Morocco – Part 1

May 1, 2011

I know blog posts are meant to be short and easily digested.  However, along with the now-defunct idea of curling up with the Sunday paper, I propose a larger meal…in light of the violence in North Africa this week, here is a happier tale.  I adore Morocco – the food, the people, the history.  Did I mention the food?

The Marrakech Express – or How to Use 19 Vials of Purell in 10 Days

In front of my white-blonde 19-month-old son, a cobra is poised to strike.  To the left of my four-year-old, a girl of the same age sells small coconut cookies.  A monkey jumps onto my nine-year-old’s shoulder.  Seven-year-old Daniel, orange soda in hand, is wide-eyed at the henna tattoo artists beckoning to him in the darkness of the square.

We are in Jemaa El Fna, Marrakech’s central square, and are all agog.  We arrived yesterday after a long journey – five hours by car to New York, eight hours by plane to Casablanca, another few hours wandering the airports, an hour by smaller plane to Marrakech, only to land in a world that feels even farther away.

“It should take, like, even longer to get here,” Jamie says, his fourth grade self calculating distance vs. familiarity.  The palm trees welcome us, and the driver I’d booked helped us load our brood (kids, husband, Grandpa and Grandpa’s Girlfriend) into the bus, complete with the car seats we schlepped like the paranoid, careful Americans we are.  That’s what happens when your husband happens to be a pediatrician.  The night flight set us up decently for a long day which started with arriving in Jemaa El Fna and all its bustling craziness.  Pushcarts in crowded lines sell freshly squeezed orange juice, piles of dates, figs, apricots, dried banana rounds, and heaps of nuts, other carts offer bowls of escargot – big for one dollar, small for under that, women sell freshly cooked Moroccan crepes from frying pans heating over open coals, and we stand amidst all of this until someone from the house we’ve rented comes to find us.  Abderbazzan piles all our luggage into a wooden cart and, once he sees how tired Daniel is, piles the seven-year-old, too, on top like a precariously balanced sundae-cherry, and we’re off, following a maze of narrow streets and crowds that give new meaning to the word, trying not to get lost on the way to Riad Magi.

Eight months ago, this was all just an idea.  I’d wanted to go to Morocco for a long time, and when my husband Adam and I talked about a winter vacation for our family he said, “I sort of want to do something different.”  “How different?’ I’d asked, wondering if different meant a part of Florida that didn’t have a rodent attached to its image or if different meant just hanging out at home for the infamous budget staycation.  “Maybe really different,” he’d said and, based on those three words, a trip was born.  “Think of it,” I’d said, selling him on it after we’d tucked the kids into bed, “Totally different food, architecture…a place that would make the kids see that the world isn’t America.  It isn’t Europe.”  We hemmed and hawed.  Would it be okay with a toddler?  Would it be too hard?  Maybe.   I thought back to our other trips, to Florida, to Italy, an hour away to the Cape.  There were ups and downs there, too.  “The thing is,” I’d said after doing some preliminary research into where to go and what to do, “There’s not a perfect time for anything.”  And this convinced my husband.  So often, as parents, we try to set everything up well – the outing to the aquarium or the trip to Martha’s Vineyard – and it still may or may not work.  Why wait for the perfect time when the truth is that no one knows when that is?  So we talked and planned and, a few days ago, shoved clothing and books and a few “downtime” projects into bags and grabbed the passports.  Meanwhile, our family friend, Sara, joined in, and my dad – who recently relocated to Boston after my stepmother died – had signed on to come.  And my in-laws had signed on and then, just a month before the trip, backed out.  Who could blame them, really?  The trip had the potential to be fraught with familial issues, food issues, hygiene issues, shots, camel rides, the unknown.  And then my dad’s girlfriend, who had survived a few family holidays by this point and some outings with my kids, was invited.  “It’s sort of like a dare,” I’d joked to Adam.  But Sharon accepted the dare – and boarded the plane with more than a little enthusiasm and an even healthier dose of anxiety.  Begin the hand sanitizing routine!

“Can we eat those?”  Four-year-old Julia asks and points to the figs in the pushcart.  Gouter, Gouter, the seller offers, taste taste. I shake my head at her – no tasting, not yet.  We reach the riad and take it all in.  Riads are traditional houses, built around a central courtyard, with rooms on several levels, most with a roof terrace for meals and rooms tucked into various eaves.  Riad Magi has many bedrooms, each one a different color and shape.

