Day 78: Morocco, Asillah

Today is a holiday equivalent to our Sunday – a day of rest, of family, of Sunday roasts and snoozing in your favourite armchair in the afternoon after a brisk walk around the res. But in Morocco, it’s rather exciting in food terms because it’s couscous day. Now you can get couscous on any other day of the week but Friday is the day the locals cook and eat it, so it’s really freshly prepared. And as far as we’re concerned, you haven’t lived till you’ve eaten Friday couscous! But let’s be honest, couscous on any other day is probably just as good!

We decided to venture into the heart of Asillah today and avoid the tourist restaurants completely (we’ve been doing this anyway as they are not the places we want to be eating). We found a restaurant, Dar Merrakchia, completely empty of people (this breaks one of our cardinal rules, never to eat in an empty restaurant because the food is not turning over).

But by chance we had been standing watching as massive tajines of couscous were being ferried out of the restaurant and delivered to houses around.

Never being ones to hang back, we went into the restaurant and had a chat to the manager. Turns out there’s a completely logical reasons why there’s no people. It’s a religious day and locals are spending it at home with their families and eating their couscous at home. Doh!! But he invited us in to have a meal after we asked very nicely, and when he found out that we were foodies, took me on a tour of the kitchen and to meet the chef – a local lady making the couscous.

I should explain at this stage that couscous is not just the semolina balls called couscous but an entire dish. A complex and long cooking of the couscous oiled, rubbed & steamed several times over (traditionally) lamb or chicken, 7 different vegetables and accompanied by tfaya, a caramelised onion and raisin relish-type sauce seasoned with cinnamon – a real sweet but totally addictive touch – and crisp fried almonds. Everything served in couscous is cooked low and slow and is all meltingly tender. The aim is to be able to taste each separate element but for it to be completely balanced and in harmony with each other. It is absolutely heavenly to eat and an explosion of different flavours and textures. And this is why, because of its complexity, couscous (the dish!) is usually only served on Fridays or on special celebrations in Morocco. Hence why authentic local restaurants only serve authentic couscous one day a week.

The other thing to look out for when eating couscous is a cup of Leben – a traditional drink. It is fermented or cultured milk usually made from goat’s milk. It is truly delicious. But I’ll say this reservedly. Coming from Africa we have always been used to drinking fermented milk or maas so if you’ve never had it before it can be an acquired taste. Some people might say that it tastes “off” or bad. This is because of the process of making it.

So we’ve just finished off our meal with a glass of mint tea and eaten and drunk ourselves to a standstill for the princely sum of MAD165 (€16.50). It’s almost not worth cooking for ourselves!  Note: we’ve since cut down to having a salad and sharing a couscous, tagine or main plate!

I thought I should mention here, that head covering is not a requirement in Morocco and especially not as a tourist. But as it’s a religious day and we are in the heart of town well away from the tourist area, I chose to wear one.

Anyway, it’s time for our walk back to camp. Thank goodness it’s at least 2.5kms away, we need the exercise to work this off. So we wander down to the corniche and take a slow stroll back, cutting back 1 road to pass by our tea room to take in just 1 last cup of mint tea. I think we’re addicted!

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