The Soul of Morocco

New York Times

Seth Sherwood

Published: April 8, 2007

(Page 3 of 3)

For my indoctrination into Fez cuisine, I turned to Lahcen Beqqi. Barely 30 years old, this diminutive, ever-smiling chef has been at the helm of the kitchens of some of the top restaurants in Fez’s expanding dining scene and now fills a niche as a culinary guide and guru to outsiders. He teaches them how to buy produce in the souks, explains the interplay of Moroccan ingredients and helps them puzzle together a bona fide Fassi feast.

The bulk of his gastronomic know-how, he explained, was imparted by his mother, who organizes an annual festival of couscous in southeastern Morocco, near the small mountain village where Mr. Beqqi and his nine siblings grew up. “She’s the queen of couscous,” Mr. Beqqi said.

But his lessons teach much more than chopping and heating. While other cooks might look at a Moroccan tagine and see a conical clay vessel stewing with lamb, candied lemons, nuts and spices, Mr. Beqqi sees the multiethnic history of his homeland. Laying out a hot tagine one afternoon, Mr. Beqqi explained the dish’s diverse ancestry.

“First of all, there’s a Berber influence,” he said, referring to the indigenous people of North Africa — of which he is one — who predated the Arab arrival in the seventh century. “Tagine and couscous are both originally Berber dishes. There’s also a Roman influence, notably in the use of ceramic for cooking.”

The Arabs, he said, brought many of the spices from the East — ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, nutmeg. Morocco’s very good red wine, he said, is produced mostly in nearby Meknes and owes its existence largely to the French.

“There’s also a lot of influence in the methods of preparing ingredients that are of Jewish origin, especially in the use of preserved vegetables and fruit,” Mr. Beqqi said.

Such moments are glimpses into forgotten corners of Fez, which for centuries had a vibrant Jewish community. Even in the early 20th century, it was robust enough that Edith Wharton could chance across a Jewish wedding parade and admire the “long file of women with uncovered faces and bejeweled necks, balancing on their heads the dishes the guests have sent to the feast — kouskous, sweet creams and syrups, ‘gazelles’ horns’ of sugar and almond — in delicately woven baskets.”