World’s best supermarket

“Now, we go to the supermarket”, says Abdullah, with a smile. We know the smile is ironic and that we are not about to walk into a Safeway. My son Rohan, our Malaysian friend Fazila, and I have hired Abdullah to guide us through the labyrinthine streets of Medina El Bali, the ancient quarter in the city of Fes, our last stop in Morocco.

Walking in the medina is like stepping back into medieval times. Everything is at a miniature scale. Streets are narrow, some barely wide enough for one person to squeeze through. There are no motorized vehicles in sight, everything is transported by mules.

medina of Fes

There are no straight lines; everything is a twisty, turning maze. Some streets are loosely covered with wooden planks, some like tunnels, ducking under houses. Some are quiet, others bustling with people and activity. Every now and then, a small square filled with sunlight appears, providing respite from the chaos and congestion of the streets.

Abdullah grew up in the medina. He has mind-boggling facts to share: the medina has 10,000 streets, 350 mosques, 225 fountains, 18 gates and a population of 160,000. It is the biggest medina in the Islamic world. It is home to El Quaraniya, the oldest university in the world.

We enter the “supermarket”: a street lined with dozens of tiny shops, selling fruits, vegetables, fresh meat, live chickens, fish, dates, olives, sweets, an endless variety of things. There are lots of shoppers, mostly locals, men in the traditional Moroccan djellaba, women wearing the traditional kaftan.

Non-stop action in the medina

Abruptly, the grocery market ends and we turn into a different market, selling clothing and kitchenware. The “supermarket” goes on and on… we see metal workers’ street, leather workers’ street, brocade workers’ street. Abdullah tells us that Fes has been the center of Moroccan handicrafts for centuries.

Abdullah takes us to Bab Bou Jeloud, the Blue Gate, the most beautiful of the 18 gates of the medina. It is spectacular, with intricate calligraphy in green on the inside and blue on the outside. Just inside, there is a beautiful fountain, covered in a colorful mosaic of tiles.

After exploring the medina, we arrive at a street bustling with little food stalls. I see a stall where there is a large pot of what looks like a bean soup, with people outside eating the soup from earthenware bowls with bread. I think I know what this is; I have read about this in my Moroccan food book! It is “bisara”, a thick soup made from fava beans, a Fes specialty. The aroma is enticing. The shopkeeper smiles as he hears me say “bisara” and invites us to sit down. Soon, we are looking at steaming bowls of bisara, topped with a generous dash of olive oil, sprinkled with cumin and paprika, accompanied by fresh round flatbread. Hmmm….deeply satisfying.

Bisara, a fava bean soup, a specialty of Fes.

Afterwards, we climb up some steps at a leather goods shop to get a view of the famous tanneries of Fes, where hides of camels, sheep and cows are cured and dyed.

Soon, it is lunch time and Abdullah wants us to sample Bastilla, an iconic Moroccan dish. He knocks on an old wooden door. A jovial man invites us into a beautiful courtyard. The man and his wife run a side business, serving traditional home cooking. Soon, we are feasting on a variety of appetizers. There is roasted eggplant with tomatoes and garlic, stewed potatoes, roasted fava beans and a yogurt salad. And then, the bastilla arrives, a sweet-savory pie made with chicken, powdered sugar and spices.

followed by basilla

It is rich and delectable. After the meal, the lady of the house invites us to the terrace to see the view. She speaks a little English and Fazila has a little Arabic, so we talk, as we take in the panoramic view of the medina. She tells us about life in the medina, her desire to travel and how much she enjoys meeting travelers from around the world.

Our tour ends at the wishing well near the mausoleum of Molay Idriss II, the founder of Morocco. For centuries, people have been dropping a coin into the well and making a wish. Abdullah gets nostalgic as he poses next to the well, just an opening in a window. He tells of growing up poor in Fes, and as a teenager, dropping a coin in the shrine, wishing for a motorcycle, and magically, getting one.

One of 250 public water fountains in the medina

We drop a few dirhams in the little hole, wishing for another trip to this fascinating city.

~ Rahul Vora is a world traveler, adventurer and culinary explorer. He teaches world cuisines in his home in Portland, Oregon and  blogs about his travels here. Rahul also has a real job as a software engineer.

