Members of the program committee for the Culinary Historians bring samples of the foods made from the author’s own recipes in the published work so that the attendees can have a more three-dimensional experience with the culture and food history being discussed. This allows the audience and the author to interact more fully with the cuisine being discussed.
The format for the evening was that of an informal interview of Ms. Wolfert by Heritage Radio Network‘s Linda Pelaccio. When I spoke to Ms. Pelaccio after the event, she explained that this setup was done at Ms. Wolfert’s request, as a way to frame the discussion for the evening as there was so much information the author wanted to share with the group about her new book and the research that she had done for it.
One of the first questions for Ms. Wolfert was “Why this book, and why now?” Her book Couscous and other Good Food from Morocco is considered to be one of the earliest and best guides to understanding the food of this country. First published in 1973, as she explained, “the old [cookbook] doesn’t work anymore.” She went on to clarify that some of this is because now in America there is more access to the ingredients that are necessary to make this kind of food. Then, there was no good saffron or other spices and the quality of the meat was not of the right level to be able make these dishes well.
She continued, saying that there were other reasons, too. Her own language skills and understanding of the culinary influences of the diverse cultures and various migrations into and out of the country had grown. In the subsequent years since the publication of the first book, she’d written many articles for different publications about these foods and dishes, incorporating additional material and ideas. One of her colleagues asked her if it wasn’t time to think about pulling all this new knowledge together into another book.
The first book had included much about Morocco’s royally-inspired cuisine. For this book, this she traveled around to the regions and incorporated much about the cooking of the Berbers, who had experienced their own shift in the intervening years, moving from the countryside into the city. Their traditional recipes were being lost, which is one factor that made her decide to include them in this book. Other modern influences such as the availability of ovens and refrigerators in home kitchens, moving away from taking food to a central oven to be baked, and the use of pressure cookers instead of tagines, had meant changes in the way that the people prepare some of the dishes about which she originally wrote.
Ms. Pelaccio asked her to talk about the four things that Ms. Wolfert says makes “A Great Cuisine.” She talks about this in the book’s introduction as well as in her previous work. For her, they are the abundance of great ingredients; a great civilization; a variety and confluence of cultures; and a refined palace life. Morocco, she continued, has had all of these. Along with the more complex dishes to make like the Bastila, with a fragile but strong dough that resembles filo, or the heartier dishes prepared using the tagine or with couscous, there is a wide culinary landscape that has developed to make up the food of this country. The influences of the peoples who have settled there over the centuries (Spanish, Arab, Jewish, French to name a few) as well as the legacy of the Spice Trade are all to be found in recipes from this area.
The “Magic of the Tagine” was another topic that came up several times. Ms. Wolfert explained that one needs to go out and buy one and cook with it to fully “get it” much like using a wok to make Chinese dishes. There is something about preparing the food itself, slowing, carefully, with very little liquid added to the raw ingredients, as the tagine and time take care of the rest, recycling the moisture from the meats, vegetables, and spices blending them all together. It goes through a process of being steamed and then oven-baked, just by being left in this cooking vessel. This contributes to baraka, or good fortune, being infused in the food.
“How did you decide which recipes to include in the book?,” she was asked. The answer was simply, “It tasted good.” Then, she added, “There’s no camel in the book,” which made the audience chuckle. She did, however, include a recipe for khliî, which she described as a kind of meat jerky (and can be made with beef, lamb, or camel) which is dried and cooked in spices and fat. At first, she found it interesting but didn’t love it. Then, she was able to experience it again while living in the villages and saw it in a new light. Now, even her husband is a convert to it and enjoys it with eggs. She says that it is even better than bacon and eggs.
With all the research and exploration she did into the cuisine and culture of the country for this book, Ms. Pelaccio wondered, “Were there any recipes that got away?” Ms. Wolfert said that the place to look for good Moroccan food is not in the restaurants but on the street. In Marrakech (and other cities), there is a nighttime market that also has trolleys of food for sale, although it is not geared towards tourists. Her advice is to get on the longest line to try their food. One of her favorite things to have at these markets is Snail Soup. She described it as the most delicious thing to eat, with a broth that is filled with the perfume of absinthe and wonderful spices, and small, tender snails. She told the story of how she tried to replace this at her home in Sonoma, even going so far as to gather and purge her own snails. It did not live up to the memory of what she had enjoyed in the market.
One of the last questions for Ms. Wolfert brought us back to the overall picture: “What sums up your philosophy of Moroccan cooking?” She had told us that she focused in this book about pantry staples to have on hand to use in the dishes in the book, about the spices and using cinnamon, Moroccan cumin (different from the Mexican kind usually found here), ground ginger, saffron, sweet paprika from Spain, white pepper, black pepper, tumeric, and all the blends that are made from those. Preserving lemons to have on hand as a key ingredient in many recipes, and most of all to “Be patient; slowly, slowly” in creating the signature flavors of this cuisine.
In wrapping up the presentation, Ms. Pelaccio conveyed my sentiments, and I suspect those of most of the audience as well, when she said, “We could go on listening to you all night, we can.” Ms. Wolfert added, “There’s so many interesting things going on right now.” Unfortunately, on that note, they did have to wrap it up, but more of her insights into this fascinating cuisine and culture are available in her beautifully presented book, which is part storybook and part recipes that go with the tales, to continue the conversation.