“Check it out!” Daniel yells, his volume always set to eleven.  “The bathtub is a circle!”  We follow him into “the blue room” where the bath is indeed a circle, and the walls and ceiling are deep blue, all made with thick ceramic and clay.  The beds are low, typically Moroccan, with decorative objects that remind us all of where we are – hanging lanterns set with colored glass, Aladdin-style brass lamps, throw rugs set with mirrored jewels, and intricate Moroccan tiles in myriad colors.

“It’s so different,” I say to Jamie, “isn’t it?”  He tries to take it all in, and expresses what we all feel.

“It’s a whole other planet.”  He grins and gets down to the important issue at hand.  “So, what’s for breakfast?”

The riad comes complete with a cook, who introduces herself to us in French.  Her name is Khadija, and she sets to making us food after plying us with another tradition, Moroccan mint tea.  Poured from great height and served in small glasses, not mugs, the tea is very sweet and the color of a dry lily pad.  Sara and I sip ours and hand them to the kids.

“Careful, it’s hot,” I warn Daniel, who has a tendency to rush into things.  We taste it together.  It’s the first time in ages we’re both food novices and it makes him giggle.

“It’s pretty good,” he says and puts the glass down to cool and runs up to find his grandpa who is sorting out who will sleep where with Adam. The tea is very sweet, deeply scented, and perfect for the weary traveler.  Sara and I Purell and move luggage.

We chose to stay in the Medina, Marrakech’s old city, because it felt more real.  The fancy hotels on the outskirts of town would require taxis, which would be a pain with kids, and we wanted to be able to walk into the bustle and throngs of the market.  Granted, we hadn’t expected quite throngs to be quite so busy, but from our roof terrace, everything appears peaceful.

The courtyard is lush with orange trees and a few tables for reading or playing checkers.  Ibrahim, the houseman, smiles at the kids and goes to one of the trees.

“Is he getting an orange for me?” wonders Julia.

But rather than citrus, Ibrahim hands over to the kids a pet for the week, a real chameleon, with sleepy eyes and a curled tail, who takes up residence on Jamie’s shirt.  “Think he’ll turn orange?” he asks.  We always dress the kids in bright colors that stand out – meaning no Red Sox gear – when we travel.  Easier to pick out of a crowd.  Now they all match the fruit trees.

“Le Petit Dejuner!” Khadija announces and we follow her upstairs two flights to the roof terrace.  Adam asks the kids to hold out their hands for a squirt of hand sanitizer and there’s only a fuss from Daniel, who finds it “cold and gloppy”.  “It’s better than throwing up,” Adam warns him.

On the terrace, the orange trees are under us as we gaze out at the other medina rooftops.  Two lounge chairs, a sitting table, and a long table set under a white tent (“Si il pleut,” Khadija says, in case it rains).  We sit at the long table, and taste the spread before us.  Thick, pure white homemade yogurt in tall glasses, Moroccan crepes which are not like French crepes at all.  Ripe-corn yellow, a perfect circle the size of a saucer, the crepes are dotted with deep holes along the top, which makes them spongy.  Cooked in a dab of butter, they are eaten as is or slicked with strawberry jam.  Alongside the crepes and yogurt, we have rounds of baguette set beautifully on a deep green plate.  The sun ricochets off of the cutlery, which the kids are surprised to find.

“I thought you said we’d eat with our hands,” Julia says, disappointment creeping into her voice.  We’d taken the kids for Ethiopian food to prepare them sharing low tables and communal bread, menus with no familiar items, just to get them used to the idea.

19-month-old Will runs the length of the rooftop over and over, giggling at the grey cat that appears and then dashes away from him.  “Come eat, Will,” Adam motions to him with a piece of crepe.  Khadija appears with soft boiled eggs in green eggcups.

“Ohh….” Daniel looks like he’s just been handed a diamond, or, even better, a cupcake.  “These look great!”

I don’t mention that he won’t touch a hard boiled or soft boiled egg at home.  “Crack the top like this,” I show them and dust the egg with a bit of salt.  Salt and pepper are kept under miniature tagines, the Moroccan pottery used to slow cook many of their meals.  The salt and pepper are roommates under the domes, and the kids take turns salting their eggs before chowing down.  Adam nudges me.  “Since when do they like eggs like this?”  I shrug.

