Morocco’s top ta­bles

SALT Magazine - - What’s Your Spirit Drink - TEXT MIKE MACEACHERAN PHO­TOS ISAAC ICHOU, JEAN BERNARD YAGUIYAN, & DREAM­STIME

Take a culi­nary pil­grim­age from coastal Agadir to the port city of Casablanca and the cap­i­tal city of Mar­rakesh, and ex­pe­ri­ence the coun­try’s clas­sics.

Be­fore the menu ar­rives, be­fore the nap­kin is un­rolled, be­fore be­ing seated be­tween the Kas­bah-chic cush­ions, I lose count of the num­ber of dishes waiter-waltzed from kitchen to ta­ble. There is an aroma of raisins and roses. Of al­monds and aro­matic stews. Of plums and pis­ta­chios. And it fills the room.

This is the first thing you need to know about Morocco. It has a bona fide love af­fair with its food. On walk­ing into the in­ti­mate The Restau­rant at Villa Riad Blanche in the chi-chi district of Founty in Agadir—the coun­try’s south­ern At­lantic belt of beaches and surf shacks—the waiter leads me un­der hang­ing lanterns past chock­ablock ta­bles. It is 10.30pm—late by most peo­ple’s watch—yet each group of din­ers is pre­sented with sul­tan-wor­thy plat­ters. There are plates of prawns served a la plan­cha. But­tery oys­ters from Dakhla (Western Sa­hara). Se­abass tar­tar and whole squid, ma­rine risotto, beef carpac­cio, foie gras ter­rine, and cit­rusy John Dory fil­lets, ac­com­pa­nied by fluffy pita breads.

It’s late April and I’ve come to Morocco on a gourmet pil­grim­age on im­pulse. The plan is to tour the coun­try’s top ta­bles, tack­ling a three-stop jour­ney through its most al­lur­ing cities—from Agadir to

Mar­rakesh, by way of Casablanca. It’s fair to say that Morocco is not yet renowned as a gourmet des­ti­na­tion, but armed with a list of restau­rant rec­om­men­da­tions from friends, I have more than a lit­tle to go on. I just have no idea how much North Africa is go­ing to change my at­ti­tude to its cui­sine.

An hour later at Villa Riad Blanche, the din­ers are oohing and aahing over tra­di­tional stews, or tagines. Th­ese are named after the cone-shaped earth­en­ware pots in which they are cooked. Some come fez-topped with raisins and al­monds, oth­ers with cour­gettes and thyme. There is one with mus­sels and cala­mari, toma­toes and clemen­tines. An­other with just-landed monk­fish and char­moula. I opt for the lo­cal favourite—a lamb and raisin tagine stew adorned with sweet onions, and served with cous­cous. It’s stun­ning, yet for lo­cals is noth­ing out of the or­di­nary. “Don’t be sur­prised,” the stick-thin waiter tells me. “This is how Moroc­cans eat. And then, of course, you must have a dessert. It’s com­pul­sory!”

All told, Morocco has al­ways been easy to en­ter, but harder to leave. Its cul­tural trea­sures have never been a se­cret. Olive-green minarets, domed ceil­ings with gold and jade tiles, and creaky bazaars where fra­grant spices, fab­rics, car­pets, oil lamps and curly-toed babouche slip­pers have been traded for cen­turies—what’s not to love about that? It’s ef­fort­less to spend hours sam­pling the coun­try’s best sights and restau­rants. And that’s just what I in­tend to do.

Around dusk the fol­low­ing day, Agadir stops work­ing, re­veal­ing its true culi­nary colours. At La Car­a­vane, in­side the Sof­i­tel Agadir Royal Bay Re­sort, I spy a buf­fet’s worth of spit-roast meats and sal­ads. Next to that are ubiq­ui­tous claypot tagines, door­way-wide and sump­tu­ous enough to feed a fam­ily for a week. This is fol­lowed by a smor­gas­bord of baklava, an Ot­toman-era pas­try made of filo lay­ers filled with pis­ta­chios and soaked with syrup. Out­side, on the sun-shaded ter­race, cou­ples

fuel jeal­ousy by in­hal­ing hand-spun pizza made to or­der from a wood oven. My in-the-know friends had told me it would leave an im­print. I just didn’t re­alise by how much. I or­der a lovely beef tagine with pre­served lemons.

