A tour of Marrakesh

I had a chance to go on a great tour of Marrakesh a few days ago.  We hit all the major tourist sites, which of course I almost never do, but I should because it was an enriching and beautiful experience.  It renewed my connection with this city that I’ve called home for so long.  I’m sorry I’m not great with dates and history, if I don’t take notes then it evaporates almost instantaneously off the surface of my brain.  Not to mention the late, late hour that the blogging itch strikes me, which is not a peak time for cerebral activity.  I’m going to have to fall back on good old “a picture is worth a thousand words”.

But let me just say this, these places are beautiful in and of themselves.  And if you can find a great guide to connect you with the richness of Moroccan history, so much the better.

These first two photos are at Medrasa Ben Yousef, which was one of the first examples of governmentally institutionalized learning in 1550.   Before that, students would simply find a teacher and learn what they wanted to learn.  This Islamic college was hailed by some as a positive initiative, and decried by others who felt the government should stay out of the business of education.  I guess the home-schooling debate is not as recent as we think!  Anyway, this college fell out of use in 1960, after the French had installed their own educational system in Morocco.  Sigh.

Marrakesh Morocco blogMy mother, who is an artist and has studied Islamic art, points out that this following picture contains four out of the five elements of Islamic art.  And they are (from bottom to top): complex star polygons, arabesques, repeat linear patterns and calligraphy.  Brownie points if you can name the fifth element of Islamic art, not in this picture.

Marrakesh Morocco blog

The Menara basin and pavilion…used to be an swimming school…and now is a great place to catch a view like this with the Atlas mountains as a backdrop, or feed some of the colossal fish that swim in the murky waters.

Marrakesh Morocco blog "Menara gardens"

Marrakesh Morocco blog Menara pavilion

The Koutoubia mosque, which I talked about before:

Marrakesh Morocco blog mosque islam

And here are some of the storks that live on the wall of the Bahia palace.  Stork in Arabic is “laq-laq”, and if you’ve ever heard the sound a stork makes, you’ll understand exactly where the name comes from.

Marrakesh Morocco blog Bahia palace

PS. Voting is still ongoing over at www.moroccoblogs.com If you can spare 30 seconds, please hop over there and vote for this very blog “Life in Marrakesh” under Best Overall Blogs.  Thank you, shoukran, merci.

The best, easiest cheesecake. Step-by-step recipe with photos.

lemon cheesecake with strawberries, Marrakesh, Morocco

It’s recipe time!  When I was growing up, my mother had Francis Moore Lappe’s book Diet for a Small Planet.  It’s a book about moving towards a diet that’s both nutritious and sustainable for the whole planet.  We learned a lot about how to combine vegetarian foods to get complete proteins.  One of my favorite recipes in that book was/is Ricotta Cheesecake.  My mother made a lot of nutritious desserts, but for me, cheesecake was the ultimate.  It’s so delicious, smooth and creamy and lemony.  And hey, if this is what it takes to save the planet, then so be it!

And I’m keeping up the tradition in my own family, although my kids are still fairly suspicious of the oxymoron “cheese cake”.  Chocolate cake is much more natural collocation.  I’ve made cheesecake many times for my Moroccan friends, and it’s been very well-received indeed.  I’d like to get at least some credit for this important cross-cultural contribution.  In fact, this recipe is mostly for those living in Morocco, as you’ll see from the ingredient list.

The ingredients. Now if you live in Morocco, you’ll know exactly what each of these things are.  My secret about cheesecake is that I never make it the same way twice.  I throw in a combination of whatever I have in hand.  These ingredients are enough to make a large sized cake, enough for 24 people.  I made it recently for a potluck at work, and managed to photograph all the stages of the making.  I didn’t even get that much cheesecake filling on my camera.

Ingredients for Cheesecake:

Crust:

4 packets Sable biscuits

100g of butter

Filling:

24 kiri (about 12 ounces of cream cheese)

1 can Nestle sweetened condensed milk

4 perly yogurts

4-6 eggs

1 lemon, zested and juiced

Garnish:

Strawberries/a little sugar

cheesecake ingredients from the hanut, Marrakesh Morocco

Here’s the thing about the ingredients, you can make infinite substitutions.  There’s no perfect recipe.  If you don’t have Nestle for example, just use about a cup of sugar.  If Kiri is too fattening, you can use ricotta or white cheese (jben).  Perly is also not necessary, you can use any plain yogurt.  I chose a lemon flavor here, but you can put in vanilla instead.  The eggs can also be increased, I used 4 here, but I think the original recipe has more than that.  So there is a lot of choice in the matter of ingredients.  As they say in Morocco, 3aynek meezanek (measure with your eyes).   And of course taste it and adjust the flavor to your liking.

Method:

1-Pulse the biscuits in a food processor:

making cheesecake crust

2-Melt the butter and add it to the biscuits.  Mix again:

pulverizing the cookies for cheesecake crust

3-Pour the crumbs into a glass pan and pat them down with something flat.  Bake for 10 minutes:

pat down the crust

4-While the crust is baking, prepare the filling.

