I remember way back in the early 90′s when my college roommate Melissa told me about her dining experience at a Moroccan restaurant during her vacation to Vancouver. It sounded amazing. She sat on pillows and ate exotic food with her hands. I said to myself. “I want to go to a Moroccan Restaurant.” Dave and I had plenty of opportunities over the years. We lived in Toronto and passed by the Sultan’s Tent many times. We always said “We should go out for Moroccan food one day.” We never did.
It took us going all the way to Morocco to finally have our first proper Moroccan meal and let me tell you, we pulled out all the stops. It was during our travels through Europe as we lived like a local with HouseTrip that we decided to take a cooking class. I mean what’s more living like a local than learning how to cook like a local right?
Riyad El Cadi, Moroccan Cooking School
We arrived at the beautiful Riyad El Cadi to begin our cooking course on a sunny and warm afternoon. As we entered the courtyard, we were greeted with mint tea and big smiles. We then sat at a table filled with pistachios, olives and pastries placed beside another table filled with all the ingredients we needed for today’s cooking class. No need to rush and get to work here, it was time to sit back, relax and have a cup of tea. The receptionist Ali was with us for the day to translate and entertain and we got on splendidly.
As we munched on the most delicious olives on earth, Chef Hassan came out to prepare the days menu for us. They showed an array of spices and vegetables that we’d be putting into our dishes and we couldn’t wait to get started.
Moroccan cuisine is expensive. When you go out for dinner in Marrakech or other Moroccan cities, expect to pay a little more than you will in other Middle Eastern countries, but there is a reason for this. Moroccan cuisine takes a very long time to prepare. We had read this in our Lonely Planet Marrakech guide, but until we saw first hand just how much preparation goes into Moroccan food, we didn’t believe it.
Our cooking class ended up being more of a demonstration than a hands on cooking lesson, but that was fine by us. We got to chop a few vegetables and plate a bit of food, but for the most part, Chef Hassan did all the work. As we worked his magic, we realized that we could never learn how to cook Chicken Tagine or Moroccan sauces in one short day, so instead of fretting about not being able to help out, we sat back, sipped our tea and watched the show.
Chef Hassan meticulously prepared 5 Moroccan Salads and two main hot dishes over the course of three hours. Salads are a large part of a Moroccan feast. He made the eggplant based, Zaalouk salad, two different cabbages salads, a pepper and tomato salad and an olive and carrot salad. Wow, this is one healthy meal. Forget all the fad diets of North America, dine on Moroccan food and you’ll live longer, feel better and stay skinny!
However, with the amount of food we were preparing, I think it might be impossible for Dave and I to keep our waistlines from expanding. Not only were we learning about Moroccan cuisine, doing a little chopping and watching Chef Hassan at work both outside and in the kitchen, tonight we’d be feasting on our meal by candlelight in the Riyad.
Let me tell you a little bit about Moroccan Food preparations.
Each dish is carefully prepared mixing spices like cumin, paprika, nutmeg and coriander together. Vegetables are peeled and chopped and sliced and diced. Some are fried in a deep fryer while others are placed over a flame to roast off the peel gradually. Tomatoes are boiled and placed in plastic bags then peeled by hand and carrots are placed in pans and cooked over high heat. Our main course consisted of Berber chicken Tagine with Vegetables and Beef Tagine with prunes and almonds. These are cooked slowly in a tagine pot which lets all the spices and flavours infuse in the vegetables and meats.
It’s impossible to keep everything straight. There is so much work involved in making a Moroccan meal.
When I asked Ali how long the chef works each day, he tells us that there are two shifts at work. The Sous Chef works all morning preparing, cutting and putting together all the spices and ingredients and then the Chef comes in at 3:00 to start preparing for the evening meals. They only make a limited choice of main meals for the menu each evening as so much work goes into each dish. The patrons of Ryad el Cadi must rely on the expertise of the chef to choose their meal for the evening and believe me, you won’t go wrong.
So much preparation goes into one meal.
As we sipped our freshly squeezed orange juice while watching the staff prepare in the kitchen, we wondered how on earth we were going to be able to finish all this food?
“Is all this for us?” We asked. “Certainly.” They replied. Oh boy, we’re in trouble. I immediately set down the piece of fresh bread that Chef Hassan brought us to taste. I was already feeling full and the meal hadn’t even started yet.
To work up a bit of an appetite, Ali took us on a tour of the Ryad while our meals slowly cooked in Tagine pots.
A Riyad is a traditional Moroccan house with an interior courtyard. Some are larger than others depending on the wealth of the families who owned them and today most are transformed into guesthouses and hotels. The Riyad el Cadi is one of the largest in Marrakech and clearly was owned by someone very rich. You can get lost walking through the back hallways and corridors of the place, but we made our way back to the courtyard, just in time for our meal to be served.
We sat at our own private dining table with a bottle of wine and soft candlelight to accompany our incredible meal. I’m not the most eloquent when it comes to describing food, but Moroccan food is the most flavourful cuisine in the world. As I said in the title, it is a feast for the senses. It bursts with flavour, has a rich aroma and each salad and dish is unique in taste and texture. The tagines were slow cooked to perfection with all the Moroccan spices seeped into the meat and vegetables. We managed to put a good dent in our meal as we took our time savouring the moment. The setting was perfection and it may have taken years, but I am so glad that we waited to have our first ever proper Moroccan meal in Morocco.