Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Casse Croute Cooking

One element that takes a while for travelers to get used to is meal schedules. Every country seems to have its own specific internal clock that lets everyone know when to have breakfast, lunch, dinner, and so on. Morocco is no exception to this rule. I always feel like I'm eating at the wrong time when I'm traveling - whether I'm having dinner in an empty restaurant, expecting breakfast food and only finding places serving lunch, or having my waiter react to my order by asking me, "you want that now?".

It has taken me nearly a year of living here to finally get into the rhythm of Moroccan meal timing. Here is what I have learned:

8-10 am: Breakfast (breads, jams, olive oil, coffee, tea, black olives)
1-3 pm: Lunch (Tagines, couscous, bean soups, or a sandwich/panini if you are on the go)
5-7 ish: "Casse Croute" (a word borrowed from the French that means snack), also known as tea time (similar foods to breakfast, plus cookies or cake if enjoyed with guests or friends)
9-11 ish: Dinner (generally lighter than lunch, maybe leftovers, spaghetti, soups such as harira or semolina, stewed vegetables, fish)
Dessert: fresh fruit, if anything

*this schedule is merely a set of estimates and shouldn't by any means be taken as a unchanging fact*

If you spend anytime in Morocco you will fall in love with the breads that are prepared for Casse Croute. In the mornings and late afternoons you see women rolling out their gas griddles onto the sidewalks in front of cafés and snack shops as they begin to pan fry various types of breads. The smell is intoxicating.

With most types of cooking in Morocco, it is difficult to find any exact recipes. Moroccan women cook with their senses - smell, taste, touch, look. It is a "pinch-full" of this, or a "splash" of that, or "add this until it looks like that" kind of style, which at first can feel impossible to a foreigner who was brought up using measuring cups, scales, and ovens with precise temperature readings. However, if you get over this learning curve and embrace the creativity and trust your instincts (or your teacher's), I promise the end result will be nothing but delicious. 

Beghrir (be-gh-reer)

Beghrir is a light spongy pancake that is usually served drizzled in honey and eaten during casse croute. Many families eat beghrir as a way to break their daily fast during the month of Ramadan because it is easy to eat several without feeling stuffed. I'm not sure how great of an attribute this is...

yields 12-15 pancakes

1T (or spoonful - teaspoon sized and semi-heaping) of sea salt
250 grams of semolina flour (finely ground)

4 packets of Idéal (brand) baking soda (32 grams total)

Warm water

In a blender, combine the salt and the semolina flour and add warm (not hot) water until it makes a batter that resembles that of a thin pancake batter. Blend until mixed well and then add baking soda. Blend until it is mixed through, but don't over do it. 

Using a small non-stick frying pan over medium to high heat. Ladle the batter into a pan so it resembles a pancake. The batter will begin to bubble and then firm up. When this happens, the beghrir is ready! Slide it out of the pan onto a plate, drizzle with honey, and enjoy! 

Melaoui (me-la-wee)

Melaoui is what I'd imagine the spawn of a pancake and fried dough to taste like. Crispy and buttery on the outside with a doughy center, it is sure to please. Moroccans eat it with a wide variety of spreads, such as: honey, Vache qui Rit (spreadable cheese), olive oil, butter, jam, amlou (a spread made out of honey, Argan oil, and honey). I personally enjoy it with honey and a jet black espresso. 

Yields about 12 servings


(approx.) 250 grams of all purpose flour (or however much you want to use) - SIFTED
a pinch of table salt (to taste)
(approx.) 4 grams of baking soda
Warm water

vegetable oil (zeet)
butter or margarine (zebda) - softened or spreadable is best 

Medium ground semolina flour

 In a large mixing bowl, mix your dry ingredients. Gradually add splashes of warm water until the consistency resembles a sticky bread dough. The best way to tell this is by mixing with your hands.

Next, dump the batter onto a clean countertop and begin working the dough by rolling and kneading it. Do this for approximately 3 minutes.

Grease a cookie sheet with vegetable oil. 

Rub a bit of vegetable oil onto your hands and begin pinching off balls of dough about the size of a small child's fist and placing them on the greased cookie sheet. Once all the balls of dough are on the cookie sheet cover it with saran wrap for about 15 minutes. While you are waiting for the dough to rest, pour about 1/2 a cup of vegetable oil and a few spoonfuls of butter or margarine into a small dish. In another small dish, pour out about 1/2 a cup of semolina flour. 

After 15 minutes, uncover the dough and rub your hands with the oil/butter mixture from the dish. Then, take each ball one by one and press it out until it is flat and thin and (hopefully) circular. Rub a bit of oil/butter onto the dough and sprinkle a little bit of semolina flour into the center. 

