Cooking Schools of Marrakech
As I tied the apron around my waist, I looked at the ingredients on the table set out in matching bowls next to our cutting boards and knives. I was surprised that I could identify everything on the table – whole onions, turnips, carrots, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, and peas, plus small bowls filled with ground tumeric, paprika, cumin, garlic, coriander, and preserved lemon, fingers of ginger, and sticks of cinnamon. How was it, I wondered, that I could come halfway around the world and see a table full of ingredients that I could find in my own kitchen?
What I was starting to realize in the first few days after arriving in Marrakech, was that despite North Africa’s seeming exoticism, its climate and food were not as foreign as I thought they would be. The typical North American vegetables – carrots, tomatoes, squash, onions – were used as often in Moroccan cooking as in dishes back home in the northeast of the United States. I had finally realized that it wasn’t so much what was used in Moroccan cuisine that made it so unique, but how it was cooked. And that was why I was pushing up my sleeves in preparation for a cooking lesson at Le Riad Monceau – a renowned restaurant and guesthouse that also offers instruction in tagine cooking.
Despite knowing no English, Chef Rachida Sahnoune led two British visitors and myself through the chopping and seasoning of various vegetables and our choice of meat with the help of a translator. While the spices – cumin, tumeric, paprika, ginger – were not the first I turned to at home, their flavor was a familiar blend of smoky and earthy, with a bit of heat. Over the next hour, we chopped vegetables for both traditional salads and our main tagine, and monitored the cooking of our tagine under the chef’s careful eye. Once all that was left was for the meat, vegetables, oil, and spices to soften into an unctuous sauce on the stovetop, we were led to the rooftop terrace to enjoy mint tea while Chef Sahnoune finished and plated our meal.
A waiter escorted us to the riad’s beautiful roof deck to eat, and a half hour later our first course arrived. We started with the typical Moroccan salad of chopped tomato and roasted green peppers, with salt, pepper, and more cumin than I ever would have imagined. Next we had caramelized tomatoes, pan-roasted with cinnamon and sugar – the sweetness not quite taking the dish from a savory side dish to dessert. And then finally our tagines were delivered – the vegetables had since melted into the sauce, but were still firm. The meat was fork-tender. The sauce – just olive oil and a bit of water – had melded perfectly with the spices and liquid from the meat and vegetables to create a deeply flavorful sauce with just a touch of sweetness, echoing the balance of the caramelized tomatoes. Lunch was finished with a glass of sweet mint tea, poured from a height to maximize the bubbles in the glass.
While the class was better suited for novice cooks, I did learn a new appreciation for the tagine as method and implement for cooking. Perhaps because of the familiarity I felt with the ingredients, I was amazed to see that there was no trick to getting such a different outcome from items with which I had cooked a hundred times. The tagine as cooking vessel truly is an important and integral part of Moroccan cooking culture, rendering vegetables, spices and even a tougher cut of meat into a truly memorable dish.
Do you want to cook in Marrakech?
For novices, Le Riad Monceau offers an hour-long class plus lunch on the roof patio, weather permitting. Expect to chop, season, and stir your own meal with a few other participants. To book, visit their website.
Offering unparalleled personal attention, Les Cignognes is the second-oldest cooking school in Marrakech and offers bespoke classes that will cater to every budget, taste and skill-level. All of their classes are private and emphasize seasonal and local ingredients. To book, visit their website.
The oldest cooking school in Marrakech is La Maison Arabe. They cater to groups up to ten, with private instruction available. Expect a half-day of instruction that teaches students to make either an appetizer and main dish or a main dish and dessert. To book, visit their website.