Finding a cooking school
Lamb tagine has long been one of our favourite dishes to cook at home. So when we decided to go to Marrakech, we knew we wanted to do a cooking school as part of our trip. We found one via Urban Adventures that promised the whole experience. We would be going to the market to buy the fresh ingredients and cooking them up into an authentic recipe, all in a traditional riad setting. Moroccan food plays a big role in the culture and Marrakech is a hub for tourists, so you can find many similar offers of cooking schools if you look online. Urban Adventures have a policy that they always use local guides in order to support and create a connection to the local culture, which is why we chose this class.
In the souks
We were due to meet our cooking school guide/teacher at 9:00 am in Djemaa El-fna Square. As we had arrived early we decided to get some freshly-squeezed orange juices from one of the street vendors. These juice stalls are all over the main square and you can get either a mixed juice for 10 dirhams (around $1) or a pure OJ for 4 dirhams (40 cents!). Drinking our juice, we met up with the Urban Adventures guide who introduced herself as Karima, and a mother-daughter pair from the Netherlands who were to be our classmates.
The morning started with a walk into the souks. The word “souk” comes from the Arabic word for market. As it wasn’t our first day in Marrakesh, this was not our first exposure to the souks. Even so, it it feels like a new experience each time going into the narrow and lively streets filled with exotic odours and eye-catching stalls with all manner of items for sale. Not forgetting the crazy motorcycles honking and whizzing past every few seconds. After navigating us through the souks, Karima stopped next to a small square with a lot of fresh food stalls, in front of stall that sells chicken.
Really really fresh chicken
The chicken was so fresh, that it was actually still clucking in a cage behind the counter. Karima told us that the butchers in the Medina are halal, which simply means permitted under Islamic law. Slaughtering chickens in the halal way means that they cut off the head of the chicken, and let it bleed completely before butchering it. After our chicken was slaughtered and bled, rather than plucking it he just ripped off the whole skin in one movement. Although this whole process obviously wasn’t very pleasant to watch, it was still somewhat fascinating. Like most Westerners, the rawest state we had seen chicken before this was prepared and wrapped in film on a polystyrene tray in the supermarket.
Many of your 5 a day
We moved on to one of the stalls at the food market which was selling fresh vegetables. While she was buying tomatoes and onions, Karima was teaching us the names of the vegetables in Arabic. As well as fresh vegetables, there were also huge, ripe fruits like oranges and pomegranates.
We had some small talk with the vendor who was asking each of us on the tour where we come from. As we told him, he took great satisfaction in naming the respective football clubs of each of our home cities. We have come across this universal language of big-league European football in many countries we have travelled in the past! After we had taken some photos and said our goodbyes, Karima guided us once again through the streets and stopped to talk to a guy holding a medium-sized bag of lemons, which looked like they had just come from the tree. Karima told us that she prefers to get her lemons from this guy rather than the other market as they always taste good.
Words on the street
As we walked, Karima would stop for a moment every now and again to have a chat with some people on the streets. Sometimes it was just a few words while passing by while other times she stopped and had a longer discussion. It was great to experience that sense of community and sociability among the locals. When you look closer and see all the little interactions that are happening in the souks, it starts to seem like everyone knows everyone!
We stopped again at a small shop and bought some bread and a mix of olives. After saying our goodbyes we headed to the riad for our cooking class.
Riad Thycas, which is run by Karima, is very cosy. Her team started to prepare the tables for the cooking school with the ingredients we had just bought. Meanwhile, she sat us down in a comfortable corner and served us Moroccan mint tea.
The preparation of the mint tea is a tradition in itself that Karima demonstrated to us as she was doing it. Moroccan mint tea flows like water in Moroccan homes. It is served to houseguests upon arrival and throughout their visit. Even the pouring is done in a traditional way. The first cup poured must be put back into the pot at least once before it is eventually poured into the cups of your guests – from as high as is possible without spilling the tea. Karima has this down to a fine art and explained that the high pour is meant to generate bubbles, which show your guests that the tea is properly brewed.
When life gives you lemons… make tagine
We were to make two recipes, a citrus chicken tagine, and a traditional Moroccan salad made with roasted green peppers. Our ingredients had been laid out for us ready to chop and mix according to Karima’s instructions. After everyone cried a little chopping the strong onions, we mixed in our spices and citruses.
As well as fresh lemons, we used preserved lemons in this recipe. Although we have heard of these before this was the first time we had used them in a recipe. They are used predominantly in North African and Middle Eastern cuisine. They are made with unwaxed lemons, where the skin is cut and they are placed into a sterile jar. Add salt and then just… leave them for weeks. Preserved lemons bring a depth of salty citrus flavour to dishes that cannot be replicated with normal fresh lemons. They are only to be used in cooking and not served raw. However, we did taste a tiny morsel just to test the flavour. They have a wonderful salty zestiness that is utterly incomparable in taste to a fresh lemon.
While our chicken was cooking in the tagine, Karima took us to the roof terrace of the riad. There are comfy couches and sun loungers, with a nice view over the rooftops of the medina. We enjoyed some more mint tea on the terrace. Although we were visiting in November as Morocco was coming into winter, the sun is still quite warm out of the shade. Some of Karima’s guests were even sunbathing on the terrace.
Good food and goodbyes
We came back to the courtyard of the riad where the tables had been re-laid for our lunch. We had the roasted green pepper salad for our starter, and the lemon chicken tagine for our main course. The tagine was wonderful. The citrus flavours really come through and the saltiness of the preserved lemons and olives balances the dish. Karima even surprised us with a small dessert of fresh fruit. Once we finished, we exchanged email addresses so that she could send us the recipes. Karima kindly walked us back through the souks and we said our goodbyes.
If you are interested in learning to cook a traditional tagine in Marrakech, then book an Urban Adventures cooking school. We really enjoyed it! We also want to thank Karima for her hospitality and good conversation. She is not only a great cook and teacher but a warm and welcoming hostess!
As well as hosting the cooking school, Riad Thycas also rents rooms, in case you need a place to stay.
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