Next, imagine an imaginary line running vertically through the center of the dough. Fold the sides of the dough in to the center, rub with oil/butter and sprinkle with semolina flour. Do the same with the top and bottom of the dough. It should look like a square little package. 

Once this has been completed, flatten out each dough "package" until thin and then place it in a cast iron (or whatever you have) skillet over medium-high heat. Once it starts puffing up, flip it over and add a little bit of oil/butter with your fingers. Once both sides are golden brown, your melaoui is finished! 

Note: Because I learned how to make these recipes in a hands on a way (read: my hands were too buttery to document the experience with my camera). The photos in the melaoui recipe were taken from an article on for how to make traditional Melaoui step by step.

(to your health)

Monday, April 16, 2012

A funny thing happened on the way to Marrakech...

This past week was wonderful.

We had visitors from the United States (read: my boyfriend's parents came to Morocco for the first time!) and we had a great week showing them around Rabat and Marrakech. It is always an interesting experience having guests. Not only does it give you an excuse to take time off from work, but it encourages you to see the world around you from a new perspective. Things that you take for granted -nearly getting hit by speeding cars when trying to cross the road, weaving through the old medina streets, living less than ten minutes away from the King's palace, to name a few - all become special things again.

It also gave us a reason to re-visit Marrakech. When I mention Morocco to friends, family, and strangers back at home, one of the most common outbursts I get is, "oh, Marrakech, right?" or "Marrakech Express!". In a nutshell, Marrakech is one of the most well-known aspects about Morocco. Naturally, as a tourist with less than a week to explore the country, it is a high-priority destination. The stories of snake charmers, story tellers, monkeys, and fortune tellers are not hyperbole, but rather reality. The old medina that we stayed in feels more chaotic than our familiar Rabat medina. Not only is it packed with tourists and polyglot shopkeepers haranguing said tourists, but there are also donkeys pushing carts filled with anything from fresh produce, engine parts, or cases of Coca-Cola. Did I mention everyone rides motor bikes? Even women in djellabas and head scarves?

Outside of the congested medina streets are high red clay walls that wrap around the city and seem to glow as the sun sets, setting fire to the palm trees and ducking behind the tall distant mountains that are still capped in snow.

Marrakech is no exception to the rule that Moroccans live in a world of paradox, where you find elements of tradition next to modernity, a desert climate next to snow-capped mountains, an illiterate man who has never left the country can speak multiple languages. It is this juxtaposition of opposites that makes Morocco so culturally rich and expansive. There is no one singular Moroccan experience.

With that being said, I'd like to share a particularly unique experience that happened to us on the train to Marrakech. The train ride between Rabat and Marrakech takes about 4 and a half hours. The first time I took a weekend trip there my friends and I bought 2nd class tickets, without knowing that in second class there is no limit to how many tickets could be sold. Long story short? We ended up standing body-to-body in a sweaty train car for half of the ride before we could find a seat. Ever since then I have learned my lesson. For long train rides I always pay a little more and buy a first class ticket. First class is the only section of trains in Morocco where your ticket corresponds to a specific seat and car number. Especially since we were traveling with guests, we thought that our choice would give us peace of mind. We took an early morning train and within minutes of departing the Rabat Ville station we all began to nod off.

I didn't notice that a few stops into our trip a young woman (about my age, in her 20's) got into our car and sat in the empty seat next to me. About twenty minutes later, my boyfriend nudged my arm to wake me up when he noticed the girl next to me writhe about and then fall to the floor, totally sprawled out between the two rows of chairs facing one another. My first thought was perhaps she was having a seizure, but I quickly realized that this couldn't be the case. Her eyes seemed glazed over and she was moaning loudly and uncontrollably as she tried to rip her shirt off. She seemed really upset and started dry heaving. The only thing we could do was try to wake her up, but nothing seemed to work. Within seconds, she began having what is best described as a severe tantrum. She flailed her legs and arms in all directions with great force while still moaning loudly. So loud, in fact, that by this point we had acquired a bit of an audience outside our car looking on in awe. The next thing I knew she began slurring a single phrase in Arabic over and over. It was difficult to understand exactly what she was saying, but from what I could gather, it was something to the tune of, "he has everything, I am alone." Later, she began reciting what seemed like Quranic verses, "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great), "La ila illa allah wa Muhammad rassoul allah" (There is no God but God and Mohamed is His prophet), and another verse about "Shaytan" (Satan).