Pour ALL the ingredients into the food processor: kiri, perly, eggs, lemon juice and zest, and the can of nestle.  You can taste it now to see if it’s sweet or lemony enough.  In this recipe I actually added another half a can of nestle.  The filling will be very liquid:

5-Remove the crust from the oven after 10 minutes.  Don’t burn it!  Pour the filling in.  It should look like this:

cheesecake for 24

6-Bake on VERY low heat for about 45 minutes to an hour.  It should feel firm and set.

Prepare the strawberry garnish: slice the strawberries, add some sugar, and set them in the fridge to chill and become syrupy.

7-Remove the cheesecake from the oven and allow it to cool.

Once it’s cool, it needs to be chilled in the fridge.  It’s best to make it about 4 hours in advance or even overnight.  The longer it sits before eating, the better it tastes.  (Don’t do what I did and serve it lukewarm.  That’s not cool, literally).

Enjoy it if you manage to get a slice.  It goes fast!

Entering the Hammam is Not Like Leaving it, and Other Moroccan Proverbs

Moroccan derija (Arabic dialect) is very rich in proverbs, adages, sayings, idioms, etc. (wait, don’t all those words mean the same thing?)  Moroccan speech itself is formulaic, with specific greetings and responses exchanged depending on the situation.  To a sick person you say: may there be no harm (mai koon bas), the response being:  may God never show you harm  (lehla iwarreek bas).  Since I grew up in an American home in Morocco, I didn’t have all these “calls and responses” memorized, or internalized, till, well, last week actually.  It’s very awkward to come up blank in response to one of the greetings.  Shukran just doesn’t cut it.  You just have to be a quick study and add these  to your repertoire as you hear them.

Then there are proverbs.  Not quite of the same dire importance as the greetings, but they do add a layer of richness to the conversation.  Usually one person will say the first few words, and the other person will finish.  For example:

Safia:  “The best speech…”

Nora:  “..is concise and meaningful!”

(khairul kalami ma qalla wa dalla).  So now that I’ve memorized every last one of the greetings (not), I’ve moved on to proverbs.   Each proverb is a thin-slice of the culture.   Every time I hear a new one, I learn a little something new about Morocco, a tiny intricacy.

Some proverbs are funny, some are deep.  In fact, those two traits characterize Moroccans and especially Marrakshis.  Living here you quickly come to appreciate these two qualities.  Life’s pills are swallowed with a dose of humor and a measure of grace.

Of course, things like humor and widom-teachings don’t really translate, but translation brings us a step closer to some kind of understanding.  So here goes.

Entering the hammam is not like leaving it.  dkhoul el7ammam mashi b7al khroujou.

When you go into the hammam, it’s all good and dandy, but when you leave, it’s time to pay.  I’d like to add, you’re a whole lot cleaner too.  I’d also like to add that technically, you pay when you go into the hammam.  But you get the idea.  You’d be surprised at how many situations this saying is appropriate for.  English equivalent: It’s time to pay the piper.

The person with no cares, well, his donkey will give birth to a care.  lli ma 3andou hammou, twaldou lih 7martou.

For the person who can’t leave well enough alone.  English equiv.:  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  Don’t go looking for trouble, or trouble will come looking for you.

One hand can’t clap.  yedd wa7da makat sefaqsh.

We all know this one: it takes two to tango.

The neighbor, then the house.  al jar thumma ddar.

When choosing a home, find good neighbors first.  An Islamic teaching says: take care of your neighbors and that means 40 houses in either direction!  I love neighborhoods where being a good neighbor is still valued and implemented.   When we lived in the old city (medina of Marrakesh), I felt like there was definitely more of that.  Once when I was pregnant, I casually asked my neighbor how she makes the Moroccan pancakes beghrir.  Well, me being pregnant + her being a good neighbor = she showed up with the pancakes about an hour later!  This is also the same neighbor who, when I casually asked her how to cook the two free-range chickens I had just bought, didn’t hesitate for a minute.  She came in, rolled up her sleeves and started washing the chickens (shudder…cleaning chicken makes you the boss of everyone in my book), then proceeded to make the most awesome chicken tajine, like it was no big deal.  From then on, I “casually” asked her about lots of things!

I compare you to who I see you with.  M3amen sheftek, m3amen shebbehtek.

It underscores the importance of keeping good company.  One of the teachings of the prophet Muhammad is (my own loose translation) A person is on the same path as his or her closest friend, so consider who your closest friends are.  English equivalent: Birds of a feather flock together (this is the closest I could get).

Last one, my favorite.

The one who serves a people is their master.  khadimu qawmin sayyiduhum.

This saying comes from the principle that things are often concealed in their opposites.  The one who is humble, who serves neither expecting nor desiring praise or benefit from others, who has a pure intention, is in reality the highest of the high.  Conversely, the one who grasps at power and glory, who desires that people think highly of him or her is in reality enslaved to his or her ego.

Now it’s your turn: add to this list of Moroccan proverbs, or share a proverb or saying from your own culture!