The Hospitality of Couscous
My first meal in Marrakech was Friday lunch. Our guide, Stef, had led my friend Kay and me to a small square within the medina – the walled inner city – and to an open air café. The view was everything I would have expected from a city known as a cross-roads for tradition and progression: we sat side by side western travelers with cameras and young Moroccans in pants and blouses, conversing in French and Arabic. The café looked out upon a small marketplace, where unvarnished tagines – the conical cooking vessels that are used in the average Moroccan household – were sold next to cages of birds and lizards. A spice seller with geometrically shaped towers of rich-hued powders was next to a man who sold the typical souvenirs of brightly painted dishes and woven baskets with the country’s name stitched along the side. The three of us, with a packed week’s agenda of visits with local designers and artisans, ordered café des espice – coffee brewed with a proprietary blend of spices, including cinnamon and cardamom and considered the best in the city – and chicken sandwiches and Moroccan salads. It was good, fresh food not entirely unlike what I might order in New York or Boston – but enjoyed in the warm December sun of Morocco. And while I loved this intersection of Moroccan culture and western tourism, I wondered to what extent this first meal represented the true food culture of Morocco.
What I did not know that first Friday was that despite the city’s seemingly fervent energy, it was Muslim Morocco’s holy day. Many storefronts in the souk were closed – something I had not noticed in my excitement to take in the sights and smells of my first walk through the winding paths of the market – and the reason we saw as many tourists as locals was because many Moroccan Muslims were home for the week’s most holy of meals: Friday couscous lunch with their families, served after midday prayers.
Couscous was the Moroccan dish I was most familiar with before traveling to the country. Yet while it is unofficially their national dish, it is also a dish rarely eaten by Moroccans outside of the home. Prepared in a number of ways, the term “couscous” actually refers to the method for steaming this pellet pasta (which can be made from semolina flour – the most popular preparation – as well as barley, millet, corn, bread crumbs among other ingredients), but has evolved to describe the grain itself. Evidence of couscous was first found among early writings by the Berbers – original tribespeople who have lived in what is now Morocco for thousands of years, and are known for their jewelry, textiles, silverwork and other crafts, which are still being produced today in villages in the mountains of Morocco. Berbers referred to couscous as kesksu or seksu, originally made by hand by sprinkling semolina or other flour with water, rolled with the hands to make small pellets and then sieved to achieve a uniform consistency. These pellets were dried in the sun and could be stored for many months. To eat, the dried couscous was then steamed and served with butter, used as stuffing, or topped with vegetables, meat, fish, or legumes.
But this I would only learn later. And as I ate my way through chicken and beef tagines – a method of cooking also introduced by the Berbers and often flavored with apricots or figs, the sweet and savory combination influenced by traditional Arab cooking – I wondered when I might taste my first Moroccan couscous. I sampled the freshest and most crispy fried seafood at a crowded stall in Jemaa el Fna, alongside silken cumin-drenched roasted eggplant. I sopped up argan oil, lamb and prune sauce with ashen-crusted bread baked in a community oven, and barely missed couscous, this most iconic of Moroccan dishes. Even at the open-air tables of the fish market in the small, coastal city of Essaouira, found only after placing trust in the directions of many locals, when plate after plate of pan fried and grilled and steamed seafood was delivered to our table, shrimp shells and fish spines piling up, I must say I could not have made room for couscous if I tried, but at least through these traditional dishes I began to get a sense of the many cultures that influenced much of the food that Morocco was known for. At various meals I sampled traditional Moroccan salads – learning to make one of the most prevalent by roasting green peppers on an open flame, chopping them with ripe tomatoes and mixing in a healthier heap of cumin than I ever would have imagined. I ate lunches at small, Moroccan cafes around the city – salads and fresh juices at a non-descript local restaurant along a busy road that I would not have entered if not for my trust in our guide, unctuous kefta meatballs and sauce in a jewel box of a tiled courtyard – and savored both traditional and contemporary Moroccan classics beneath starlight and candlelight (more details here). And while I felt that I began to see Moroccan food culture beyond what most western tourists experienced in part by placing trust in many locals who recommended or directed us to their favorite places, from the everyday lunches had by workers across the city to the upscale dinners that showcased the very best in Moroccan cooking and hospitality, still nary a couscous dish could be found on the menu.
It was not until my last full day in Marrakech that I discovered why. Kay and I had a final stop on our agenda: we arrived mid-morning for a second visit with Nawal, owner and designer of the caftan boutique Aya, and she invited us to stay for Friday lunch with her and her husband. Sharing Friday couscous was a traditional sign of hospitality, she explained in her hesitant, but excellent English, “I would be honored to share the meal with you.”
Around noon we helped to clear the coffee table in her shop – the same low table around which she had entertained renown clients from around the world – and spread across a large plastic tablecloth. Her husband, Simo, poured four glasses of sweet mint tea, and as if on cue, there was a knock on the shop door. Nawal opened it and ushered in an older gentleman in a djellaba who had hoisted a large shallow dish from his pull cart and handed it to Simo. Even through its plastic wrap, I could see that it was heaped with couscous, lamb, and vegetables – and was steaming hot. It had been made by Nawal’s father, who had hired a man to deliver it, so we could experience the traditional meal much like families were around the city at the same hour. The four of us huddled around the monstrous portion, intoxicated by the scent of caramelized meat, steamed vegetables and rich tomato-based sauce heavy with cumin and paprika – it was the scent of the spice market, just a few blocks around the corner from Aya’s, the heady odor of the winding alleys of the souk that I had come to know so well in the previous week. A smell I would come to associate so fully with Morocco that a whiff from a New York sidewalk months later would bring me back to those moments at the shop before we dug into the mountain of food before us.
“Eat, please eat!” Nawal encouraged, wanting her guests to go first.
And so we piled our plates high with couscous and lamb. We stacked roasted pumpkin and turnip, pepper and potato atop and drizzled it all with spicy harissa sauce and broth. And finally I experienced my first Moroccan couscous – a meal made even more special by the hospitality it represented from our hosts, Nawal and Simo. We raised our tea glasses in a toast wishing us to meet again – “Inshalla,” we said. Arabic for “God willing.”
When we had all eaten our fill, the platter was still heaped high with couscous and vegetables, Nawal explained that she would donate the extra to a local mosque, as do many families; those who did not have enough to eat knew that by mid-afternoon on Friday there would always be a warm meal for them courtesy of their Muslim neighbors. She explained that couscous was the meal of family, of celebration, of community. It was served at weddings and at funerals, on the typical Friday as well as holidays. “Thank you,” she said, “for sharing this meal with us.” I assured her that I was the one who was most appreciative of the hospitality.
Friday couscous was one of my last meals in Marrakech, and also one of the most memorable. For what I had learned about the food and culture of Morocco in the time since I had arrived had so much to do with hospitality. If I allowed myself to open up to the kind, hardworking, and generous people of Morocco, I would be honored with the most personal of invitations – that of Friday couscous. An ancient, simple meal of steamed grain, made heartier by stewed vegetables and meat, or on other tables across the country, sometimes simply butter and milk, shows the trust they have in the western visitors – trust that we might visit again, and take some small part of Moroccan hospitality with us when we leave.