In the last decade or so, the Moroccan kitchen has gone well be­yond sim­ply try­ing to im­i­tate its French coun­ter­part. Cast your mind back and you may re­call Morocco was a for­mer French pro­tec­torate. Un­der oc­cu­pancy from 1912 to 1956, the coun­try was com­mit­ted to French rule, adopt­ing many culi­nary and cul­tural im­ports. There re­mains a strong café and art scene, and some of France’s most cre­ative chefs and hote­liers have opened world-class restau­rants and ri­ads from Agadir to the At­las Moun­tains. But home­grown chefs are also light­ing the torch pa­per for fu­sion Ber­ber cui­sine, em­brac­ing Be­douin recipes, as well as in­flu­ences from fel­low neigh­bours Spain and Tu­nisia. This is Morocco’s great­est gift: while some things stay ex­actly the same, oth­ers are chang­ing it for the bet­ter (with in­spi­ra­tions from neigh­bour­ing coun­tries).

MAR­RAKESH’S CAP­I­TAL EATS

I find my­self begin­ning to agree with my friends’ rec­om­men­da­tions a day later in Mar­rakesh, a three-hour car ride north. Par­tic­u­larly at the Royal Man­sour, an op­u­lent palace ho­tel with pri­vate ri­ads (tra­di­tional house built around a court­yard, of­ten con­verted into a ho­tel), ex­ten­sive grounds and but­ler-ser­vice. First over­seen by the King of Morocco, and built by more than 1,200 crafts­men over three-and-a-half years, its VIP ri­ads cost up­wards of S$2350 per night—with the ul­ti­mate riad max­ing-out at a bumper S$47,000. Here, days start with a tra­di­tional break­fast of sweet tea, al­mond pas­tries and fresh Moroccan beghrir. Also known as ‘one thou­sand hole’ pan­cakes, a ref­er­ence to their hon­ey­comb-grid ap­pear­ance, they’re drenched in warm but­ter and honey. Af­ter­wards, it be­comes a jour­ney through fresh fruits, spongey eggs, mor­eish cakes, belly-hug­ging buns, yo­ghurts and sweet treats. All told, it’s dev­il­ish.

I hire a Ber­ber guide and a calèche, a horse and two-seat car­riage, for a tour of the city’s famed gar­dens and palaces. First stop is the Jardin Ma­jorelle, Yves Saint Lau­rent’s gift to the city. An oa­sis of cobalt blue and lemon yel­low Art Deco de­sign amid rare flora, palms and lilies, it of­fers a respite to the dry heat. Yves loved the place so much there is a me­mo­rial to him tucked-away in the shrub­bery. Our next stop is the in­fa­mous Dje­maa el-Fna square: a UNESCO World Her­itage site that treads a fine line be­tween a cir­cus freak show, rogue’s gallery and non-stop fes­ti­val of mu­sic, rev­elry and astrol­ogy. Some­what sur­pris­ingly, den­tistry is on of­fer, too.

At lunch, I try some­thing you’ll rarely find back

All told, Morocco has al­ways been easy to en­ter, but harder to leave. Its cul­tural trea­sures have never been a se­cret. Olive­g­reen minarets, domed ceil­ings with gold and jade tiles, and creaky bazaars where fra­grant spices, fab­rics, car­pets, oil lamps and curly­toed babouche slip­pers have been traded for cen­turies—what’s not to love about that?

It’s ef­fort­less to spend hours sam­pling the coun­try’s best sights and restau­rants. And that’s just what I in­tend to do.

Step into Royal

Man­sour, an op­u­lent

palace ho­tel in

Mar­rakesh.

home. Ex­quis­ite spiny lob­ster tagine with chick­peas and saf­fron. Served at Le Maro­cain, one of four restau­rants in­side La Mamou­nia, a ho­tel vis­ited by the likes of Sir Win­ston Churchill, Charlton He­ston and Or­son Welles, it is plump and de­li­cious—and yet I’m dis­tracted by the gor­geous ex­oti­cism of the restau­rant’s decor. Later, at Al Fas­sia, a stand-out restau­rant run en­tirely by women, I choose a classic pi­geon pastilla, a lay­ered pie wrapped in soft pas­try and dusted with cin­na­mon. You, too, may find it hard to stop at one. The per­fect mar­riage of savoury and sweet, it’s ar­guably the high­light of the trip.

