Memories of food in Morocco. There’s so much wrapped up in this tagine piece – recovery from illness, the newness of a foreign country, gratitude and hope are bubbling away in the pot with the vegetables and spices!
The exhibition is on in the beautiful Dun Laoghaire LexIcon library, on the 4th floor, for the rest of the summer and then it’s touring the Dublin libraries. I’m proud to be part of this.
And here’s the text:
There’s so much colour here. Vibrancy pulsates in the air. It’s in the smells, the souks, the voices of the hawkers and the buyers. Rows and rows of crates filled with vegetables, herbs, nuts, fish, meat, spices, greens, blues, reds, it looks like the earth has been dug up and exposed, roots and all.
Ingredients are bought with intent, they are handled, assessed and haggled over. Food is prepared slowly and simply by hand. Vegetables are washed, cut, sliced and diced. Fish is skinned and boned, meat dissected, every part is used. Meals are cooked slowly, letting the cooking vessel work its magic.
To get the flavours right, you need the right mix of spices. Cumin, coriander, cayenne, turmeric and paprika. Mud brown, forest green, burnt orange, bright yellow and blood red – a roll call of colour. These tiny pyramids of flavour look like magic dust waiting to be sprinkled over a cauldron. Your basic ingredients are onion and garlic, root vegetables many and varied, and meat or fish. The dish is assembled, cooked and eaten in layers.
You start with a base of onion, garlic and spices. You place the meat at the centre, like a diamond to be excavated. You surround it with vegetables, largest on the inside, smallest on the outside. You splash a small amount of water over everything. You pop the lid on top of the round base and walk away. Time and the conical, pyramid shaped pot will do the rest.
When you return, you will find an invisible alchemy has taken place in your absence. The small amount of water you added will be infused with spice. It is no longer water. It is sauce. The vegetables are soft and buttery, even though there is no butter involved. The succulent meat simmers at the core. A perfect but gentle storm has taken place, steam and heat and time colliding to extract rich, deep flavours from the ingredients, transforming their taste and texture from simple to sublime.
The dish is revealed by whipping off the lid, in the manner of a magician. Fragrant steam fills the room and the vegetables gleam at you. Their rainbow colours shine.
Bread is a utensil here. To eat, you begin at the outside and work your way in towards the meaty treasure at the centre, scooping the vegetables with your hands or with bread. The vegetables taste sweet and the bread quickly becomes deliciously soggy. When you finally reach the meat, it yields to your touch, peeling away from the bone, softened by the slow cooking and the steam.
It’s deeply satisfying to earn the reward of the centre, so unlike western food, where you immediately see everything you are going to eat laid out on a plate. Like everything else in this country, food is shrouded in mystery. And steam. It rises from the ground in the desert heat. It clouds the air in the hammam to cleanse the skin. It rises in the tagine to cook the food. It spirals from earthenware teapots brewing mint tea to cleanse the palate after eating.
Time moves slowly in this place of tradition and custom, of minarets and muezzins. The call to prayer five times a day reminds you of your natural circadian rhythm, a time to wake, to eat, to rest, to work, to sleep. It makes you stop for a moment and reflect on what you have to be grateful for and you remember that feeling of gratitude when you sit down to eat.
When you eat, you eat with others. In the same way that food is cooked with other ingredients, it is consumed with other people. Nothing exists in isolation. Community and family are at the heart of every activity. Food is eaten directly from the dish in the centre of a low table. Hands criss-cross in the air, reaching for the breadbasket or the plumpest vegetable. There is endless chatter about events of the day in a mix of languages – French, Arabic and English. There’s no television, no devices, no tools of any kind. Just time. Time to eat, time to talk, time to digest not only the food but the news of the day, and time to rest after a meal.
In this hot, dusty, noisy country where life moves at a gentle pace and language sounds like a song; food is eaten with more care and consideration than anywhere I’ve ever been in the world. I ate tagines at roadside rest-stops, sampled couscous, pastilla and delicious sweet delicacies in people’s homes. I tried harira and bissara, traditional, hearty soups sold by street sellers, deep in the medina. I drank avocado juice, mint tea and café crème in seaside cafes. No matter where or what I ate, I ate slowly. The way food is treated here, with care and respect, and where nothing goes to waste, is a valuable lesson in how to treat every other aspect of your life.