Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Animal, Vegetable, Minaret: Fez Medina, Part 3

Vegetable: Part Three of a three-part series
Read Part One or Part Two (To enlarge photos, click on images.)

A mint mogul; apricots aplenty; a lettuce and egg tycoon

Oh Morocco. How you teased me with your fragrant fruits, voluptuous veggies, perfumed petals and aromatic herbs. Flaunting them in my face each time I walked through the Fez medina when you knew I wasn't there to cook. At least ogling your impressive bounty reassured me that I wouldn’t be dining on tagine in a tin or couscous in a can. And on the days I didn’t splurge on chicken or fish, your vegetarian harvest teamed up to satisfy and sustain me. On second thought, I'm glad I was doing the ogling and you were doing the cooking.  

An orange impresario; a mulberry mogul; fresh mulberries; a green onion purr-veyor

On the train from Casablanca to Fez, I witnessed mile after mile of lush landscapes and fertile fields. For a desert country, Morocco is really quite diverse with forests, mountains and coastlines. And due to a sophisticated irrigation system, you're pretty much self-sufficient except for grains, sugar, coffee and tea. From what I saw on the streets and on my plates, you're rolling in olives, almonds, citrus, stone fruits, grapes, melons, berries, artichokes and dates. I was especially thrilled to find turnips in my tagines. At home, they hardly turn up anywhere.

A watermelon magnate; string beanmobile; a street-legal herb entrepreneur

Unlike a lot of Latin American countries I’ve traveled to, in Morocco I could eat raw fruits and vegetables since water safety wasn't an issue. It not only meant I could take a shower without pursing my lips shut, I could partake in glorious Moroccan salads with mouth wide open. Fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and olives were always there to greet my palate at the start of each meal. Often there'd be beets, carrots, green beans, potatoes and roasted zucchini or eggplant in it too. I marveled at how an entrepreneur could make a living pushing a cart of herbs, as there’s more money to be had in hashish. But I never saw anyone pushing that. 

Wild artichokes; rose petals; 7 Spices

And even though I was on a vacation from myself and tried not to overthink things, I couldn't help but wonder about pesticide use on the fruits and veggies. Had American Big Ag infiltrated every corner of the globe? Since I had been on a seven-month allergy cleanse and was nervous about reintroducing foods like wheat, corn, eggs and red pepper while I was there, I did a little research before my trip. Seems that crops are grown differently in other countries, and many people who can’t eat wheat from the U.S. have no problems with it in Europe and abroad. So with fingers crossed I had my first croissant, and feeling symptom-free, my vacation from self really began.

Three kinds of bread; preserved lemons; herbed olives

I was also curious about the use of GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). During my research, I discovered that the GOM (Government of Morocco) has a close trade relationship with France and about 60% of Morocco's exports are to the EU. Since France and Europe are largely anti-GMO, Morocco does not allow any GMO seeds to enter Morocco and does not export any GMOs to the EUHowever the GOM imports a large amount of soybeans and corn from the US. Are they GMOs? I can't tell from my findings. While the GOM doesn't have the biotechnology in place to produce their own GMOs, it sounds like it may be on the horizon. Uh oh. I'm starting to feel the need for another vacation from self.

Preserved things in jars; olive pyramids and other conical delights

But when I was surrounded by the great pyramids, it was hard to wrap my head around all that. The only thing I wanted to wrap around my head was a fig necklace. 

Home-grown jewelry; someone's playing hide and souk

So in the end, I lived in the moment and learned to trust. Funny how I may have ended up trusting the GOM more than the USA.

Related Links:
Animal, Vegetable, Minaret: Fez Medina, Part 1
Animal, Vegetable, Minaret: Fez Medina, Part 2
Letting Go and a Moroccan Gigolo

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Animal, Vegetable, Minaret: Fez Medina, Part 2

Animal: Part Two of a three-part series
Read Part One (To enlarge photos, click on images.)

Morocco, I gotta hand it to you. When it comes to head-to-tail eating, you really walk the walk. Every last vestige of carnivorous cartilage is utilized for your dining pleasure. As I made my way through the meat and fish souks in the Fez medina, it looked like CSI: North Africa. Each head, fin and spleen, from camel to sardine, was spread out for scrutiny. There were so many anatomical parts, I’m thinking you may have discovered some new ones. I didn't know which was worse—seeing them dead or alive.