An older woman from a neighboring car came in to help us try and restrain her. Without missing a beat, she immediately called her daughter to bring her a bottle of water and her perfume. When I saw how relatively calm she was by this seeming medical anomaly happening before us, I began to piece together my knowledge of Moroccan folkloric culture. I started to wonder if this was what Moroccans call a djinn (spirit) possession. The woman began to spritz the girl's face with water and then sprayed perfume around her face, presumably in attempt to make her come to her senses. Nothing seemed to work. She didn't flinch at the water. She continued to moan and wail the same phrases over and over again. Shortly after, the people in the car took her iphone and started playing a Surah from the Quran off of her iphone's iTunes library and tried to hold it up to her ear. I was pinned to my seat, trying to sort out my own feelings about the event happening in front of my eyes. Should I be scared? Uncomfortable? Intrigued? Excited? All I knew was I wanted to stay calm, alert, and absorb as much of the scene as possible. Within minutes, the conductor of the train came in and started to help move the girl off the floor and lay her down on a row of chairs, helping another man in the car pin down her limbs as she tried to kick them off.

I don't know how much time passed as we sat there watching the scene unfold. After they got her off the floor, she began speaking French and English, but repeating the same lines she had been saying in Arabic. She then started screaming, "Ana Mohamed!" (I am Mohamed!) "Ana min Filastine" (I am from Palestine). A few minutes later she made eye contact with my boyfriend and started to have a conversation with him in English. She was telling him how lucky he was that he doesn't live in Morocco, to which he replied, "But I do. I live in Rabat." Without missing a beat, she said, "You're welcome in my country." She continued, "Do you know who I am? I am Mohamed. I come from Palestine. Do you know Palestine? I am beautiful and therefore no one loves me. I am all alone." It was shortly after this episode that the train conductor suggested that we leave the cabin and he helped us find new seats as the girl slumped back into her hysterical trance-like state.

As our train ride was coming to an end, the same girl, now conscious, found us in our new seats. Accompanied by the train conductor, she sincerely apologized to us for her actions. She appeared incredibly embarrassed and upset. We left it at that.

So, what happened exactly?

Following my gut instinct, I decided to look more into Djinn spirits and their role in Moroccan folk tradition. Djinns are spirits who live in a parallel universe to human kind's. The word "djinn" in Arabic comes from the verb meaning to conceal or to hide, since they are invisible to the human eye. In the Quran it states:

 "Indeed We created man from dried clay of black smooth mud. And We created the Jinn before that from the smokeless flame of fire" 
                                                                (Surah Al-Hijr 15:26-27)

In the Muslim tradition djinoun (plural of djinn) are believed to have the ability to inhabit minds or bodies. If a person does become possessed by a djinn, the name of Allah must be used to expel the spirit from its host. When I looked at a website that detailed the symptoms of djinn possession it became even more peculiar. The girl's behavior matched so many of the characteristics listed - seizure-like movements, talking to oneself, quick to get angry or weep with no apparent cause, erratic behavior and movements, moaning, and groaning. I also spoke to a few Moroccan friends who immediately recognized the behavior I was describing and said that it was most likely an episode of possession.

While I am skeptical of attributing this particular case to spiritual or religious affliction, it was chilling to me just how accurate the descriptions of djinn possession that I read were to what I saw happen before my eyes. Thinking back to Morocco and its paradoxical culture, I couldn't help but be amused by the circumstances: a young girl seems to fall ill by a spiritual possession in the first class car of a train to Marrakech. In her feverish state, she recites ancient scripture in multiple languages. Fellow passengers attempt to calm her down by playing Quranic verses...from her iphone. 

What else could have happened?

I spoke with two Moroccan women who work at the study abroad organization where I work - one is a Darija (Colloquial Moroccan Arabic) professor from Fez and the other is our cleaning lady. When I described the scene to them they first thought it was what they called a Suraa/Sur3,  or a hysterical episode. However, when I told them about her Quranic recitations of "Allahu Akbar" and "La ila illa Allah wa Muhammad rassoul Allah"  they immediately looked at each other with a look of understanding. They explained to me that in their opinion it was most likely the response to a khbar al-mout or death announcement that she received via telephone. 

In reality, who really knows what happened? It definitely is interesting to specultate. This experience has shown me another way in which Morocco walks the line that divides tradition and modernity. In the 21st century many families still hold onto ancient rituals and folklore surrounding spirits, life, and death. For instance, it is common knowledge to  Moroccans that if you whistle inside you are inviting djinn into the home. It is also not a good idea to pour hot water down the drain because that is where the djnoun live and it will upset them. If it truly was a death announcement, why is it that her reaction was so much different than what I would have if I was in her position? Is it a personal difference, or perhaps a greater difference in our cultural upbringing? 

What I witnessed on the train ride presented me with a new challenge: at what point does it no longer make sense to assess an experience through the lens of local culture? Should I take the word of my friends and colleagues who have lived here their whole lives, or should I refer back to my own sociocultural upbringing and attribute what I observed to a fit of extreme psychological hysteria induced by stress or traumatic news? I suppose this is part of the fun in obtaining cross-cultural understanding.