See the highlights of our team’s trip to Marrakech, where we explored Morocco’s rich culinary traditions for inspiration for our latest theme. Missed the first part? Click here to read the first installation about our visit to Fez.
Upon arriving in Marrakech, our team was greeted by the medina‘s lively nightlife — live music, street food vendors and a wide, open space filled with people. Our food development lead Travis Rea was struck by the bustle and energy of the city, reminiscent of an outdoor festival. But every night is an event in Marrakech: residents come to buy dinner from their favorite vendors and sit down at nearby picnic tables to eat.
The food itself is adventurous, including lamb brains and tongue and snail soup. Spiced kebabs and a sandwich stuffed with hard-boiled eggs were among the group’s favorite dishes — and of course, classic Moroccan mint tea. Dishes are prepared and served in a flash to keep up with the pace of the crowd. Food is at the center of the square, crowded tightly, but the edges are occupied by vendors selling hand-made products and specialty items, such as lanterns.
One of the most fascinating and memorable experiences in Marrakech was a hands-on cooking class a few of our team members attended at Dar Les Cigognes, a boutique hotel. Led by local instructor Dada Fouzia, they made an elaborate but typical meal from scratch, starting with traditional Moroccan bread dough.
“As a cook, that’s something I will never forget,” says Travis. “These women do everything by feel and by hand — there are no books. They have cooked their entire lives and learned by repetition, making dishes that have been passed down through generations.”
The main course included tagines of chicken and lamb, covered in a homemade spice rub prepared by our group. Quantities were estimated, not precisely measured, demonstrating again the power of repetition and experience in Moroccan cooking.
Massive tagines simmered the meals, but our Test Kitchen manager Amanda notes that in Morocco, each person is only served a small portion of protein. Often two pieces of chicken will serve a group of four. These tagines were cooked outside over charcoal, producing a signature aroma: first you smell the fire, then the smoke, then the spices, onion and chicken, and everything all together.
There were pastries, too. Moroccan pastry, known as warqa, is similar to a crepe, but even thinner (think phyllo dough). Cooks paint it onto a pan and cook the sheets layer by layer. The resulting pastries can be savory or sweet, often filled with pastry cream and eaten for dessert.
Chef Mourad Lahlou was in his element, joking around with the instructor and translating for our group. “She schooled him!” Travis laughs. He was thrilled to be back in Marrakech cooking with the locals. The team and instructor were all smiles as she shared the culture and history of Morocco in a small, simple kitchen filled with delicious aromas.
In the end, the dinner included squab with hard-cooked eggs, almond and raisins; simple cabbage slaw; fresh bread (baked in a public oven down the street, as everyone does it in Marrakech); roasted chicken; spinach with preserved lemon and warqa, among other traditional specialties. Everyone sat down together at a huge tiled table, along with some fellow American visitors, for a communal feast.
“Cooking together defies the language barrier,” says Travis. “There’s a common appreciation and a bond created through food. It was stronger in this experience than at any other point on the trip.”
They explored the city’s spice markets, featuring every imaginable kind of whole and ground spice and blends. They even had blends of whole spices that they could grind fresh as you waited, similar to coffee beans. In Morocco, spices are usually ground shortly before using, and people don’t hang on to spices for very long. According to Travis, that accounts for some of the major flavor differences in dishes prepared in the United States and in Morocco.
As Amanda explained, Moroccans take tremendous pride in their high-quality spice collections and take pains to showcase them in impressive presentations.
Dinner took place at the famous Le Tobsil restaurant. Again, the meal was a traditional one of chicken and lamb tagines, followed by a dessert of poached pears. The dining space, however, was distinctive, with a stunning ambiance and beautiful decor.
Learn about the rest of our trip to Morocco! Next up: another cooking class and a visit to coastal Essaouira.