Will climbs onto my lap, nursing and more than slightly confused at the time change, but still amused by the cat, by the smells, the heat of the day.

We head out to explore, walking to the souks, in which one can buy everything from intricate metal sconces to baby turtles.  Everyone – everyone – touches the kids.  We stand out slightly, a gaggle of very blond people, and we’d prepared the kids that people might want to talk to them or touch them, particularly Will, who is very tolerant when men and women alike reach to touch his head.  Jamie listens to our tour guide, whom we’ve hired for two hours to give us the lay of the land.  Omar explains the five pillars of Islam, just in time for one of the loud prayers to echo through the streets and souks, calling people to pray at one of the many mosques.  Startling to say the least, the prayer is not only loud, but broadcast over speakers five times per day.  That first night, Julia appears at our bedside, crying.

“I like Morocco,” she says in her little voice, and then the tears start, “But I’m scared of the prayer!”

So much for sleeping by ourselves.  Despite the fact that we have never – not once – had a child sleep all night with us in bed, we haul her in after the 4:30am prayer and keep her there so we can all go back to sleep.

We luxuriate over another sunny breakfast, this time tasting pistachio yogurt. Then we load up the stroller with drinking water and extra layers and walk the jagged stony alleyways, taking in the spices, the cones-shaped piles of cinnamon, saffron powder (used often to color dishes where saffron threads would be too expensive), sweet paprika the color of embers.  We stop regularly so the kids can rest and so we can step out of the crowds, collecting ourselves.  At one point, while Daniel is mouth-to-mouth with a glass bottle of orange Fanta, Will dozes peacefully in the stroller – immune to the noise and chaos around him, and Julia sits on her dad’s shoulders, Jamie pokes me in the side.

“Hi, Mum,” he says, but his eyebrows are raised as though there’s more to say.  I study his face.

“Are you totally freaked out here or only partially?” I ask him.

He giggles and nods, glad I got the question correct.  “Sort of in the middle.  I think it’ll be fine, it’s kind of a lot…”  He gets distracted by some kids banging their drums, a makeshift alleyway band.

We keep walking, past the herbalist with its jars of seemingly every spice and oil known to man, the olive souk with giant bowls heaped with black, green, marinated, pimentoed, almond-stuffed olives.  We’re offered tastes and accept, the tangy nuttiness ripe in our mouths, smiling, until Daniel spits his out and Jamie says, “Well, I still don’t like them, that hasn’t changed.”  I reach for more and end up buying some preserved lemons and carefully arranged almond-studded olives to bring home for gifts.  At just over one dollar a jar, they are a delicious and affordable taste of being away.

If the square and medina are crowded during the day, the nighttime proves even more hectic.  Each adult has a child attached, dodging not only people but mules and horses, motorcycles with loud exhaust and diesel fumes, mothers with their babies swathed onto their backs with layers of brightly colored robes, and all manner of street food on offer.  We bypass the skewered chicken, the meat, that according to Julia “looks like rolled up socks”, the salted chickpeas and fava beans sold as snacks in paper cones, and head to Marakechi, a restaurant high above the square and lighted by candles.  While we have to take turns holding Will (no one has heard of a high chair here) and removing him from the serene glow while we wait for the food, the meal is succulent and memorable.

“Can I get lamb?”

“There’s nothing here I like,” Daniel complains.

“I just want couscous,” Julia says, her head already drooping.  It’s late for the kids, and we’re all still jet-lagged, but we push on.  The food arrives in no particular order, that is, one person has been served and waited and finally eaten their whole dinner before another dish is ready.  Normally, this would be annoying, but with Will requiring breaks down the stairs and out in the maddening crowd, it works fine.

“So basically you don’t care if I have no dinner?”  Daniel’s food concerns escalate.  We offer him bits of everyone’s meal – grilled chicken, lamb tagine, vegetables and couscous – and for now, he just picks at the bread.  Bread and soda, those are food groups, right?

The next day, our Purelled selves are dealt a blow when Sara is the first to feel-

“I’m just kind of bubbly,” she says, suddenly pale.

“Maybe it’s the heat?” my Dad offers.

