Must Do in Marrakech: La Maison Arabe Cooking Class

IMG_1525

La Maison Arabe Cooking Class

Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.—Maya Angelou

We are great believers that if you have peace, you have everything.

                       —Wafaa Amagui, La Maison Arabe Marrakech

Excitement swells as two enormous doors slowly swing open. I remember entering this haven of hospitality the previous fall when I first saw La Maison Arabe Country Club.

IMG_5324

IMG_5362

IMG_5312

IMG_5349

But this time I’ll be the one in the kitchen, and I can’t wait.

IMG_1609

Our van journeys along the long lane lined with olive trees until the driver brakes. We follow the path through a green garden of palm trees swaying to a convivial choir of birds soaring, sitting, and singing. A bouquet of herbal heaven on the breeze—the scent of rose geraniums, rosemary, sage, and lemon thyme– beckons us to pinch, rub, and smell the distinct fragrances of each plant. Gracious and gregarious, Wafaa, La Maison Arabe’s Cooking Workshops Manager, greets us as we take our seats around the tented table.

IMG_1500

IMG_1498

IMG_1502

IMG_1501
Organic artichokes

Wafaa explains the power of food as the product and source of cultural connections: “Food is for humanity. We can live together. We are more alike than different in food tasting.”

She asks each classmate where we call home. Illustrating her point, we reply: “London… Lisbon…Ontario…Boston…. Colorado…Tennessee… Kentucky.” (It was the first time I’d met anyone from my birth state of Kentucky since moving to Morocco.)

She then says the best food is multicultural and is made from fine ingredients and a great civilization. Moroccan food, derived from Berber, Jewish, Arabic, and Spanish influences, gives us a taste of how diversity can create unity.   With pride she recounts the mission of La Maison Arabe as Ambassador of Peace and of Morocco’s history of respect for their own culture and that of others.

IMG_1495
Pit for roasting meat

La Maison Arabe, the first restaurant in Marrakech, was started in 1946 by a French mother and daughter, Helene Sebillon and Suzy Larochette.

IMG_1490

At a time when the country was very conservative, Wafaa says, “These two brave women really opened the door for all women in Morocco.” Here Winston Churchill, Jackie Kennedy, and Charles De Gaulle dined often.

In 1995 Italian Prince Fabrizio Ruspoli bought the restaurant and after three years of renovation opened La Maison Arabe as the first boutique hotel in Marrakech.

IMG_1469 (1)

I had been to La Maison Arabe before as well, but before the van arrived to take guests to the class held at the Country Club outside of town, I enjoyed seeing the hotel again, beautifully beaming in the morning light.

IMG_1474

IMG_1471 (1)

IMG_1472
Breakfast Buffet

IMG_5090

IMG_5089

IMG_5088

IMG_5077

Wafaa said opening the first hotel in the medina dispelled fears of the foreign as guests lived among locals:

The idea was a real adventure. .. Being inside the medina next to local people day and night seeing how people live…the smell of food… children playing all the time, women who run between work at job and work in house, men all the time in cafes gives people outside an opportunity to ask questions and to know a lot about Morocco’s style of life.

This first riad hotel led to thousands more, transforming Marrakech into a popular tourist destination which employed many and enhanced cross-cultural understanding:

People from outside Morocco see Moroccan people.   We have families.  We are very protective of our children. And we have this respect…. Moroccans are very tolerant, flexible people. You don’t feel isolated. People are ready to serve, to help, even to practice language.   Whatever language you are speaking, we are very eager to speak it with you.

As is Moroccan tradition, we were served mint tea with bread, which we helped bake, honey, and jam.

IMG_1505

IMG_1513

IMG_1523

IMG_1509

IMG_1517

IMG_1530
Moroccans, unless diabetic, drink tea with a lot of sugar. It comes in large blocks and is broken into chunks.

Into the kitchen…  (Photos by Jasna Finlay)

IMG_1482
Ayoda, the Dada (Chef)

IMG_1491 (1)

IMG_1480

IMG_1483

IMG_1484

IMG_1546
For the base of the Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemon and Olives, my favorite meat dish in Morocco

IMG_1551

IMG_1550

IMG_1563
For the Zalouk, my favorite dish of the day, we “zebraed” the eggplant and cooked with  tomato, garlic, and fresh herbs.

IMG_1564

IMG_1567 (1)
Two hands are better than one for stirring the tagine and Taktuka, Moroccan tomato and roasted green pepper salad.

IMG_1562

IMG_1583
Picked from outside the kitchen
IMG_1587
The Dada showed us how to cut a lemon peel into a decorative leaf.
IMG_1586
She also demonstrated how preserved lemons are made. They are slit, filled with salt, and partially covered with olive oil.  As they age, they turn darker.

IMG_1592

IMG_1590

IMG_1575

IMG_1540
Custard for the Milk Pastilla served for dessert

IMG_1544

IMG_1578IMG_1591

IMG_1594

IMG_1596

IMG_1598

IMG_1601

I left the class and headed for the pool ready to nap.  But first, I thought of all I’d learned. I already knew that wherever I live in the future, on Fridays I’ll crave the comfort of couscous.  Yet the class renewed my interest in all Moroccan food.  Though I’d been served tasty tagines by private cooks, I’d eaten in some restaurants where dishes were bland; but as Wafaa promised, we learned to cook as Moroccans do in their own kitchens.  To this southern girl, home cooking–seasoning to taste with as much spice and heat as I like–made all the difference.   I left with a tagine and recipes I’m ready to repeat, but perhaps, more importantly. I left with a deeper understanding of and appreciation for my host country.

