(I wrote this several years ago and include it here as a tribute to the Moroccans I knew then and to all the people who will begin fasting for Ramadan starting on Monday, August 1. Note that while Paula Wolfert’s cookbook, Couscous and Other Good from Morocco, seems to be cited everywhere, Kitty Morse — who grew up in Morocco — has also written a number of excellent books on Moroccan cuisine.)
Manage with bread and butter until God sends the honey.
~ Moroccan proverb ~
The call comes a week before Ramadan begins, the 30-day fast in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar.
Peace Corps/Morocco wants me to train eight Peace Corps volunteers in maternal and infant health and nutrition. When? In two days. Where? Near a small place called Ait Baha. In the Anti-Atlas, in the far south of Morocco, not far from Agadir, formerly known as Santa Cruz de Cap de Guè.
I take a plane out of Rabat and fly to Agadir, lugging one small suitcase and a briefcase bulging with papers and books. Ahmed, a Peace Corps administrator, picks me up at the airport in Agadir and in silence we drive forty miles into the bled (countryside), miles of nothing but sheep and goats and dry parched earth. We arrive in the dark at the training site, an as-yet unfinished health clinic at the edge of the village. My room will soon hold sick or dying people, windows instead of walls facing the corridor. Someone thoughtfully tapes up brown butcher paper to give me, the only trainer, a bit of privacy. Though the toilet is down the hall, a typical hole in the floor, and is anything but private.
The first day of training ends well. Late that afternoon, we Americans — eight females and one male — all pile into the Peace Corps Land Rover and chug out into the bled, to a site where the community is building a school and a well. Instantly after we step out of the Land Rover, dozens of skinny little boys surround us, staring. And then come the men. Polite, seeing us neither as women nor as men, they offer us, eight American women, strong, hot, very bitter tea, wildly different from the tea of the city. The local women and girls are nowhere to be seen, in this one of the most conservative areas of Morocco. Saying our farewells, we turn the Land Rover toward the mountains and drive for many more miles over rutted roads, the sun chasing us from behind.
Another Peace Corps well stands in the center of another small village where we finally stop. And here, the women feel comfortable enough to leave off their haiks. Lots of joking and teasing takes place in Berber, which only three of the Peace Corps volunteers speak, the rest of us floating around like our tongues have been cut out, knowing only French and Moroccan Arabic. At the well, an enturbaned man stands by his heavily laden donkey and I know I am witnessing an age-old scene that will not change any time soon. Nestled in the foothills of the Anti-Atlas, the village is surrounded by breath-taking vistas down craggy valleys and the snow-capped High Atlas loom to the north of us. As the sun sets, stars peer from the blue black sky like sequins on a Moroccan bride’s blanket and the air becomes quite cold. Suddenly the chill bites like a lion, freezing us in our T-shirts and jeans.
That week I eat a type of Moroccan cooking that I never dream of eating. Brains, tripe, and stews with mystery meat—I dread asking for the recipes. On the second day, tripe, a high point and a breakfast delicacy, explodes in the back of my throat. My gorge rises and I keep gagging quietly into my section of the tablecloth doubling as a napkin. Of course, since I hate liver, the fact that tripe brings me to my knees doesn’t surprise me at all.
Argan oil, made from the seeds of an olive-like tree, proves to be another surprise and I love it. Goats eat the fruit of the argan tree and spit out the seeds. And the local people press the oil from those seeds, collecting the seeds from under the trees and pressing the seeds to make the oil with its strong, nutty flavor, reminiscent of bacon fat!
Bread serves as both the plate and the fork. As does my right hand. The whole week, I never see a plate. I later learn just what the word “trencher” means—that week I use a “trencher” for all my food.
Training progresses and we start to venture out of the nascent health clinic like small birds leaving the nest.
Ait Baha lies long and narrow, a ribbon of a town, its main street built up on either side with colonnaded archways, dotted with small shops. A gas station sits at one end of town, while a river flows right through the village and the only real road passes over the river with a large cement slab. On either side of the slab, a series of huge hollow concrete pipes form a foot bridge across the river’s strong currents.
We must cross the river to buy the food we need for one day’s lesson, about weaning foods using locally available ingredients. Souk day, the day we go to market, sees us crossing the river, jumping from pillar to post as it were, standing in line behind, and in front of, men in djellabas with their donkeys, waiting to step into the muddy water and wade back again.
A day later, training ends. It’s the first day of Ramadan. We drink a little water at sunrise and a few bites of bread, for we non-Muslims decide to honor our host country and its people by following the fast this day, if not any other. At 2 p.m. we leave, Bob Dylan singing on the car’s cassette player as we drive across the vastness to Agadir. Lethargic and listless, we arrive in Agadir in the heat of the day, watching all the European tourists licking ice cream cones or drinking icy fruit drinks.
Finally, around 6:45 p.m., after driving around aimlessly, trying to pass the time until 7:15 p.m., when the sun would go down, when a white thread and a black thread would look the same in the dying light, we make our way to a bakery selling Ramadan sweets. The cookies and tidbits available for breaking the fast at sundown tempt like gold and jewels, fried pastry stuffed with almond paste and dripping with honey or confectioner’s sugar or sesame seeds.