Destination Morocco

Go Eat Give’s first monthly cultural awareness event was held at Imperial Fez restaurant last night, and it was a huge success! While the Real Housewives of Atlanta filmed at the restaurant, we had our own private section in a royal Moroccan tent-like setting. As twenty-five or so sat on comfortable cushions and low over sized chairs, we discussed our mutual passion for food and travel, while enjoying some of Atlanta’s finest Moroccan fare. Continue reading “Destination Morocco”

Moorish Fusion Cuisine

When I visited Morocco last Fall, I took cooking lessons from the locals, indulged in the native food and came home with some cookbooks for reference. Eating at home in Rabat was very different than eating at Moroccan restaurants. There were a variety of vegetables that were used in everyday cooking (and were delicious) which weren’t even listed in the restaurant menus. Perhaps you have also experienced the same tagines, couscous, bastilla and salad, but are foreign to Harira, poached artichokes, stewed pumpkins, etc.

Recently, I virtually met Zouhair Zairi (also known as Chef ZZ), a chef from Morocco who recently released his cookbook, Moorish Fusion Cuisine. It captured my interest immediately so I got my hands on a copy. As the book is titled, the recipes in the book are definitely “fusion.” Combining the commonly found ingredients in Morocco (pumpkin, artichokes, fennel, dates, saffron, olives, argan oil) with dishes inspired from the West (Bruschetta, Dip, Sushi, Flat Bread), Chef ZZ has created a fun and inspiring cookbook full of delicious recipes. There are also a few traditional dishes, such as Zahlouk (eggplant dip), Chicken Bastilla (sweet and savory pie), Chicken Tagine with preserven lemon and Moroccan green olives, Lamb Kebabs and many more that retain the elements of Moroccan cuisine.

The author has an inspiring story that proves that with hard work and strong determination, any dream can be achieved. Chef ZZ left Morocco for US at the age of 19, where he started as a dishwasher and ended up learning all aspects of the restaurant business. He ended up getting a degree in Culinary Arts and became an executive banquet chef for the 1996 Olympic tennis team’s “Gala Affair” in Atlanta, GA. In 2002 Zouhair opened his own restaurant, Spices in Maui, island of Hawaii. Chef ZZ now works at a five-diamond resort where his abilities and passion earned him the coveted Culinary Excellence Award from the JW Marriott Resort & Spa and a Certificate of Appreciation from the White House.

Get chef ZZ’s recipe for Tomato, Fennel, and Saffron Soup with Olive Oil–Poached Artichokes

Whether you want to impress your guests at the next dinner party or spice up your weekday dinner routine, Moorish Fusion Cuisine will give you “something different,” recipes you cannot find in any other cookbook.

Leave a comment below & enter to win a copy of the book, Moorish Fusion Cuisine: Conquering the New World by Zouhair Zairi with more exciting recipes. Winners will be announced on Oct 30, 2011. 

Tomato, Fennel, and Saffron Soup with Olive Oil–Poached Artichokes

In this recipe, Chef Zouhair Zariri, author of the book, Moorish Fusion Cuisine: Conquering the New World combines two of his favorite ingredients, fennel and artichoke to make a light, healthy soup that combines flavors of East and West. With the chill of fall creeping in, it is the perfect comfort food with a twist.

moorish fusion cuisineServes 6 to 8
Preparation: 25 minutes; Cooking: 1 hour, 30 minutes
4 whole artichokes, cleaned and quartered (leave stem on for presentation)
1 cup olive oil, reserving
1½ tablespoons
2 quarts fennel broth (see recipe below)
1 pinch saffron, toasted
1 shallot, julienned
2 garlic cloves, sliced very thin
1 whole fennel, julienned (reserve top part for stock)
8 organic grape tomatoes or cherry tomatoes
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Zest of 1 lemon
Fresh parsley leaves


Poach the artichokes as follows. In a small sauce pot, over medium heat, place the artichoke quarters in the olive oil and poach for about 15 to 20 minutes or until the artichokes are tender. Keep warm.

In a medium soup pot, bring the fennel broth to warm, add the toasted saffron, and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes, allowing the saffron to release all its flavors.

Meanwhile, in a separate soup pot, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Sweat the shallot and garlic for a few minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure the shallot and garlic don’t burn. Add the julienned fennel and cook for a few more minutes. Pour the saffron broth into the mixture and cook for 15 more minutes.

In a small sauté pan, heat ½ tablespoon of oil over high heat and sauté the tomatoes for a few seconds or until their skins start to blister. Add to the soup and simmer for 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

To serve, ladle the soup into medium bowls and top with artichoke quarters crisscross. Sprinkle with lemon zest and garnish with fresh parsley leaves. Serve immediately.


How to avoid travel scams

Tying a whistle around my wrist to ward off the con man

I have heard numerous stories over the years about how people have returned from a vacation with sour stories of stolen passport, money or expensive items. And then there are others that fall victims to con artists and willingly fall into the trap of giving it away free willing. In fact, some people have a business of scamming tourists and are pretty good at what they do. If you have watched the movie Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, you know what I am talking about.