Sara and I keep walking, trailing the rest of the group until she suddenly says, “I gotta go!  I know my way back, though!”  Luckily, we’re close to the riad – it would be easy to get lost – and she makes it back fine.  We won’t see her for twelve hours.

“I think I’m gonna do the Purell,” Daniel says, his small brow furrowed.  “Even if I only eat bread.”

We explore further, cram our whole family in the back of a rundown cream-colored taxi, and head out to the Palmerie, an oasis north of town.  In the vehicle we are a poster for all unsafe driving – no seatbelts, carseats be damned, people on laps, children unstrapped, stop and go traffic punctuated by herds of sheep or teens on motorcycles, but we make it to the palm tree and sand Palmerie.

I smile and point to the camels that sit or stand, with orange or red tapestries on their backs.  The kids put their palms to the window, breathing in the dusty air but amazed at the quiet here, the tranquility as the sun starts to sink in the pink sky.

“Are we riding those?”  Julia asks.  “For real?”

The taxi pulls over and we walk toward the camels, negotiate a price with the owners, and all climb on.  Daniel’s first up – great photo op – and he lasts for all over ten seconds before he realized just how far off the ground we are.  “Oh, no way!”  He comes down and hangs out with his Grandpa and Sharon while the rest of us saunter off.

Adam, with Will tucked in front of him, leads the way on the biggest camel.  Julia and I follow on slightly smaller one, and Jamie – proud and with a grin the size of a melon wedge –  is the caboose.  Walking freely next to us is a baby camel, which our guide says is my camel’s baby.  Julia laughs hysterically every time the baby – Cukoo – tries to nibble my shoelaces.  Cukoo is the Arabic equivalent of “Goo Goo” or “Gaga”, a baby noise, and we are used to it because often people on the street will touch Will’s head and say “Cukoo!” This was funny and just a little disarming before we understood they weren’t called our toddler names.

With a view to the Atlas mountains – the tops of which are snow covered – and surrounded by palms and red sand, this is a true oasis.  We finish the day with a big meal at the house, salad with diced local avocado, and pastille, a baked dish that layers meat with hard boiled eggs, ground almonds mixed with cinnamon and sugar, encrusted in a confectionary-dusted phyllo pastry.  Tonight we eat the traditional pastille that is stuffed with pigeon.

Daniel eats nothing for the entire dinner until he goes to smell the pastille.  “Fine, so I’ll try it,” he says.

“Only a little,” I warn him, faux-cautious, “I don’t want you to waste it.”

“Yeah, because it’s awesome,” Jamie says, his mouth full.

“And because I want the rest,” Adam says.

Daniel proceeds to eat four portions.  So much for bread and soda.  “It’s sweet, but it’s also not sweet – salty, but so good with the crunch and the…” he stops talking to eat more.

Night is thick black, the shutters and doors in each riad bedroom block out any trace of light, and all is heavy with sleep until the prayer erupts and Julia comes scampering into our room, somehow able to navigate the path from the room she’s sharing with Jamie to our room on the courtyard level.

“I’m scared of the prayer still!” she announces.

Groggy with sleep, Adam says, “We know, Jules, we know.” We haul her into our bed where she has trouble getting back to sleep.  I’m not scared of the prayer – I’m getting used to the chant – but I suspect that while Julia will eat strong olives, pigeon, and longs for the figs from the market carts, she will never acclimatize to this part of Moroccan life.

The next morning, Sara is up and fine, and ready to eat some stomach-easy  baguette, some milky hot coffee.  As my dad sips his own coffee, he jests at breakfast.  “Anyone hear the prayer?”

It’s his last joke for a while, since he falls ill shortly after dinner.

“Two down, seven to go,” Adam says cheerfully.

I elbow him.  “What?  It’s either going to happen or it’s not – not much you can do except wash your hands.”  He pauses and looks at the kids. “A lot.”

We’d been warned about the possibility of traveler’s tummy, the bowel issues or vomiting that can occur, so we have brought along our friend, the hand sanitizer.  Or, correction, a small army of sanitizers.  Attached to each carry-on.  Attached to my beltloop.  Attached to my husband’s belt loop.  The kids fought over who “got the blue” or who “got the big one” but in the end all that matters is that we are converts verging on zealots, preaching the Gospel of Purell.  So far, it’s worked.  Except for Sara.  And now not for my dad, who was the least committed to Project Purell.