Like beggars, we pack small white paper bags as full as we can. At the restaurant where we decide to break the fast, we line up the bags along the edge of the table and sit there, sniffing the bags from time to time, salivating, looking at each other. At 7:05 p.m., a waiter brings us café au lait. At 7:20 p.m., a cannon fires, signifying the end of the day’s fast. We grab the bags and tear them open, stuffing cookies dripping with honey and other pastries into our mouths. The waiter appears with harira, the primary food in Morocco at the first meal at sundown, a bean/meat soup, perfumed with cinnamon, rich with meaty broth, and absolutely delicious. We eat. Silence.
Soraya, half-Moroccan, half-American, an administrative assistant for Peace Corps, speaks. “Let us remember that the purpose of Ramadan is to make us realize what God had given us [water and food and family] and that none of it should be taken for granted. We should think of the poor, who suffer from hunger like this every day, for whom many days are a Ramadan with no end, since they might not always eat.”
Guiltily I gobble my harira and plead with the waiter to flag down a cab for me, not an easy task since even cab drivers must eat after the long first day of the fast. At midnight, I arrive home in Rabat, the streets filled with people celebrating the momentary respite from the rigors of the fast, which will last for another 29 days, starting tomorrow.
The next day I wake up early and eat my usual breakfast of bread, jam, butter, and coffee.
It’s still Ramadan. The thought sits on my mind like a stone. I’m not sure why.
At noon I’m waiting for Fatima, my Moroccan housekeeper, to leave. I am hungry. I know she is, too. I can eat. And she cannot. Or will not. I feel extremely uncomfortable eating in front of her and others who practice the month-long fast of Islam.
Ramadan certainly is an experience to savor, for the food differs in every country, and always tastes sublime. But the sense and lessons of the fast remain the same: fasting creates real hunger, something some of us know nothing about, and reminds us, as Soraya says, that food is a gift. We must reverence it, always, regardless of any religious proscriptions.
1 1/2 lb. beef, cut into small cubes (you can use lamb if you wish to be more authentic)
1 t. tumeric
1 t. pepper
1 t. cinnamon
1 t. cumin
½ t. crushed saffron
¼ t. ginger
2 Tablespoons butter
3/4 cup celery and leaves, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 cup parsley, chopped
1 cup cilantro, chopped
1 2-lb. can of tomatoes, chopped
3/4 cup lentils
1 cup cooked chickpeas
1 cup fine soup noodles
Juice of 1 lemon mixed with 2 T. flour (add a bit of water if necessary to thin it)
Put the beef, spices, butter, celery, onion, parsley, and cilantro in a large soup pot and stir over a low heat for 5 minutes. Add canned tomatoes and continue cooking for 10-15 minutes. Add salt to taste.
Add 8 cups of water and the lentils. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, partially cover, and simmer for 2 hours.
When ready to serve, add the chickpeas and noodles and cook for 10 minutes. Stir the lemon juice/flour mixture into the stock. Season to taste. Ladle into bowls and dust with cinnamon and more chopped cilantro and lemon juice and black pepper.
KSRA (MOROCCAN BREAD)
Makes 2 8-inch round loaves.
2 t. sugar
1 T. active dry yeast
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup whole-wheat flour
2 t. salt
3/4 cup milk at room temperature
2 t. sesame seeds
1 T. aniseed
1/4 cup corn meal
Dissolve sugar in 1 cup of warm water. Add yeast and stir until dissolved. Let yeast sit about 5-10 minutes; it should look bubbly.
Combine the all-purpose flour with the whole wheat flour in a large bowl. Add salt. Add yeast and milk to the flour. Mix the dough with a wooden spoon, adding more water until it begins to come together, anywhere from 1 – 2 cups of water depending on the flour. The dough ought to be sticky and wet. Scoop it out on to a well-floured surface and rest it uncovered for 15 – 20 minutes.
Knead the dough, only adding flour if necessary. The final dough will be somewhat stiff but pliable. Continue kneading for 10 minutes. Add the seeds toward the end of the kneading time.
Divide the dough into two equal parts. Form each piece of dough into two round, dome-shaped loaves, about 2 inches thick in the center. Place the dough on baking sheets sprinkled with corn meal. Cover the loaves with damp lint-free kitchen towels and place in a warm spot to rise until doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Before placing the loaves in the oven pierce the top and sides of each loaf several times with the tines of a fork. Bake for 25 – 30 minutes. A well-baked loaf should sound hollow when thumped with your finger. Cut into wedges and serve with harira.
MORE MOROCCAN MEMORIES
In Morocco, by Edith Wharton
Morocco, by Paul Bowles
Morocco is a Lion, by Nancy Phelps
A Street in Marrakech, by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea
Younger Than That Now: A Peace Corps Volunteer Remembers Morocco, by Michael Moran
Women of Marrakech, by Leonora Peets
Fantastic photos of global observances of Ramadan, from The Boston Globe: click here.
© 2008, 2011 C. Bertelsen