PIT STOP IN CASABLANCA

Far­ther north, Casablanca brings more sun­shine, but also re­veals more se­crets. For the ul­ti­mate din­ner, I call ahead for a ren­dezvous at Rick’s Café, based on the myth­i­cal sa­loon in the epony­mous movie Casablanca, fea­tur­ing Humphrey Bog­art and In­grid Bergman. Es­tab­lished in 2004, it’s a tourist at­trac­tion in its own right. Se­creted be­tween twin palms on Rue Sour Jdid, the restau­rant brings Hol­ly­wood to life, first opened by Kathy Kriger, one of many ex­pats who have fallen in love with the city’s faded grandeur. It is decked-out with white­washed arches, sculpted bal­conies and balustrades and is a painstak­ing replica of the cel­lu­loid ver­sion, right down to the gleam­ing piano and an­tique bar where Bog­art slumped in the film. I or­der the sig­na­ture goat cheese salad with fresh figs and a saf­fron-flecked ke­bab, then ask the pi­anist to tin­kle out As Time Goes By on the ivories. It would be rude not to.

Fi­nally, to see the city at its most al­lur­ing, I take a dusky stroll along Place des Nations Unies, stop­ping to ad­mire the palm-fringed Palace Mo­hammed V. Cou­ples pic­nic, teenagers flirt over ice cream and the city shifts up a gear as sun­set casts a streak of pink light across the sky and its time-worn bazaar. Casablanca’s great­est gift to the vis­i­tor, I think, is it re­mains true to it­self. It’s un­changed and an­ti­quated, yet mod­ern and cos­mopoli­tan. And the

same can be said of Morocco. Which is per­haps why vis­i­tors try to keep it a se­cret. You may not know it yet, but one day it’ll cast a spell on you, too.

THE TAGINE THROUGH TIME

Whether it’s pre­pared with lamb, chicken or veg­eta­bles, this suc­cu­lent slow-cooked stew, served in a tra­di­tional up­turned earth­en­ware pot, rep­re­sents the best of North African cook­ing.

A no­madic Be­douin cre­ation, its his­tory strad­dles con­ti­nents, from Morocco to Iran and Iraq, dat­ing to the Early Mus­lim con­quests around 650 to 700. Check the his­tory books and you’ll also find the cone-shaped pots first men­tioned in the One Thou­sand and One Nights, the Mid­dle East­ern folk tales com­piled dur­ing the Is­lamic Golden Age.

As with ev­ery­thing so sim­ple, the de­tails need to be care­fully thought through. Clar­i­fied but­ter is of­ten used to lu­bri­cate the pot’s sur­face, a puree of chopped onions is added for aroma, and olive oil en­riches the flavours. Meat or fish should be boiled with fresh co­rian­der, hot spices and gar­lic, then stewed un­til but­ter soft. It is a sim­ple thing, per­fectly ex­e­cuted.

Tagine, an up­turned eath­ern­ware ves­sel, is used to cook all man­ner of stews.

Sweet Moroccan pas­tries to sink your teeth into.

Re­lax and en­joytra­di­tional tea atRoyal Man­sour’sex­pan­sive grounds.

Pit-stop: visitthe vi­brant night bazaar inMar­rakesh.

A va­ri­ety of taginesfrom meat toseafood can be hadin Morocco. Vil­laRi­adBlanche SecteurN50CiteFounty,Son­aba,Agadir,Morocco www.ri­advil­l­ablanche.comSof­itelA­gadirRoy­alBayRe­sort Bp226CiteFoun­tyP4,BaiedesPalmier­sCom­munede Benser­gao,Agadir,Morocco www.sof­i­tel.comRoy­alMan­sour Ar­satGes­tion,RueAbouAb­basElSebti,Mar­rakech, Morocco www.roy­alman­sour.comLaMamou­niaAv­enueBabJ­did Mar­rakech,Morocco lamamou­nia.grand­lux­u­ry­ho­tels.comRick’sCafé 248BdSourJ­did,Place­duJardin,An­ci­en­neMe­d­ina, Casablanca,Morocco www.rickscafe.ma

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