We have to supervise the kids while brushing their teeth so they don’t accidentally run the brush under the tap.  We have to help them get clean, even nine-year-old Jamie, because he tends to swallow water while showering.

“Where’s Grandpa?” Daniel asks as we continue wandering around Jmaa El Fna, at turns entranced by the smell of bread cooking and repulsed by the piles of trash that accumulate by the fried fish stands.

“I wish those were cleaner,” Sharon comments. “They smell so good…”  But no one’s game for that with my dad kneeling over the toilet.

Instead, we leave Sharon to tend to my dad and head to Essaouira for the day.  A small seaside town west of Marrakech, Essaouira boasts lapis-blue fishing boats, a relaxed vibe (it was rumored to be the place where Jimi Hendrix wrote “Castles Made of Sand”), and more space for the kids to run free.  They take off on the cobblestone streets, dashing around the multitude of stands selling all manner of fish and shellfish, carts teaming with sweets, cookies, creamy pastries, chalky biscuits, everything weighed with old-fashioned scales and tallied up.  We climb the Mogador stone ramparts and rush to take in the salty sea air, the rough seas churning onto the rocks below.  The water looks red from the clay-infused sand.

“How weird is it that we’re on the other side of the Atlantic?” Jamie muses and positions himself in one of the open spaces for a photo op.  He squints as though expecting to see North America out there somewhere.

“None of these are turning out well,” Adam grimaces, trying to capture the moment on his digital camera.  But we can’t get it on film – Will darts out of the frame, investigating the gulls who peck for crumbs, or Julia wants a taste of the bag of salty chips we got at a tiny local shop without knowing what they were but needed change for a 10 Dirham note, or Daniel keeps breaking into song, shouting the Beatles at the top of his lungs and air-guitaring as we try to freeze the moments.  The sun is bright, the air brisk, the kids wiped from charging around, from their first attempts at bargaining with merchants.  Fueled by my exchange with a female (a rarity in itself) shopkeeper, the kids tried to buy a necklace each.  The price started high – at 30 Dirhams – but slowly decreased.  Then, to seal the deal, they did as we’d told them, they walked away.

“Attend! Attend!” the necklace man went saying after them and, even though Daniel was confused (he Purelled to mask his confusion) – why walk away from something you want ?  — they went along with the game and now sport their choices; green for Daniel, Tiger’s eye for Jamie, Blue for Julia, none for Will because all he’d do is eat it.  All for 10 dirham each – a little over a dollar.

“I feel bad about bargaining,” Jamie frowns.  He’s noticed the differences here, the children working at night, the conditions in the street, the incredible wealth we have of not just material goods but education and rights.  “We should just pay what they ask.”

“It’s a game,” I tell him.  “You’re expected to pay the game.”

“It’s hard,” he says as we pass by a shop selling drums and other instruments.  Daniel is magnetized to anything musical and heads over, carefully testing a small drum and looking at me with longing in his eyes.

“You have your travel money, you have to decide how to spend it,” I tell him.  The kids each have ten dollars from Chanukah from their uncle and ten dollars from my mom, which goes a very long way here.

Daniel looks pained.  “But if I use it up now, I won’t have any left.”

“You have to decide how much you want a drum,” Adam explains.  Meanwhile, the Morocco hustle starts. The shopworker starts chatting in French, offering one price and then dropping it, trying to get us inside the shop for hopes of locking us into buying something, but it’s Daniel who remains steady.  He tests out drums, singing more and amusing the shopkeeper until he drops the price more.  “So how much would that be?” he asks. “I don’t understand the French.”

“About eight dollars,” I tell him.

“No way!” Daniel says but then, so as not to hurt the man’s feelings adds, “I mean, I like it, though, it’s a nice drum you have here…”

“Can we get a snack?” asks Jamie, uncomfortable with the exchange.

I pull him aside.  “We can get something soon.  Listen, the man expects this back and forth.  The prices aren’t set.  It’s like going into the Gap and saying how much is this worth.  He won’t sell a drum for less than he paid or made it…”

Daniel decides on a smaller drum for less money and drums it with a smile on his face as we walk to the crepe stand.  The kids watch as batter is poured onto a hot griddle, thinned with a wooden stick into a huge circle, dusted with sugar and folded into careful wedges to be presented in a triangular piece of waxed paper.

