If you can't stand the heat, get into the kitchen!

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If you can't stand the heat, get into the kitchen!
Marrakech, Morocco

Marrakech, Morocco


Elizabeth and I have known each other a long time and have shared many experiences and adventures. I dare say after yesterday’s hammam, we know each other a whole lot better than ever before. But today’s activity took us all the way back to where it began – cooking class! Of course we were 11 years old then and it was at Penrith City Council during the summer holidays making food not even my dog would eat (Smedley was very discerning and more human than dog of course). Had you told us then that we’d one day be best of friends and willingly sign up for an all day cooking class in Marrakech, I’m sure we would have asked where Marrakech was and then be giddy to know there was a world outside Penrith that we were going to see… we may have wondered why Joanne wasn’t coming with us… (my best friend at the time and Liz’s cousin).

We made our way to the designated meeting point in the square where we were met by our teacher and guide for the day, Gemma from Souk Cuisine and fellow classmates – two couples, both from Birmingham, the first on their first honeymoon, the second on their second – as it happens they live just up the road from each other and yet had to come all the way to Marrakech to meet! Each pair was given a shopping list and coin purse and then off into the heart of the markets again.

This time was vastly different though. We were guided through and introduced to Gemma’s preferred vendors who extended to us all the goodwill they had for her. We were taken in with such warmth, hospitality and generosity that we might otherwise have not experienced. Not only was it a welcome reprieve from the constant hassling, it was a privileged insight into the day to day life of the local community. We were talked through the different ingredients, unique cooking methods and special equipment used. We even met the man who proudly appeared along side Jamie Oliver in a Moroccan special.

As we went, we gathered the ingredients we needed for the day, doing the testing, tasting and purchasing ourselves. We spent quite a bit of time in a particularly friendly spice shop having various lotions and potions demystified for us, including the black goo we’d smeared on ourselves yesterday. Turns out its a soap called nigella! Before we left with a swag of spices, we ladies were each given a green lipstick that turns pink on your lips (now you know where the 80s went!).

We visited the local bakery which also doubled as a community oven. It was explained to us that most people don’t have ovens in their homes so they prepare their own dough or other food in clay jars and take it to the bakery, drop it off to be cooked and pick it up when it’s done.

When told our last stop was the ‘supermarket’, I had envisioned leaving the market to go to a place with aisles and bright lighting as opposed to a hole in a wall with a man able to find anything you could wish for in a compact cavern behind him. He even seemed to be selling sanitary pads by the kilo!

With everything crossed off our shopping lists, we were led down a narrow alley just off the marketplace and to a half size door through which we stepped down into Gemma’s own riad and home of the cooking school. It was so peaceful and bright inside that it was hard to imagine we were only meters away from the chaos of the souk. We were given aprons and a run down of the days menu. The dishes were divided amongst us. Liz was quick to volunteer for salads thinking it would be the easiest (she was wrong). The wives formed Team Cous Cous while their husbands opted for sardines, leaving me with an eggplant and tomato dip/spread thing.

We set about our tasks in a very social and collaborative manner aided by Gemma and two local women who’s family recipes we were using. The cous cous took two hours to be triple steamed, the sardines had to be run down to the bakers for cooking, mine was fairly straight forward but poor Liz was still labouring away on her four salads – ‘salad’ meaning anything made with just vegetables so what she thought would be simple actually involved making a cold cucumber soup, a hot carrot dish, a type of salsa and something else with zucchinis. While she was finishing off, we used the time to whip up a batch of Moroccan cookies for later.

And then came the best bit – eating! We sat around a long table and got stuck into a meal so delicious none of us quite believed we’d made it ourselves (albeit with a lot of help and preparation by the ladies from Souk Cuisine). We were even treated to a few bottles of Moroccan wine which was strange to see given the tough laws around alcohol consumption. As we ate, we talked about our various travels. The other couples had only just arrived and were asking Liz and I for recommendations. We were quick to recommend the hammam experience. It was only as we recounted what it involved that we realised we were under the effects of something akin to Stockholm syndrome… Marrakech syndrome perhaps… even as we saw the horror in their faces, we both yearned to feel that clean and fresh again in this oppressive heat.

The day had been as full as we were. The time came to say goodbye and go our separate ways… only we all made a bee-line to the exact same place – back to the spice shop to stock up on supplies and gifts for loved ones. So much more than a shop, it was a full cultural experience. We were treated to copious amounts of sweet mint tea as they demonstrated everything they had including frankincense and myrrh! Such gracious hospitality!

We set off back through the maze looking for souvenirs and postcards. At one place we stopped in, we saw the shop keeper from yesterday who’d given us directions. It took a moment to place him but once I had, he gave me the strangest compliment of the trip so far – he said I had a Moroccan face! I think it was intended as a compliment no matter how patently not true. Still, it was better than the guy who asked Liz how many camels she wanted for me! Apparently she settled on 3 which I said better be an hourly rate! She said it was but she called off the deal when it turned out he only had cigarettes.

We mooched around town for a while, trying to keep cool in various cafes before heading back to our riad’s rooftop terrace for more mocktails at sunset. Once the heat had subsided, we decided we needed to go back out into the thick of it to get more cash for the following day. Bracing ourselves for the onslaught of unsolicited attention, a creative solution from our past dawned on us! Rubbish! Rubbish is a mythical language that I was first introduced to many years ago by friends daughter, Madeline, who was 5 years old at the time. Having just come back from a trip around Europe, she spoke in a language of her own called ‘rubbish’. It sounded real but was entirely made up of the sounds of various languages she’s heard around the way.

What we’d gleaned from our experience is that the men (and I use the word ‘men’ loosely to encompass males ranging from 10-100) tend to call out in multiple languages until they see which we react to and then proceed in our case, in english – it’s very impressive really to a mono-linguist like myself. Our theory was if we spoke in Rubbish to each other and to them, they wouldn’t be able to engage us. We gave it a try and it worked a treat! It didn’t stop the initial hassling, but the drop off rate was much faster.

We got our cash and another sneaky 20c ice cream and decided to do another lap of the markets in Rubbish just for fun before heading back for an early night ahead of our early start tomorrow.


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