Sunday, May 28, 2017

tajine and tea

As we wandered around Imlil in search of food, we were confronted with two options at that particular time of day: a touristy restaurant with a bunch of excited Europeans, or a local joint that seemed to be attached to a butcher shop. The latter had an enticing row of steaming tajine pots cooking their contents away on braziers, and a fair amount of locals dining away. Needless to say, we greeted the friendly gent manning the coals, and climbed upstairs to the terrace where we ordered a chicken tajine to share, mint tea, and a Coke for Pedro.

Chicken tajines from what I have experienced so far, are mainly composed of various chicken parts layered underneath a pile of potatoes and various vegetables, flavoured with preserved salted lemons and olives. The acid from the lemons is cut by the earthy potatoes, and overall, it's a pretty nice dish (though I prefer the meatball tajines). There's usually a good amount of drippings left behind for your bread to soak up— my favourite part.

I had to include this last photo— I love the way Coca-Cola is written in Arabic!

Saturday, May 27, 2017

stone villages

The stone villages we hiked through around Imlil reminded me of some of the Nepali villages I've seen. Humble rectangles, earthen-coloured, with bits of pink, blue, and red from clothes drying on a line. Goats braying, shy eyes peering behind windows, some shuttered, some barred.

As in Nepal, it seems as though cement is quickly replacing stone and wood.

taking a hike

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

into the atlas

Back in September, Pedro and I took advantage of a long weekend for a roadtrip into the Atlas Mountains. The green valleys of the imposing Atlas were dotted with Berber villages made of stone and mud, the same red as the surrounding rocks, which almost served to camouflage the humble, rectangular buildings. The air was fresh, and the valleys echoed with the calls of choughs. Light faded quickly, as the sun sank behind the mountains in the late afternoon, casting a faint orange glow before we were all immersed in blues and violets.

it's in the details

little moments

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

the grand socco market

I love markets— the smell of spices, the colourful displays of fruit, vegetables, and fish— and of course, the often humorous and musical shouts and calls of vendors. The best part of visiting a local market is the discovery of something new, something unique to a place. For instance, the goat cheese artfully wrapped in palm fronds that I was told is typical of the Rif region:

We were so charmed by the above gentleman that we bought a jar of flowery, creamy honey as our souvenir of Tangier. It didn't take long for that jar to empty itself!

from a rooftop in tangier

I kept looking for Spain on the horizon, but found only a thick layer of fog beneath the blue...

a feast unlike any other

There was one thing I was hellbent on experiencing in Tangier, and that was a meal at the Restaurant Populaire Le Saveur du Poisson, which was featured in an episode of Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown on Tangier. We arrived a bit early for lunch, only to discover a few people already waiting for the little restaurant to open.

Once inside we were greeted by gregarious chap who placed down a series of clay dishes that contained a spicy harissa, toasted nuts, and herbed olives. We were also given a bowl of fish soup ladled from a large clay amphora, and a basket of assorted breads and baghrir— a spongy pancake that I have become quite fond of.

Next came a tajine of greens with calamari and herbs, shark kebabs, and a most delicious John Dory, delicately flavoured with cumin. Our cups were abundantly refilled with the house juice of several unnamed fruit and herbs— a concoction unlike anything I have ever tasted— sweet and earthy.

Every morsel of that John Dory was devoured, and our dishes were cleaned to the clay. Then dessert came our way: one dish of fresh strawberries in honey with pomegranate seeds, walnuts and pine nuts, and another of warm nuts in honey and a hint of eucalyptus. My oh my, the memory of this feast is making my mouth water as I type!

The entire experience was so wonderful, from the divinely delicious food and juice, to our lovely waiter who gave me a clay mug as a souvenir at the end of the meal. I have a soft spot for wooden spoons and forks, and for the bees who joined us for dessert. Should you find yourself in Tangier, make sure you seek out Le Saveur du Poisson— it's a fixed seasonal menu, a bit pricey for Morocco at 200 Dirhams a person (about 20€), but well worth it!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

the colours of tangier

White, blue, and yellow colour the buildings of Tangier. Gulls laugh in the sky, and salt scents the Atlantic breeze.

and now for something completely different

We had long been avoiding Morocco's big cities in favour of more remote destinations, but then came a weekend which found us on a train to Tangier. The typically four hour journey (which ended up being close to five) from Rabat gave us time to dig into a book, and before we knew it we were hailing down a cab to take us to the medina. I never got into the Beat poets nor any of the writers who had lost themselves in Tangier's maze of alleys, so I had no romantic notion of the city or feeling of nostalgia. Colleagues of mine insisted the medina was gritty and rough, but what I found was a low-key, easy to navigate town with good food and generally nice people— I say generally, because we were told to f*** off in English by two random men after politely declining their help as guides. Other than those two, people weren't pushy, and we had some genuinely lovely experiences. The contrast between city and desert is enormous, but there's always mint tea and a friendly as-salaamu 'aleikum.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

leaving figuig

Dust and smoke layered beneath a bluing sky as we made our way out of Figuig. Preparations for the day's Fantasia— a fabulous, macho horse riding and rifle show— were underway, with horses awaiting their turbaned riders. I have yet to attend a Fantasia, but hope to see the one near Rabat this year.

