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January 17, 2003
Once the liquid is reduced, we remove the chicken from the heat and begin the next "layer of the pie," which is an egg stuffing. While the chicken cools, we break four eggs into a dish and add them one at a time to the remaining liquid from the chicken. We stir and stir until they have scrambled and become hard and absorbed all the juices. Then we press the remaining juice out of them. Lali checks up on us at every stage and whispers to Karim, who passes on her suggestions to us in French.
While our egg stuffing rests, we debone the chicken and, with scissors, cut it into small pieces. Then we make the third layer of the pie by mixing a bowl of chopped almonds with sugar (Lali likes to use lots and throws more in when I’m not looking, but P and I agree it’s better not so sweet), orange blossom water, and cinnamon.
It’s time to put the pie together. Lali takes out a pile of "ouarka" dough, which looks a bit like phyllo, but is round in shape. She’s having problems with it from the start, and needs to keep using the scissors to cut it into the right size pieces. Some pieces are so thin and unwieldy they simply have to be scrapped. Anyway, we take a sheet of ouarka and place the chopped chicken on it. Lali sprinkles a layer of sugar and cinnamon on that. Then we beat an egg and brush the ouarka with it. Then the egg stuffing goes on, followed by the sugar-cinnamon mix, then another sheet of ouarka and egg wash. Then the almond/sugar/cinnamon mixture and more ouarka and egg wash. Then we top the entire pie with another sheet of ouarka that gets folded around to make a perfect circular pie, more egg wash, and then we sift sugar and cinnamon on the top in a grid pattern. Into the sautée pan they go (you can cook them in the oven, too, but sautéeing them yields a more moist bastilla). A few minutes on one side and a few minutes on the other, and voila! A perfect bastilla--unless of course Lali turns the heat up on yours and it burns slightly on one side, as in the case of mine.
From journal The Road to Marrakech
Karim introduces us to Lali (which means "darling" in Arabic), who will be our teacher, only she speaks only Arabaic, so Karim is there to translate to French for us. But first we take a lesson from him in the origins of Moroccan cooking. We sit together at a wooden table where a sheet of paper and pencil have been laid out neatly for each of us, and we listen and take notes.
My notes show that there are three "ingredients" in Moroccan cooking: civilization, ethnography, and climate. The Romans, Wattasi, Phoenicians, Berbers, Arabs, and Jews all came to the region with their various weapons and spices. Meat was scarce, but there was a tremendous variety of vegetables from region to region. Some dishes developed specifically to disguise vegetables as meat ("elle donne l’impression qu’il y a du poulet dans le pôt"). The Sultan never ate the same dish as the rest of his entourage--a safeguard, no doubt. Karim tells us that even poor Moroccans never eat the same thing twice--it’s always something different every day (well, they must repeat a dish ONCE in awhile!). The cuisine is a "vrai mélange" of products and cultures. There are special dishes for marriages and births and funerals. It is, in sum, he tells us, a cuisine that aims to please both the individual and the community and that it reflects the unity of many diverse peoples and ideas.
Breakfast is delightful, with several kinds of breads and pastries, butter, delicious honey, marmalade, and jam. And coffee, lots of coffee. I don’t even drink coffee normally (well, I do in France from time to time), but I need coffee this morning. Reviewing the night’s events is pretty comical--"How about that horn? That was a nice touch. What time was that? Around 4?", "Yeah, but the siren was really the finishing touch, don’t you think?"
At 10am we are at the front desk, where our driver awaits us. It’s a short ride to the grounds where the cooking school is located. We shove our way out of the street and onto the Avenue Mohammed V, past the Royal Gardens, which are hidden behind a high wall, with only palm fronds showing from street level, down a lane with a number of butcher stalls, past a few of the ubiquitous lone squatters, and are soon entering the Maison Arabe’s other compound, which houses the cooking school as well as a swimming pool and gardens. Eventually, I expect, the spa which was supposed to be open in October, but which isn’t open yet, will be here.
Karim, our host, meets us at the entrance and gives us a brief tour of the place. It’s magical, even to my exhausted eyes. There’s an Arabian Nights-style tent to one side of the pool, full of low tables, cushions, and candlesticks taller than I am. I surmise it’s used for parties and receptions, or perhaps just as a cool place to get out of the heat in the summertime.
As we climb the stairs to the second-floor kitchen we’ll be cooking in, a group of people passes below--"the American
Ambassadress," says Karim, "She comes here often." P and I exchange knowing glances.