Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Eating Morocco: Wolfert and Lahlou Offer Two Directions for Moroccan Cuisine
Here is an article from the NYTimes on two well-known cooks of Moroccan food and their differing approaches; one could be termed "classic," and the other "new-age." la baas bi him, as long as it tastes like Morocco, right? There are some recipes on the NYT page if you're interested
Two Directions for Moroccan Cuisine
By JULIA MOSKIN
Published: October 4, 2011
MOURAD LAHLOU and Paula Wolfert would not seem to have much in common. He is the 43-year-old chef of Aziza in San Francisco, his arms decorated with tattoos that signify “strength” in Arabic, a son of Casablanca, Morocco, who works wonders with spices and preserved lemons, sous-vide and meat glue.
She is a 73-year-old daughter of Brooklyn, an industrious ex-hippie and renowned culinary anthropologist in Sonoma, Calif., whose favorite kitchen tool is an unglazed clay pot.
But for more than 40 years, both have been immersed in the flavors, aromas and techniques of the Moroccan kitchen. And now each has written an authoritative, enticing cookbook — from diametrically opposed perspectives.
Ms. Wolfert, the outsider, is the stickler for authenticity and tradition.
“He has made this incredible jump,” Ms. Wolfert said of the food at Aziza. “But his food is not the Moroccan cooking I know. He took steps that only he could take.”
Mr. Lahlou, the native son, is the activist for change and modernity. “We started from the same point in time in Morocco, but she looks backward, and I look forward,” he said.
As much as he respects Ms. Wolfert’s work, Mr. Lahlou said that her depiction of Morocco may have kept Americans — and even Moroccans themselves — from tasting its true potential.
Ms. Wolfert’s new book, “The Food of Morocco” (Ecco), is a magisterial rework of the book that put her on the map in 1973, “Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco.” After its publication, she lived in Morocco for several more years, then moved on to study other Mediterranean cuisines.
“I didn’t think there was any ‘Son of Couscous’ to be done,” she said.
Mr. Lahlou’s book, “Mourad: New Moroccan” (Artisan), is a more personal, idiosyncratic work that flows mostly from two small rooms: his family’s kitchen in Marrakesh and his own in San Francisco. It perfectly illustrates his mission: to use the tools of the modern chef to rethink Moroccan food from the ground up.
“Why are we still cooking the vegetables so much? Why does the meat have to be so dry?” he asked, referring to the traditional slow-cooking methods that make the most of less-than-sparkling ingredients. “Why can’t we enjoy the flavor of the meat and use less spices? Everything starts to taste the same.”
The native food culture of Morocco was that of the Berbers who lived there, on the northwest edge of the Sahara; later, successive bastings in Arab, Persian, Spanish, Turkish and French influence made the cuisine rich and complex.
“Lamb with honey and prunes, chicken with olives, couscous,” said Mr. Mourad, who came to the United States as a college student in 1986. “The first time I went back, I was stoked to eat,” he said. “It was amazing the first day, but then it became apparent to me that there was not going to be anything else.”
The food of Morocco, Mr. Lahlou said, is extraordinary but has become stuck in a few narrow ruts.
“Changing the herb garnish on a tagine is still considered daring,” he said. “Cooks are afraid to change the way things have always been done.”
And, he said, the old-school dishes do not reflect modern Moroccan reality; now there are high-quality ingredients, ample refrigeration and skilled cooks with access to food media, the Internet and foreign travel.
“The Morocco I was born into was very poor and very rural,” he said. At that time, Ms. Wolfert said, about 80 percent of the population lived outside major cities; electricity, running water and cooking stoves were rare. Today, that proportion has been reversed, and Moroccans, many of whom speak French and English fluently along with Arabic, have become sophisticated food consumers.
Mr. Lahlou’s book is a persuasive attempt to engage cooks with this modern Morocco. The first seven chapters are devoted to tradition (one is called “Dude, Preserved Lemons”); the rest, to the recipes that he has served at Aziza, like artichokes and saffron-braised onions in cumin broth, or beef cheeks with carrot jam and harissa emulsion.
(Ms. Wolfert, the purist, does not even consider harissa to be Moroccan — it is Tunisian, she said — although it is now ubiquitous on Moroccan tables, like ketchup.)
The sweet earthy spices, velvety textures, complex braises and tangy flavor sparks of Morocco are only the starting point for Mr. Lahlou’s cuisine.
“I came from that culture, so what is intriguing to me is what else is out there,” he said.
