Melding Tastes Of The Past And Present In Morocco

An audio postcard of a cooking tour of Morocco.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Thanksgiving can be about many things: spending time with friends and family, watching football and, of course, eating.

Today, reporter Jake Warga is far from home in Morocco. So instead of turkey and the trimmings, he spent the past week diving into local fare and sent us this culinary postcard.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

JAKE WARGA, BYLINE: Like any good tourist, I hunger for culture and food. Luckily, culinary tours are an increasingly popular way to travel. So I joined a tour with six other Americans to learn the tastes of Morocco, a country where culture and food are inseparable.

Our first taste comes from the past. In the Ourika Valley, in the shade of the Atlas Mountains live the Berbers, Morocco's indigenous group.

KAREEM AIT ALI: And now we are in the weekly market. It's called the Monday.

WARGA: At the Monday Market, we're gathering everything we need to make Berber couscous, including beef cut manually with a hand saw in an open air butchers area.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAWING)

ALI: Yeah, I told them just we need four kilos, about eight pounds of meat for couscous.

WARGA: This is Kareem.

ALI: Yeah, Kareem Ait Ali from the Kasbah of Omar.

WARGA: Kareem is working with Access Trips in the States, which has seen a 90 percent jump in bookings for culinary tours in the past year alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALL TO PRAYER)

WARGA: My cooking class at Kasbah Omar, a hotel nestled in a Berber community. Cooking in a tajine, the classic clay pot with a cone top, over charcoal fire, I'm experiencing the same tastes and smells that numerous generations before have enjoyed. It's time travel through cooking.

I see similar fires peppered throughout the valley.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CALL TO PRAYER)

WARGA: But by far, my favorite dish is a meaty pastry called pastilla. It's typically made with pigeon meat - but, yeah, we're using chicken and almonds instead. With cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric and so many spices, it's salty and sweet at the same time like history itself and the dish is history.

MINA: (Foreign language spoken)

WARGA: Mina, chef of Moroccan cuisine, specializes in pastries.

MINA: (Foreign language spoken)

WARGA: She explains that pastilla came from the Moors, Muslims who lived in (unintelligible) what is now Spain and Portugal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAGULLS)

RASHIDA HEDAMIN: For me the past is always sweet like honey. No bad taste.

WARGA: Just on the coast is Essaouira. It's where I talked Rashida Hedamin(ph), a local historian. I wanted to ask her what the past tastes like, what flavors from history remain in the food, the culture.

HEDAMIN: Every time I think about the past, I think about a very special dish, (unintelligible) have different flavors. It's called Scrinath(ph). It's a Moroccan-Jewish dish with chickpeas. Every time I eat it, for me, it's history. It's full of the history of the city.

WARGA: Historically, Essaouira is well known as a city where Jews and Muslims live side-by-side.

We end our tour in Marrakesh. And feeling a little homesick, I sneak off from the group and eat some French fries from a McDonald's. I was transported instantly across an ocean into a time to my own past. It tasted like my childhood but a bit bland and suburban, so I sprinkled on a little Ras el Hanout I bought earlier from a spice seller. It's a popular blend of 35 spices that I'm told will make anything taste like Morocco.

It's true. My past and present came together in the next bite.

For NPR, I'm Jake Warga in Morocco.

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