Sheep heads; chicken by the pound; hanging rabbit and weighty chicken

As a flexitarian, I eat a plant-based diet with a little organic dairy, some sustainable seafood and as an occasional treat, organic chicken. All the forethought that goes into deciding whether something is treatworthy can be exhausting. But who wants to be a slave to a diet I.D. when you're traveling? It's so inflexible. So my trip philosophy was, when in MoroccoYep, I would allow myself some wiggle room to experience the region's cuisine, guilt-free. It would be like having a little vacation from myself. So when I saw succulent, crackly-skinned chickens roasting on fiery spits that first day on the streets of Casablanca, gone was all forethought. Hell, there wasn’t even any foreplay. On day one, I did the deed and after my first romp with a chicken, I wanted it again.

Chickens en route (dead man squawking); future chicken tagines; a birdwatcher

But then I saw the live chickens crammed in cages by the food stalls in the Fez medina and wondered if I was doing the right thing by letting go. The way I felt when I saw them reminded me of why I’m such a killjoy about eating meat in the first place. But then I figured these chickens were locally produced and probably free from industrialized feedlots, antibiotics, hormones, GMO feed and chemical baths, unlike some countries. In fact, maybe they were really pasture-raised and had enjoyed long, healthy lives, and the cages were just temporary digs before these selfless birds offered themselves up as chicken tagine sacrifices. And maybe these sacrificial birds had their own humanitarian foundation, Poultry with Purpose, that spread love throughout the land, and fowl felt so good about themselves, humans could taste the happy in their chicken. Maybe.

A cow head; sheep heads; cow hooves

Though I have flirted with vegetarianism, I've never been one of those people who no longer enjoys the taste of meat. The last time I had one bite of filet mignon, I got weak in the knees. And while in Morocco, I never ordered red meat, nor was I remotely tempted to try the camel burger at CafĂ© Clock, the hearty harira soup made from lentils, chickpeas and tomatoes that I devoured daily tasted so rich, I wondered if it could have really been vegetarian. Either way, I decided to abide by a don't ask, don't smell policy. After all, I was on a vacation from myself. Did I really need to know? (If you know you’re in denial, is it still denial?) In fact, once when I ordered chicken tagine, it didn't take long to realize beef short ribs were canoodling in my couscous. The waiter had brought the wrong dish, and since there were no other diners, I knew it wasn't a mixup. What were my options? To throw it away? I have a zero-waste policy too. So as a flexitarian and conscious culinarian, I acquiesced to the cow in my couscous. 

A tannery; leather workers with dyed skins; a bargain shopper

And what do they do with all the animal hides? Fez is the leading leather production city in the region and has been since the 16th century. The skins that are in its famous tanneries are treated with pigeon dung, acids and cow urine before the dying process and then are transformed into beautiful babouche slippers, shoes, purses, jackets, etc. I've tried to abstain from buying leather in the past few years, but I asked myself, "Wouldn't it be better to support the local economy by buying their leather goods than to pay sweat-shop laborers in another country to manufacture synthetic stuff with a huge carbon footprint?" It embraces the head-to-tail credo. Too bad the traditional dyes, once made from natural colors like turmeric, have largely been replaced by toxic chemicals that the tannery workers are exposed to on a daily basis. Oy, some vacation from myself.

Catches of the day

The fish souks were swimming with fish I couldn’t identify, but I knew a sardine when I saw one. At least I thought I did. Turns out there are dozens of types of sardines or pilchards—common names for small fish in the herring family. Supposedly fish shorter than six inches long are sardines, while the larger ones are pilchardsSince Pacific sardines are a Seafood Watch® Best Choice and one of the most sustainable fish, I assumed Atlantic sardines would be guilt-free pleasures too since Morocco is one of the world's largest sardine exporters and the fish reproduce so quickly. But through some after-the-fact sardine sleuthing, I discovered that like most aquatic regions of the world, Morocco has overfishing issues too—surprisingly, even with sardines. And that glorious sardine tagine I ate? Ignorance truly was bliss.

You've got snail!

Small brown snails, sold live by the pound or the bag, are a popular Moroccan street food served in an earthy broth called babouche (yes, the same as in babouche slippers)While there's an obvious French connection to escargot since Moroccan cooking was influenced by the occupation, snail shells of the edible variety were uncovered at the roman ruins of Volubilis outside of Fez, dating this delicacy back to the Roman empire. The day I was at Volubilis, I didn’t see any traces of snails—only the shells of a lost empire. But I doubt they would have made a very tasty broth. 

