It’s often those who are familiar, with traits reflective of my own, yet impossibly foreign that I fall hardest for. Tangiers, the Moroccan city at the northernmost tip of Africa, falls into this dreamy “Interzone.” The caress of its Mediterranean breezes, its cold, crystalline Atlantic waters, the bonsoirs and mercis uttered at cocktail hour on a terrace atop the kasbah, the fragrant spices in its rich tagines—I know these nuances. But then there are the secrets—the skin hidden behind hijabs, the foreign Arabic words falling out of open windows like petals, the five-times-daily muezzin that tolls across rooftops—these are the mysteries that quicken imagination’s pulse.
Lured by my best friend, antique tribal textile and jewelry dealer, Emilie Irving, I went to this far-flung land and fell madly for it. It’s understandable why literary greats—Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Jean Genet, to name a few—flocked here for inspiration (often in the form of intoxication) and solace from society’s rules. Everywhere the air smells of orange blossoms and adventure. Europe, just nine miles across the Straight of Gibralter, feels a world away. In terms of illicit sex and drugs, it’s more subdued now, perhaps, but Tangiers still has the magnetic seduction of a scoundrel’s utopia.
Unlike the many luminaries who visited before me, I was tame in Tangiers, but I could feel the magic of what’s lured artists and experimenters there for eons. In the medina, a Berber woman with a creased face pushed prickly pears into my palms, and (much to the consternation of my traveling companion) I ate them, pulp dripping down my chin, as I spoke to her in my threadbare French through a nearby butcher who translated to her native tongue. Simple salads of tender octopus, cherry tomatoes, hummus and zaalouk eaten peacefully at midday at Le Salon Bleu in the kasbah, where it’s always deliciously windy, will stay with me. Savory breakfast pancakes with tangy local cheese and honey will remain the ritual I long for, and the scalding mint tea, sweet and opaque in delicate glasses, thrice daily to quench my dusty throat.
Zaalouk (roasted eggplant, tomato & cumin salad)
1 large eggplant (1 1/4 pounds)
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup drained, canned diced tomatoes
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon cilantro leaves
2 teaspoons sweet smoked paprika
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper
Heat a large enameled cast-iron casserole. Using a fork, prick the eggplant in a few places. Add the eggplant to the casserole, cover and cook over moderately low heat, turning once, until charred on the outside and soft within, about 40 minutes.
Transfer the eggplant to a colander set in the sink. Using a sharp knife, make a lengthwise slit in the eggplant; let drain for 10 minutes. Scrape the flesh into a bowl, discarding the skin and any hard seeds; mash to a puree and transfer to a large skillet.
Using the side of a large knife, mash the garlic to a coarse paste with 1 teaspoon of salt. Add the paste to the skillet along with the tomatoes, olive oil, parsley, cilantro, paprika, cumin and cayenne. Cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until all the liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Trout with Preserved Lemons, Raisins and Pine Nuts
Two 8-ounce skinless trout fillets, cut into 1-inch pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons golden raisins
6 scallions, halved lengthwise and sliced 1/8 inch thick on the diagonal (1 cup)
2 medium carrots, sliced 1/8 inch thick on the diagonal
1 teaspoon honey
1 preserved lemon—pulp removed, peel rinsed and minced (see Note)
1 tablespoon pine nuts
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
In a shallow dish, season the fish with salt, black pepper and cayenne; spread in a single layer. Sprinkle the fish with 1 tablespoon of the cilantro. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate while you prepare the rest of the dish.
In a small bowl, cover the raisins with warm water and let stand until plump, about 10 minutes. Drain.
Meanwhile, in a large, deep skillet, combine the scallions and carrots with 4 cups of water and simmer the vegetables over moderate heat until the carrots are tender, about 10 minutes. Add the honey, preserved lemon peel, raisins and pine nuts, season with salt and black pepper and simmer the mixture for 10 minutes longer.
Slip the trout into the broth, cover and simmer over moderately low heat until the fish is just barely cooked through, about 10 minutes. Drizzle the fish with the olive oil, garnish with the remaining 2 tablespoons of chopped cilantro and serve.
Note: Preserved lemons are cured in salt and lemon juice. Other flaky white fish may be substituted for the trout.
Where I stayed:
El Minzah – a “grand hotel” built in 1930 in the middle of the city that was renovated in the 1970s, has a décor somewhere between the Chateau Marmont and the hotel in The Shining. A pool scene of fantastic “people watching of Europeans and Moroccans working on their tans after a daily buffet lunch of prepared salads, stews, fried fish and dessert.
Hotel Nord Pinus – the loveliest boutique hotel at the top of the kasbah, owned by a French woman with a sister hotel in Arles. Everything is impeccable, from the amber soap in the showers to the antique furniture and tapestries in the rooms. The restaurant and its adjacent decks offer a stunning view of the city, the sea and Spain across the Gibralter Straight. Excellent breakfast and dinner offered nightly. Impeccable.
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