“What do we need to do before we eat?” I ask.

The cheer sounds.  “Purell!”

The ride home takes ages.  The driver explains it’s due to the night traffic.  Some cars don’t have headlights on.  Market day is Monday in a couple of the towns along the way, so we get stuck behind cars and carts and donkeys and pedestrians all toting their vegetables, their farm gear, their live chickens.  With my dad sick in bed and the kids tired, we decide to stop at the cavernous supermarket on the way back.

“I’ll just dash in,” I say and Adam agrees.

Dashing isn’t possible.

The store is best described as Costco meets farmer’s market meets Bed, Bath, and Way, Way Beyond, all stuck into a blender and thrown into aisles that do not make sense to my standardized American mind.  Next to the jams are pajamas and diapers.  Interspersed with cereal boxes are bed linens and plastic watering cans.  I grab some things that look like granola bars, each one twelve cents, and then find yogurts and some cheese; a bag of bread, some milk and cereal and fruit, noticing that even here, the supermarket produce has nothing on the outdoor markets.  I prepare to pay, unable to read signs as to which aisle to go in – there’s no French here, only Arabic – and then a fight erupts between a worker and a customer and his many children.  Security gets involved.  Shouting ensues.  I try to pay and get out quickly only to have the young guy at the register call for a supervisor, a women with very glossy lips, who comes over, smiles broadly, and disappears with my credit card.  And I have not enough cash to pay…The fight gets louder, now a giant of a man appears to hold the angry father back.

I can’t figure out what this dispute is over – the only certainty is that this has something to do with Pringles.  Those innocuous, if fatty, chips sold in cylindrical containers.  One child waves it around and the dad points to it – Pringles! – And then the security guard motions to the snack – Pringles!  Did someone eat the Pringles without paying?  Steal them?  Want to exchange them for a healthier alternative?  I’ll never know because the woman finally reappears with my credit card and I take it, and the groceries, gratefully, and leave right as the angry father, now half-way out the store, demands that his youngest go and retrieve the Pringles from where the guard has dropped them in the trash to my right.

“What took so long?” asks Daniel.

I raise my eyebrows and tell them on the way back to the raid.

In the morning, we’re greeted with fresh, hot bread unlike anything we’ve tasted yet.

“This is so so good!” Jamie says.

“I love this texture,” I say and reach for more.

Adam spoons vanilla yogurt into his own mouth and then Will’s and my dad, better now, reaches tentatively for a piece of the bread.  “What’s this called?”

I spend a lot of time lurking around the makeshift kitchen – four gas burners, one tiny oven two floors above, and a small ceramic sink – from which Khadija produces meals suitable for royalty.  For either lunch or dinner, we stay in, letting the kids roam or eat at their leisure, enjoying everything Khadija sends our way.  The thin, chewy bread made at breakfast is Msemen, and I get addicted to it enough so that I ask for it at lunch.  Khadija’s face falls, sorry to report that the bread is made only from 7-11 in the morning and again from 5-7 at night.  To tide me over until then, we have a lunch of Zbib Rouz, sweet rice flavored with cinnamon and plump raisins, Moroccan salad with tomatoes and peppers all mashed to form a sort of goulash perfect for eating as is or for dipping into with bread, Chicken Sharmola, made with preserved lemons and saffron,  grilled over charcoal on bricks.  I eat a pile of fried cauliflower spiced with saffron.

“If I only could eat this meal forever, that would be okay,” Jamie purrs, reaching for thirds of the chicken and the rice.

Even though he’s not a tomato person, Adam spoons the Tak Touka, the Moroccan salad, next to the rice and a tagine scented with Ras el Hnoute, a combination known as 35 spices that can be used in soups, to flavor fish or meat or just about anything.

“What’s your favorite thing to eat so far?”  Adam asks Julia, who picks at the raisins with her hands.  Good thing she’s coated in Purell after our morning jaunt into the heart of the souks.