The ruins of Volubilis left me breathless and brothless

Stay Tuned for Part 3: Vegetable

Mark Bittman’s The Flexitarian: Make Peace with Meat

Monday, July 15, 2013

Animal, Vegetable, Minaret: Fez Medina, Morocco

Part One of a three-part series
(To enlarge photos, click on images.)

A medina gate entrance; a slave laborer; medina bling; spices

Oh, Morocco. What am I going to do with you? As I was being bombarded with, “Carpet, Madame? Spices, Madame? Antique Berber bracelet, Madame?" I thought I might go mad. Not only was the pressure to buy things too stressful, being called "Madame" night and day had me rethinking my career options. And then there was the line I kept hearing, "I give you democratic price.” I shrugged it off as a bad translation for “fair,” but now I'm thinking you were consciously trying to appeal to my Western sensibilities. Democratic” being code for the freedom to spend lots of money on stuff I don’t need.

Rose petals; an orange vendor; fresh snails; agave silk fabric; babouche slippers 

In the old quarter, or medina, of Fez, there's no such thing as personal space. Everywhere I turned, I shared precious oxygen with animal, vegetable or minaret. Not only was I confronted by shopkeepers' democratic come-ons, I was besieged by shiny objects, brilliant fabrics, exotic footwear and leather goods so fresh, the animals were practically still wearing them. Severed heads, hooves, organs and intestines hung like prizes. Live chickens in front of food stalls awaited their fate like dead man squawking. The fish souks were swimming with snails and sardines as cats congregated for their catch of the day. Produce and spice vendors were peppered on the streets advertising everything from apricots, artichokes and mint to rose petals, herbal remedies and argan oil. Dried fruits, nuts and sticky sweets glistened as ubiquitous olives reigned salty and supreme. I was a sensory prisoner inside the gates of a loud, loud land.

Outside the medina walls; inside the food souks; a community bread oven

I came to Fez to experience the largest and most well-preserved medina in the world. Very little has changed since the Middle Ages—other than a few things like electricity and Nike knock-offs. An imperial capital for the last 10 centuries, today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site still renowned for its culture and cuisine. 

Medersa Bou Inania; tagines for sale; future chicken tagines

Narrow, maze-like alleys sneak around for a mile, inhabited by souks, fondouksmosques, madrasas, museums, artisan quarters, tanneries, restaurants and riads. The Fez medina is said to be the world’s largest urban car-free zone which explains why mules and men with rolling carts transport every conceivable object through the anachronistic streets, shrieking “Balak, balak!” (move to one side). I was lucky to make it out, toes alive.

Me in medina; furry thoroughfares 

After four nights in Fez, I still didn't know where I was at any given moment. Apparently it was written on my face because some boy or man would miraculously appear and insist on leading me for blocks, against my wishes. He would be equally insistent on a generous reward upon our arrival. One time I tried to dodge an irrepressible “guide” by sneaking off in the opposite direction when he wasn't looking. But out of thin air, he appeared, insisting that now I was really going in the wrong direction. Alone time must have been laughing at me from solitary confinement—a place that was starting to sound pretty good.

The amulet; me in front of Bab Boujeloud—the medina's main entrance; a stranger

Once when I was looking at a street peddler's beautiful amulet pendant for sale, he told me the family history of the Berber village it came from, clear across the country near Algeria. Then, out of the blue, he pointed to an old man in a caftan who happened to be walking by and proclaimed him to be the Berber father in the story. The old man gave him an I've-never-seen-you-before-in-my-life look and kept walking. Even though I didn’t buy the story, I bought the pendant. After all, I was smitten with it, and our spirited negotiation resulted in a very democratic price. 

Decisions, decisions, decisions

And then there was the time I was in a souk looking at two silver teapots. As the shopkeeper was turning up the heat on me to buy, I asked him why one cost half as much as the other, and he said, “It’s same, but different.” Hmmm. You mean like Morocco and America are the same? You have olive souks. We have Olive Gardens. Funny, no one ever had to sell me on the olives, though. Those salty, savory, spectacular succulents sold themselves. So I’ve come to realize that any place that serves olives for breakfast, lunch and dinner and isn't an Olive Garden is worth enduring such a cast of colorful characters. After all, my country is full of colorful characters too. Morocco, your Fez medina really is a different world. But same.

Stay tuned for Part 2, Animal