If you want to avoid a travel scam, the first rule is to be smart and alert at all times. You are relaxed, on vacation, want to make friends, talk to strangers, so it’s easy to let your guard down. But this is when you can get into trouble! Never leave your luggage unattended, even in a taxi or a bus. If I have to go to the facilities, I look for a family or a large group that I have observed for a while, then politely ask them to watch my bag. Don’t ever hand over your passport or important documents to anyone. If they need to make a photocopy (for whatever reason) demand that you go with them.

When I went to Morocco, I was forewarned by numerous people about the famous con artists I would encounter there. I would say I managed to stay away from all but one. While on the train from Rabat to Fes, one of my girlfriends was approached by a young man who pretended to be affiliated with a tour guide company. He offered us a train station pick up, a tour of the city and return transportation, all arranged before we reached our destination. After much discussion and contemplation, we decided to not take a chance of being stranded in the Sahara! Follow your instincts at all times.

Other signs of a scam in progress are when someone approached you from nowhere, is making an extra effort to convince you, or is offering a really good deal that is hard to refuse. Scam artists will never give you (even if they promise they would) receipts, addresses or brochures that have a price on them. It would always be a verbal contract, tailor-made especially for you. When in doubt, don’t do it.

Another time, while walking down the shopping area in Hong Kong, a shopkeeper saw me admiring the high-end watched in the showcase. He asked me to come inside so he could show me his sale items. Next thing I realized, I was walking through alleys and stairs, walking into a tiny office in one of the buildings. As soon as we reached this place, I walked out without taking a look at the items. If your gut tells you something, listen to it.

Scams during shopping are the most common. You may enter a store and pay the full asking price for an item, only to realize that the person before you paid a fraction of that. Do your research by asking locals, checking in different shops and parts of town and bargaining when the culture demands. Having some knowledge of the local language and not coming across as a complete tourist also helps.

CCS to Russia and Morocco

I went to Russia in May 2009 through Cross Cultural Solutions Insight aboard program. I picked Russia because I had heard about their large numbers of orphanages, in par with India where I saw the plight of orphans first hand at Mother Teresa’s homes. Since this was my first time and I was traveling alone, I decided to volunteer for 1 week and sightsee for another. After going for my second volunteer program to Morocco in 2010, I noticed that every experience with CCS tends to be very different. A lot of people have since approached me asking me about the differences in the programs and how I would rate one against the other. Both programs were very unique, and offered different perspectives on life, but here is a basic breakdown of my observations.

volunteering in Russia with cross cultural solutions


The base camp in Russia was in Yaroslavl, about four hours by car from Moscow. The city was relatively small, and everything closed by 5-6pm. The people there did not speak much English either. Even though there was daylight till 11pm (being summer), our evenings were quiet because we weren’t able to do much. Rabat is the political capital of Morocco, and a bustling city any time of the day. There was a lot to do, from shopping, visiting medinas, malls, casbah, beach, museums, monuments, restaurants, etc. I never found any down time while I was in Morocco.

cross cultural solutions home base in Rabat MoroccoThe home base:

We were 22 people at the home base in Rabat, Morocco and only 5 volunteers in Russia, so that made a huge difference. I enjoyed the larger group better because you could always find someone who had common interests or was willing to do an activity at that time of the day. Pretty much any hour of the evening, you will find someone who is going shopping, wanting a Gelato, go running, smoking hookah, playing games, reading, or chatting.  On the other hand, having a full house in Rabat, we had bunk beds (for 2-8 people per room) and a few common toilets to share. In Russia, I had a room to myself and shared the toilet with only four other females. The house in Rabat was s stand alone, three-story home with gardens and open spaces. Our home in Russia was in a building. It had many floors but no outdoor space.


In Russia, we went to a different placement each day and worked from 9am-4pm with lunch break at home in between. We went to boarding schools/orphanages, children’s hospital, women’s mental hospital and old person homes. Since we did not speak Russian, our interactions were mainly non-verbal through games, crafts and sports. We engaged the kids and adults in various activities that gave them a break from their daily routines.  It gave me an overall perspective on how life was in Russia. I learned a lot, especially from the old home and the women’s hospital. In Morocco, there was a fixed routine and I went to the same placement, a women’s empowerment center to teach English, every day. Other volunteers were placed at a children’s hospital, university, center for street kids and a refuge community college. We only worked during the morning hours and were free after lunch. I felt like I could make a bigger impact by working at the same place each day and was able to connect with the people better.

Cultural activities:

Both the countries had organized activities for us after work. I felt like there was a more organized schedule in Rabat, than in Yaroslavl. We had cooking lesson, Arabic lessons, talks on Islam, women and Morocco, excursion to the Casbah and pottery village during our stay in Rabat. In Yaroslavl, we had Russian lessons, a visit to the art museum, talk on history, a field trip to Kremlins, ceramic factory and city tours.

