Jeff Koehler on Marrakech: A Culinary Q&A

Indagare's Simone Girner interviewed Jeff Koehler about his Moroccan cookbook in 2012. Read his Q&A below.Contact Indagare to plan your journey to Morocco.

During two decades of exploring Morocco, Jeff Koehler, a writer, photographer and culinary enthusiast, started to see a theme emerge: food as a guiding and important role in Moroccan culture. “I saw an opportunity to use food as a point of access for the fascinating culture, and as a way of telling its story,” he says. And so Morocco: A Culinary Journey with Recipes was born. Part cookbook, part historic journal, part photo essay, the book encourages readers to visit the magical country and bring some of its lessons and specialties into their own kitchens.

Koehler spoke to Indagare about his favorite way to drink mint tea, the best places to eat authentic Marrakeshi cuisine and some easy Moroccan flavor combinations he likes to whip up, no matter where in the world he’s cooking.

Would you agree that Morocco’s cuisine acts as a road map to its cultural history?

Indeed. It’s built on a base of Berber cuisine—couscous and tagine are two of its famous dishes—and the Berbers are credited with developing some remarkable flatbreads, soups and spit-roasted mechoui lamb, to name a few things. Numerous different cultures have landed on Morocco’s shores, and each has left its imprint, including the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs, Muslims and Jews expelled from Spain, the French and Spanish. Its history is all there on the plate.

What surprised you most as you were researching this book in Morocco?

The contrasts of flavors. There just seems to be no end to original ways of combining flavors. They feel so modern yet are highly traditional.

What are some of your favorite recipes in your book?

I love the broad range of salads. The Moroccan tradition of both “cooked” and “raw” salads is rich, and I enjoy beginning a meal with a small dish of four or five salads, each with very different flavors. Grated carrot and orange salad, with a hint of cinnamon, which requires a spoon to eat. Cucumbers in sweet marinade with oregano and black olives. Carrot and cumin salad, where the sweetness of chilled, boiled carrots blends nicely with the paprika and cumin marinade. Chilled sweet butternut squash salad with cinnamon. Beet salad with green onions and fresh herbs.

What is the importance of tagine cooking?

Along with couscous, the tagine is one of Morocco’s most important, and unique, ways of cooking. It’s a stew braised in an eponymous earthenware casserole with a conical lid. The lid is key, as it traps the moisture from the cooking meat, poultry, or fish, allows it to condense on the lid’s walls, and then fall back onto stew. This keeps the dish moist while retaining the flavors. Tagines are slow-cooked, traditionally on a coal-filled brazier. The result is tender meat—and I mean falling-off-the-bone tender—and rich, concentrated juices to mop up with hunks of bread.

Along with salads, tagines are one of the best places to see Morocco’s love for combining the sweet and savory. Some of my favorite Moroccan dishes are such tagines—goat with dried figs, lamb or chicken topped with a sweet tomato compote, veal shanks garnished with pears that have been stewed in cloves, ginger, and cinnamon and squab stuffed with a date and almond paste.

What are your favorite Marrakech dining rituals?

In Marrakech, my first night’s meal is usually at La Maison Arabe, but the second night I hit Djemma el Fna for dinner on the square—a bowl of snails with broth or some harira (an herb-laced tomato soup) and then to a stall called Hassan #31 for spicy grilled merguez lamb sausages eaten with disks of bread. I love sitting at the crowded stainless steel counter among the billowing smoke as the action of the square swirls around.

When I can, I try to have an afternoon snack of bread fresh from the oven, some bold salt-cured black olives and a glass of sweet mint tea. This is especially the case when I am in the Berber-dominated Atlas. In winter, I ask for other fresh herbs to be added to the mint—marjoram, sage, and verbena. Divine!

Where do you buy ingredients in Marrakech?

There are a couple of stalls I frequent in the souk for herbs and spices. Their names, or even how to get there, I can’t explain. My feet know the way. I always stock up on cinnamon bark and a local wild oregano called zaâtar. (This should not be confused with the Middle Eastern spice blend of the same name.) At home, I love cooking with preserved lemons. A small amount adds a savory zest to anything—from eggs to chicken and fish dishes.

What are your favorite restaurants in Marrakech?

One is La Maison Arabe. It was originally opened in the mid-1940s by a French woman and her daughter, with the permission of the pasha, who lent them one of his cooks. It was the first restaurant in the medina open to foreigners, and was frequented by the likes of Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle and Jackie Kennedy. For decades it was the best in all of Africa. It closed in the early 1980s, was eventually bought by an Italian-French aristocrat who had spent much of his childhood in Tangier, and reopened in the mid-1990s as the first boutique hotel in the medina. Over the years, the restaurant has regained its place as the city’s finest. Eating their lamb tagine with oranges, saffron threads and candied orange peel was one of the meals that inspired me to do the book and the recipe is one of the book’s highlights. Sometimes I like to go the Café de la Poste in the Ville Nouvelle. While the food can be excellent, the people-watching is fabulous.

What is your best Marrakech “secret”?

I love AnaYela, a small but marvelous riad in a residential corner of the medina. It is impossible to find, but once inside, it is one of the most luxurious, sumptuous, and tranquil places I have ever been.

What is the first thing you do when returning to Marrakech?

My first morning in Marrakech, I get up early and wander rather aimlessly through the medina—following the smells and activity, poking my head into communal bakeries. I love watching the city awake—people heading to work, kids heading to school, stalls being set up. Then I buy some startlingly sweet pastries at a pâtisserie and take them to a café to eat with the morning’s first mint tea.

No matter where I am in Morocco, I also always find out which rural souks are taking place nearby and try to hit at least one or two. These weekly markets draw people from around the region and are always festive occasions. I especially like the ones in the south and on the east side of the Atlas and at the desert’s edge. Agdr, in the Drâa Valley, has a splendid one, as does Zagora and the southern beach town of Sidi Ifni. These are very different and more authentic from the souks of Marrakech.

Contact Indagare to plan your journey to Morocco.

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