On my last day in Morocco, with a heavy heart, I lugged my heavy suitcase into the airport at Casablanca. I had enjoyed two magical weeks in the breathtaking country, traveling over pristine mountains and through crowded bazaars, watching brilliant sunsets and drinking endless cups of Moroccan mint tea with two friends.
The young woman at the check in counter pointed to the weight displayed on her counter and raised her eyebrow. I knew I had exceeded the baggage allowance. I had known it all along as I had picked up blue bedsheets at Chefchaouen, bags and shoes at the medina in Fez and pottery and lavender and argan oil in the markets of Marrakech.
Like most travelers, I found my suitcase mysteriously expanding to make space for all the experiences and items that hitched a ride back with me. All of it was baggage. And baggage, as I knew too well, is always heavy.
“I know it’s a bit extra,” I smiled as I met her eye.
“But your country is so beautiful, I bought so many things, even a tajine,” I said, my voice sincerely reflecting my state of mind after this gorgeous holiday.
“A tajine!” The girl was shocked and amused.
“Tajines are heavy,” she agreed and let me through without making me pay for excess luggage.
A vegetarian’s dilemma
Travel is my weakness.
After diligently avoiding any obvious vice or a hedonistic lifestyle for the first four decades of my life, in my forties, I decided it was time to pursue something just for fun and throw both money and myself at it. That ‘something’ was travel.
I went on holidays with family and with friends. Each had a different purpose and a different cadence. The locations were always exotic, the experiences never the same.
My first step on the continent of Africa was into the beautiful country of Morocco. Landing at Casablanca airport on a warm November afternoon, I met my friends who had flown in from different locations, and Omar, our guide who would drive us through his beautiful country.
“Are you hungry?” Omar asked, taking a look at our travel-weary faces.
‘Yes,” we replied in unison.
“But. Two of us are vegetarian,” I said, expecting to find surprise or resistance.
“Mashi mushkil. No problem,” he replied, confidently. It was a word we would become used to hearing from Omar after each unusual, weird or trivial request that we would make in the coming days.
We looked at each other and smiled. We were in good hands.
As a vegetarian traveler, food (or lack thereof) is a huge concern for me when I enter unfamiliar terrains. The concept of vegetarianism is interpreted differently across the world and in some parts, it is unheard of.
Not so in Morocco.
A country blessed with mountains and seashores, deserts and valleys, rain and sunshine and dates and olives, there are many ways to concoct delicious meals, with and without meat.
The best way of course, is using a tajine.
The art of tajines
Omar took us to all the tourist spots on our itinerary but he also took us to out of the way markets, to an unmarked pottery shop located around a sharp bend in the Atlas mountains, and also to his own home in Marrakesh. He introduced us to tajine cuisine, a heavenly concoction of vegetables and spices cooked together in a clay pot.
The “tajine” is a traditional Moroccan cooking vessel made of ceramic or unglazed clay with a round base and low sides. A cone-shaped cover sits on the base during cooking. The conical lid traps steam during cooking and returns the liquid to the clay pot, resulting in a moist dish with concentrated flavors.
We saw a tajine being prepared by the wayside in a crowded market on our way to the Sahara. The burst of colors of the ingredients and ease with which the man was loading it up, casually but with a firm understanding of the order in which the ingredients should be loaded for best results, stopped us in our tracks.
Curious about the product, we came back a while later to smell and taste the inviting aroma of the freshly cooked contents, a delicious medley of flavours – of locally grown vegetables mixed with ginger and cumin and olive oil.
What more could a vegetarian tourist want?
A flavorful local dish that was light, yet filling and totally unforgettable.
How could I not buy a tajine after all those wonderful meals?
Replicating the experience is a futile task
After changing planes at Dubai and over eighteen hours of flying time, I opened my suitcase gingerly when I returned home to Singapore. I kept my fingers crossed, not knowing which of my recent acquisitions would have suffered damage.
To my delight, everything was intact (I must have packed everything carefully, I think), including my simple but functional clay tajine, my impulse buy. Instead of a pretty one that is used for serving, I had chosen the hardy, basic version that is used for cooking. These tajines, although not as impressive as the others, are more versatile because you can use them for both cooking and serving.
Bringing it home was one thing. Cooking with it was another.
I looked up YouTube videos and scrolled through tajine recipes online. Finally the day arrived, when I had everything lined up.
I had seasoned the tajine the day before as instructed by Omar. The vegetables were cleaned, peeled, and cut to size. I poured olive oil and mixed with assorted spices. I added salt and covered the shallow base with the conical lid – the secret that makes tajine cuisine so yummy.
To ensure even cooking, I placed the tajine on a thick iron pan and allowed it to slowly cook, allowing the steam to slide off the inside of the sloping lid and mix with the natural juices from the contents and enriching its flavour.
And then it was time to reveal the masterpiece. Voila!
It looked fabulous, almost as good as it had in all the restaurants that we had eaten in Morocco. But the taste….
Something was not quite right. I’m sure I had added everything I needed and in the right proportion. It wasn’t a lack on the part of the dish or my attempt at cooking.
What was missing was the ambience. The company. The atmosphere.
So much of our enjoyment of food and the memories associated with the whole experience.
Whether we miss the comfort food of home which comes with large dollops of love and care or exotic food enjoyed in faraway places flavored by the distance and difference from our home cuisine, the sum total of all of our senses and state of mind make up our memory of a meal.
I could bring a tajine to my home in Singapore, but I could not bring Morocco home.
I learnt this important lesson through a plain clay tajine.
What lessons have you learnt from your travels?