Her big brown eyes are even larger behind her thick glasses, an item many of the kids here can’t afford.  Julia gave away half of her snack today, handing a packet of crackers to a hungry women whose only visible body part was her eyes, the rest hidden by veils, her hands reaching for anything we’d give her.  Julia’d gone over, handing her snack without hesitating, and commenting, “It’s funny, because I knew that lady was smiling even though I couldn’t see it.  I could see it in just her eyes.”  She eats a bite of rice and thinks.  “I know what my best thing is here to eat…”

“Let me guess,” interrupts Jamie, “It’s the –“

“Pastilla!” Julia shouts.

Will looks up from his position in my lap where he’s nursing his way through Northern Africa.

“I love it, too,” Adam says and nods.  Daniel, who doesn’t drink soda at home, reaches for lemon Schwepps and we know enough to let it go.  Try the Pastilla and zbib, to hell with the no soda rule.

Daniel and Jamie form a mini band with their purchased instruments as the sun starts to set, pink hues coating the red buildings of the medina.  The air cools as we continue to eat, relishing the food, the birds singing in the garden next door, the sounds of the kids singing, even Julia’s face as she panics – again – over the afternoon prayer call.  Tomorrow, I will go to the market with Ibrahim and buy food and Khadija will spend the day teaching me her kitchen secrets.  If we have learned anything, it is that good food comes from unlikely places, that no gourmet kitchen is needed to produce amazing tastes, to delight the children and our family around the table.

“Are we going into the mountains tomorrow?” asks Jamie.

“The day after,” we say.

“And will you learn how to make Pastilla with Khadija?” Julia wonders.

I nod.  “Hopefully.”

“You think you can learn to not be scared by the payer tonight?” Adam asks.  Julia shakes her head.

“I’ll never sleep through it either,” my dad concurs with Julia.

“More?” Will says to me and leans in, tired and settled into our new, if temporary, life in Morocco.  “More.”

Zbib Rouz – Sweet Rice

This dish is the ultimate in comfort and great to make for a crowd. While it is a terrific side dish for a more savory main course such as lamb or chicken, it would also make a fine lunch served with a salad, or, when everyone's tucked in, a yummy dessert if reheated and eaten alone.

250 grams rice (preferably basmati)

2 tsp salt

250 grams yellow raisins

2 tbsp salted butter

3 tbsp sugar

2 tsp cinnamon

Rinse the rice. Put it in pot with enough water to just cover it, add salt and bring to boil for 10-15 minutes, covered, until just soft. Drain any excess water. Add butter, sugar, and cinnamon and stir, cooking on med-high heat while stirring.

Chicken Sharmola

Throw these ingredients together and let the chicken take care of itself. This is one of thoe tangy, instant hits and great for all times of year – grilled outside or in, the citrus is refreshing but not overpowering. Leftovers are perfect for throwing into a salad the next day or for making into chicken salad sandwiches for school lunches.

6 chicken cutlets

1 Onion

2 Preserved Lemons

1 tsp paprika

½ tsp pepper

½ tsp ginger

1 pinch saffron

1 bunch parsley

Chop onion and add all spices and chicken and marinate for 2-3 hours. Cook on grill or in thick skillet with onions and all spices until cooked through.

Moroccan Salad – Tak Touka

Feel free to buy pre-raosted peppers for this, but if you've got an extra ten minutes, roasted your own over and open flame (use tongs and burn the outsides and let them steam in a brown paper bag until the skins slip off). This is a side dish but also a thick condiment, great for slathering on thin slices of crunchy baguette.

2 roasted green peppers, chopped fine

4 ripe tomatoes, chopped well

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 tsp sweet paprika

1 bunch chopped coriander

3 tbsp olive oil

1 tsp cumin

1 ½ tsp salt

Heat oven to 400. Mix everything together very well. Cook in oven in heavy pot (such as a Dutch oven) for 15 minutes. Serve hot or cold.

Saffron Fried Cauliflower

Khadija insists that throwing a garlic clove or two is necessary because cauliflower doesn't smell very good when steamed. She's correct.

1 large head cauliflower, cut into florets

1 garlic clove


3 eggs, beaten

1 pinch saffron

1 bunch chopped fresh parley

Safflower oil

Steam the cauliflower in salted water – add garlic right away while it cooks. Set the beaten eggs in a big bowl with the chopped parsley. When cauliflower is just tender, drain and cool slightly. Dip each floret into the egg and fry in a few tablespoons of safflower oil. Drain on paper towels and serve right away.