That is just what Ms. Wolfert was looking for in the late 1950s, when she left the United States to live abroad as a 19-year-old literary-feminist beatnik.
“I was young, and excited about words, and Jack Kerouac told me I had great legs,” she said. She was drawn to Morocco, along with many young Europeans and Americans, by the country’s enlightened reputation and cheap cost of living after it won independence from France in 1956.
In 1968, when Mr. Lahlou was born in Casablanca, Ms. Wolfert was living outside Tangier, around the corner from the American writer Paul Bowles, and was a suddenly single mother of two small children (her husband having left her for a Swedish painter he met during the student strikes in Paris). She sated her restlessness in the kitchen, where the cook, Fatima, taught her to grind spices, preserve lemons in salt and strip the stalks of freshly cut wheat to prepare the berries for the mill.
“The work of feeding one family was all-consuming,” Ms. Wolfert said.
Eventually, her interest led to the childhood home of the Moroccan consul general to the United States, where she was tutored by his mother and her brigade of cooks, and where she began the revolutionary act of writing down how the traditional dishes were made.
“There was no tradition of sharing recipes in Morocco,” said Mr. Lahlou, describing the significance of Ms. Wolfert’s work. “Cooking jobs were very valuable, literally handed down from generation to generation, and they were not about to give their secrets away.”
In 1973, she published the book that introduced a generation of food-loving bohemians to Moroccan cuisine. The fragrant recipes and evocative photograph of Ms. Wolfert in a soft green caftan, with vendors in a dusty marketplace, put a thousand tagines onto American tables.
At the time, Mr. Lahlou was 5, the constant companion of his family’s chief food supplier: his grandfather, who did the daily shopping. (Mr. Lahlou’s father had also left his wife and children, a situation that was considered so tragic that others spoiled the young Mr. Lahlou with food and attention to make up for it, he said.) He, his brother and his mother, Aziza, lived with her extended family in a compound that encompassed grandparents, cousins and aunts — but only one kitchen.
Like most Moroccan boys, he was never taught to cook. But, he said, he was immersed in food as the family spent an hour at breakfast debating what to have for lunch, and another hour at lunch debating the relative merits of eggplant, okra and peppers with dinner.
As a college student in San Francisco, he began cooking as a way to manage homesickness, and followed his older brother into a job as a waiter at Mamounia in the Richmond district, one of the first upscale Moroccan restaurants in the United States.
When the brothers decided to open a restaurant instead of proceeding to graduate school, he said, backers assumed that belly dancers and waiters with pointy-toed slippers would be prominently featured. He refused.
“I wasn’t going to open a Moroccan Disneyland, and I wasn’t going to make Moroccan ’70s hotel food,” he said.
From there, he said, he developed a style on his own that, in the book, reads like a very hyphenated, modern cuisine, as much American as Moroccan.
In their new books, both authors push beyond what Americans think they know about Moroccan food. For example, bread, not couscous, is the everyday and much-loved staple of Moroccan tables. (Mr. Lahlou said that his family went through eight loaves a day.) Tagines are never spooned over couscous, but scooped up with bread: in cities, with bits pulled from yeast-risen loaves, but among the Berbers, with round flatbreads baked on griddles.
The Berbers use an unusual leavening method that gives a warm, earthy aroma to the loaves: a mix of semolina flour, water and garlic cloves that quickly ferments into a pungent starter. The recipe provided by Ms. Wolfert requires three kinds of flour and takes two days, but is richly rewarding in flavor.
Mr. Lahlou, on the other hand, has invented entirely new breads like harissa-spiked rolls, grilled semolina flatbreads and delicate lacy pancakes (beghrir) made with almond flour. In Mr. Lahlou’s family, only his mother is considered expert at making beghrir, and as a traditional Moroccan cook, she did not share her recipe even with her son. So he worked for years to develop a foolproof method for Aziza’s pastry chef, the pancakes dripping with melted butter and honey.
Many of the skills of the traditional kitchen — how to roll couscous, how to slow-preserve meat in the desert, how to make the paper-thin pastry dough called warqa — are disappearing fast, the authors agree.
They also agree that the daily lives of Moroccan cooks are better without such labor-intensive practices. But there is a fundamental conflict between them: the traditions that Ms. Wolfert has gone to such pains to record are the very ones that Mr. Lahlou is trying to change.
“Moroccan women now are the equivalent of American housewives in the 1950s: they want to use the pressure cooker to make tagines, they want to go to the supermarket,” Ms. Wolfert said. “I don’t want to tell them they have to go back into the kitchen, but something is being lost. I’m out to preserve what I can still find."