Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Crossing Cultures in Marrakech

“Hello, you remember me?” the man asked, with a wide smile. “I carry your bags this morning, remember?”

Chris and I nodded blankly and smiled back at the man as we walked out the front gate of La Mamounia in Marrakech. We weren’t, in truth, staying at this renowned hotel. We had simply wanted to stroll its magnificent gardens, usually reserved for guests. But we were dressed for dinner at a nearby restaurant and thought we’d try to sneak in, striding past the uniformed doormen just thirty minutes earlier like we owned the place.

Now as we left the grounds, this man appeared smiling. “I look different now,” he said. “No hat.” He pointed to his head, referring to the traditional flat-topped fez often worn by porters in upscale Moroccan hotels.

We nodded and smiled again, embarrassed to reveal we weren’t rich Westerners, at least not rich enough to afford La Mamounia, and had just slipped in for a glimpse of its gardens.

“Where are you from?” he asked, walking along beside us.

“The United States,” I replied, watching his face to discern its reaction. It was hard to read, but appeared benign as he launched into a story about a relative who lives in Boston. Every now and then he pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and consulted it for vocabulary. He explained that he was trying to improve his English. We told him we were on our way to dinner, and he offered to lead us to the restaurant.

Chris and I glanced at each other, not sure where this conversation was heading. Was he just being friendly, or was he like the young men who routinely approached us in the labyrinthine medina offering to give us directions? They were known to lead gullible tourists the wrong way and then help them find their way back for a few coins. But this man seemed different. He prattled on about his twin daughters as he stepped into the chaotic avenue with his arms outstretched to stop traffic so we could safely cross. At some point he told us his name, Omar*, and we told him ours. When he asked our last name, I made one up.

Omar asked if we had been to the Berber rug market held earlier that day. We hadn’t, but had encountered numerous rug merchants in the souk, eager to show us their selections. He had a friend, he said, who would give us a good price, a special price for guests at La Mamounia.

“No thanks,” we said. “We don’t want to be late for dinner.”

Before we knew what was happening, we were seated in a showroom being served mint tea as the merchant unrolled his wares. They were beautiful rugs, and an excellent price considering the labor involved in hand-weaving. The cost was not much more than one night’s stay at La Mamounia. But we weren’t interested in buying a rug. We just wanted to politely escape. It would be rude not to drink the tea, though, and we weren’t quite sure where we were.

Finally, when it was clear we wouldn’t be making a purchase, Omar said goodbye to his friend and led us to the door of our restaurant. He wasn’t as friendly as he had been earlier, although he said he’d look for us at the hotel the next day.

A few minutes later, a waiter served us wine at a table strewn with rose petals. Chris and I toasted, with relief and bemusement, dodging our disingenuous predicament. It then occurred to me that maybe Omar was pulling one over on us too. Did he even work at La Mamounia, or did he wait outside its gate to lead unsuspecting guests to his family’s rug shop? Were we both misreading each other due to stereotypes and cultural assumptions? Nearly a year since our visit there I still couldn’t say, but I do wonder if the reason we were skeptical of his story is because we had concocted one of our own.

I’ve been thinking about this encounter a lot lately, in the wake of the tragic events in Paris. And I’ve wondered if we can ever truly know, or understand, another person’s motives—whether it’s someone we’ve never met, or someone we’ve had a brief exchange with, or someone we know well. Or even ourselves. I’m sad for the people of Paris, all of them, and hope that the better side of human nature will prevail.

Chicken Tagine with Apricots and Almonds (adapted from La Maison Arabe)
This warming, iconic Moroccan dish is perfect for a winter evening. The melt-in-your-mouth chicken is redolent with spices, and the apricots add a touch of sweetness.

Serves 4

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 whole chicken (2 pounds), cut into large pieces
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 cinnamon stick
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon saffron threads
1½ cups water
parsley and cilantro bouquet
16 dried apricots
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 cloves
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup whole almonds, blanched and lightly fried in olive oil

In a tagine or large heavy pot, drizzle the olive oil. Add the meat, onion, salt, pepper, cinnamon stick, ginger, turmeric, and saffron. Mix well so the meat is coated with the spices. On medium heat, sear the chicken for about 15 minutes, covered, turning it occasionally and adding a bit of water if necessary. Watch the chicken closely so it doesn’t stick and so the spices don’t burn.

Add the water to the pot, along with the parsley and cilantro bouquet. Increase the heat to medium-high, cover, and cook for about 50 minutes, or until the meat is falling from the bone and the sauce has thickened.

While the meat is cooking, caramelize the apricots. Rinse the apricots and put them in a small saucepan. Add the cinnamon and cloves and mix well. Cover the apricots with water and cook them on medium heat, covered, for 10 minutes. Lower the heat and continue cooking for 15 more minutes. Add the honey and cook for another 10 minutes until the sauce becomes syrupy.

Before serving, remove the herb bouquet and cinnamon sticks from the tagine. Transfer the chicken from the pot to a serving dish. Add the apricot syrup and butter to the sauce and stir until the butter is melted. Season with salt and pepper and pour the sauce over the meat. Arrange the caramelized apricots and fried almonds evenly over the meat. Serve hot with crusty bread.

*name has been changed

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