We headed towards Oujda, a city on the closed border between Morocco and Algeria, the road generally smooth and marked with camel crossing signs. Mirages lined the horizon as the temperature climbed, and clouds began to move further and further away from us.

chanting and the chopping of hands

It was the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed that had given me the extra day off work for us to make the nine hour drive to Figuig. Unbeknownst to us, the sleepy oasis town at that particular time of year transforms into a major festival, with the few available hotel rooms booked weeks in advance— we were so lucky to have found a place to stay!

Figuig's little streets were bustling with ladies wrapped in white, men flooded the cafés, and there seemed to be several important celebrations to attend. After dinner on our second night, we decided to take a walk into the centre to see what we could see. A large white tent had been erected just past the cafés, which drew my curiosity as I saw women flocking there in large numbers. Pedro was unable to follow me inside, so he went off in search of a mint tea.

Women of all ages filled the tent and its surrounding area. I found a spot to stand on the right outer edge of the tent, by one of its supporting poles. Colourful fireworks lit up the sky, while elder ladies in white gathered closer to each other in the centre, their eyes lined dramatically in kohl, with red headbands decorated in silver encircling the tops of their white hijabs. A sweet incense scented the air, while some women began chanting softly.

Encouraged by the selfie-snapping and recording that was taking place around me (all by Moroccans), I tried filming the chanting that was building, but within minutes the lady in light blue standing in the above picture made a gesture to indicate that she would chop off all our hands. This caused some embarrassed giggles from my fellow photographers, which made our hand chopper break out into a wide grin.

Once our cameras were safely away, a brazier with glowing coals was brought to the elder women in the centre, one of whom began to heat the skin of a large, flat, circular drum. She beat it with wrinkled hands from time to time, and once it had reached a tone that pleased her, the chanting began, accompanied by a mesmerizing rhythm. The only words I could understand from their lips were Mohammed and Allah. Later on Pedro and I met up to return to our guest house, where the melodic chanting from a gathering of men crept in through a pipe in our bathroom, going on deep into the night.

Friday, May 12, 2017

a welcome respite

There's something so calming about deserts, whether they're made of the finest grains of sand or the roughest rocks. The quiet, the radiating heat and cool nights, the colours... I have loved deserts since I was a child, since my family left California for Dubai in the early 80s. There's a vivid, clinging memory in my mind of watching a snake move across the yellow sand past the wall of my primary school, the scent of oleanders on the breeze.

The peace I found in Figuig's surrounding desert was a welcome respite after a hectic time in Rabat. Work routines need to be broken by little adventures. It's good for the soul.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

dining in the oasis

Have you ever seen anything like this? This glorious feast for more than the just belly is simply called trid, after the thin, transparent sheets of dough that line the plate. Trid is a flour dough that is rolled into little balls, spread onto a flat surface until thinner than paper, then fried on a flat pan. The trid is then rolled and layered to create petals on a plate, topped with fragrant chicken, fried almonds and sultanas, with some hard-boiled eggs for good measure. The dish is communal, and eaten with the hands (always the right hand!) by pulling a petal of trid and rolling it toward the centre of the plate to fill it with a little bit of everything delicious. Not only is it ever so tasty, it's fun to eat too! We shared our trid with some fellow guests at the auberge we were staying at, and an older gentleman with quite the sense of humour.

As Figuig is an oasis of palm trees— once an important stopover for many Moroccans on pilgrimage to Mecca— there were of course, plenty of dates to delight in. I have had all sorts of dates from various parts of the world, but the ones I had this night were undoubtedly my favourite. I was told that they were "fresh", which I took to mean that they were in the early stage of ripening— hence their beautiful golden colour:

This was one of the most memorable dining experiences I have had in Morocco so far. I loved the sweet and savoury combination of the chicken and sultanas, with the soft trid and crunchy almonds— and of course, the dates were gorgeous! Sharing food with fellow travellers and locals alike made it all the better.

Figuig was turning out to be one of my favourite places in Morocco...