From my first visit to the medina I learned of Morocco’s vibrant Jewish quarter and continued hearing the  history of the kingdom’s pledge to protect and to respect all people. Wafaa told tourists of Mohammed VI’s social reforms favoring women and of the late Mohammed V who protected 250,000 Jews from the occupying Vichy French forces and the Nazis during World War II.  When asked  to enact legislation discriminating against Jews, Mohammed V refused and responded: “There are no Jews in Morocco, only subjects.” Last December in New York City the late king was named first recipient of The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. – Rabbi Abraham Heschel Award given by KIVUNIM:  The Institute for World Jewish Studies at their 10th Anniversary Conference.

Moroccans I have met not only love food but also allow guests their own tastes.

In Morocco, though we are conservative, we live and let other people live. Morocco as a country is very tolerant. It accepts people’s traditions.  Whatever your religion is, whatever your ideas…whatever your way of life, it does not matter to us. We respect our culture and we respect other people’s cultures.–Wafaa

Cupid Crawl from Riad Mur Akush to La Maison Arabe

IMG_4941
Riad Mur Akush Marrakech

Each day for six months has been nothing but new. My only constant has been change. Even traditions–Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve—were celebrated in first-ever ways. St. Valentine’s Day 2015 I climbed with friends to a riad rooftop supported by 300-year-old walls. New chums encircled by the snowy Atlas Mountains, we sat sleeveless  on a sunny summit above the Marrakech Medina. Good company, fabulous food, pure peace.

My friend, Kate, was our hostess for lunch at Riad Mur Akush which she manages. New to Morocco, too, she moved here from Melbourne.   I met her and Maria, the English owner, at an InterNations mixer last fall. Kate had flown from an empty nest and we meet regularly to share stories of our second acts. This time, rather than meeting for dinner at a restaurant in our neighborhood, I asked if we could do lunch at her workplace. I love riads–traditional Moroccan houses or palaces.  For privacy, rooms open to interior gardens or courtyards with flowing fountains or tiled pools. Most of the riads serve meals only to guests, so I knew friends would love to spend an afternoon in such a pretty place.

Always about beauty breaks and exploration, I added:  “Maybe we could visit other riads, too?”

She loved the idea and made it happen.   “We could do a Riad Crawl like the pub crawls in Australia! I’ll speak to our cook and get back with you on a menu.”

And with that, what we hope to make a new tradition began. Since she had a full house for the holiday, she said we’d start small on the roof. Later when too hot to be up there, we’d move downstairs to accommodate more.

I’ll be interviewing Kate soon on her reinvention and our meal—a fusion of Moroccan and Australian cuisine.  Some left with plans to book family who visit; some to take a stay-cation there themselves.  All needed Cupid’s wings because we were too full to walk home.   But we had a second stop, Le Maison Arabe, the oldest and largest riad/boutique hotel in the Medina where  Kate had arranged for us a tour and coffee.

We were greeted by their friendly staff, the sounds of fountains draining into the pool, the smell of cedar, and the feel of a 1940s jazz club.  Some plan to try their cooking classes and others their spa which, unlike wellness centers in many riads, is open to the public.

Thanks, Kate, Riad Mur Akush, and La Maison Arabe for sharing the love on February 14th with seven newcomers to Marrakech.

IMG_4948

IMG_4951
Zakia, Riad Mur Akush’s Amazing Cook

IMG_4953

IMG_4954

IMG_4957

IMG_4958

IMG_4963

IMG_4966

IMG_4959

IMG_4968

IMG_4969
IMG_4972

IMG_4982

IMG_4983
(from left) Laurie, Jasna, Rachel, Eliza, Jon, Sylvie
IMG_4992
Kate Woods, Manager of Riad Mur Akush
IMG_4996
Moroccan Salads

IMG_4980

IMG_4998
Mohamed, best waiter ever


IMG_5008

IMG_5010

IMG_5012
Chicken, olives, and preserved lemons in a tagine


IMG_5013

IMG_5021
Kate’s Apple Crisp served with fresh cream and cinnamon

IMG_5023

IMG_5017

IMG_5022
IMG_5026

IMG_5028
IMG_5029

IMG_5031
IMG_5032

IMG_5034

IMG_5035
IMG_5036

IMG_5037
IMG_5038

IMG_5039
IMG_5040

IMG_5043

IMG_5046
IMG_5049
IMG_5051

IMG_5052
IMG_5053

IMG_5055

Next stop…La Maison Arabe.

IMG_5057

IMG_5062
La Maison Arabe
IMG_5067
Cedar

IMG_5063

IMG_5070

IMG_5072
IMG_5073

IMG_5074 IMG_5077

IMG_5083

IMG_5086
IMG_5088

IMG_5089
IMG_5090

IMG_5092
IMG_5093

IMG_5098

IMG_5099

IMG_5103
IMG_5109

IMG_7120