Food:volunteering in Rabat Morocco

Food is an important part of my experience when travelling abroad. Obviously, Russian and Moroccan food differ by night and day, so I can’t really compare. In terms of offerings by the CCS program, I felt that we were served more luxuriously at Yaroslavl as the group was small. Also, the chef had formerly been employed at an upscale restaurant so she prepared some gourmet meals and attended to each of our preferences (one of us was vegetarian). Eggs were made to order in the mornings and there was always a special dessert treat each day. We had set times for breakfast, lunch and dinner and were expected to sit at the table, before meals were served. In Rabat, we were served buffet-style meals. There was a lot of variety to chose from (soup, salads, breads, lot of vegetables, one meat entrée and fruits was dessert).  A line would form instantly once the bell rang and the food was generally gone within 15 minutes. We dined at the traditional round tables with low stools ad couches around them.

Weekend travel:

In Russia, CCS offered a three-day weekend, so volunteers went to St. Petersburg and Moscow, where there is a lot to see. Train was the best way to travel. I also went to neighboring countries, Estonia, Finland, Sweden and Denmark after my trip. In Morocco, I had gone with two friends, so it made weekend travels much more fun. We went to Casablanca and Marrakesh. One weekend, about 12 of the volunteers went for a dessert safari into the Sahara. It was very economical once we split the cost between ourselves and hired a small bus with a guide. My friends and I also did a day trip to Fes, which was a lot of fun. I found that people who didn’t know each other connected during their stay and went for weekend trips together.

Chicken Tagine with Lemon and Olives



  • 1 whole large chicken, cut into 8 pieces
  • 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1 large bunch parsley, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon saffron
  • 1 teaspoon fine salt
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 cup green olives
  • 1/2 half preserved lemon


First rub the salt into the chicken pieces and then wash the chicken in the white wine vinegar and water. Leave for 10 minutes. Rinse and dry and place onto a clean plate.

For cooking, use a Tagine (traditional Moroccan dish) or a deep, heavy bottom casserole dish. Heat the dish on high and add oil to the hot dish heat for 3 minutes until the oil bubbles. Then add salt and chicken. Flip it over after 2 or 3 minutes. Then add saffron,  more salt, 1 onion, garlic, cumin and ginger. Mix all these ingredients into the chicken. Mix everything and try to place the onion under the chicken. Add the rest of the onion on the top then lemon, Two cups of water. Cook in medium heat for 45 minutes. Finally add olives 5 minutes before it is done.

Serve with fresh bread or couscous.

An Introduction to Moroccan Cuisine

Moroccan cuisine is unlike other Arab, African or Mediterranean foods that you may be familiar with. Although it has influences from other regions around it, Moroccan gastronomy offers an interesting offering of meats, vegetables and spices. Characteristic flavorings include preserved lemons, unrefined olive juices and dried fruits. Spices such as saffron, turmeric, cumin and paprika as well as herbs like parsley, cilantro and mint are heavily used.

A typical Moroccan meal starts with a variety of hot and cold salads. Some of these are relatively easy to prepare, such as boiled beets or carrots seasoned with lemon juice, olive oil and salt. Moroccan salad is a mixture of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and olives. Zaalouk is a mixture of crushed eggplant and tomatoes mixed with garlic and spices, served cold. Harira is Morocco’s famous lentil and tomato soup, which is also used to break the fast at Ramadan. Khobz, traditional Moroccan bread is served at all meals. You would see everyone from street peddlers to small stores selling it.

The main entrée is almost always cooked and served in a Tagine, a dome shaped heavy clay dish that is sometimes painted or glazed for decoration. The Tagine has a flat circular base in which you cook the food and a large cone shaper cover that retains the moisture while cooking. Tagine of meat (beef, lamb), chicken and vegetables is most common.  There is also an array of vegetables prepared in Moroccan cuisine. Roasted whole artichokes with peas, diced pumpkin with cinnamon, quince and green beans are a few staples. Although Morocco has a large coastline, seafood is only found in upscale restaurants.

Couscous is one of the most popular entrées found here and is said to be of Berber origin. Berbers are the indigenous peoples of North Africa from west of the Nile Valley. Couscous is made of semolina and wheat flour by rolling it into fine granules. The end result is of almost powdery consistency which is steamed and served at room temperature with vegetables or meat stew, and sometimes seasoned with saffron to add color.

Pastilla is an elaborate preparation of layers of phyllo, eggs, almond paste and ground cooked chicken or mixed seafood. It is then topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar and can be served as an appetizer or entrée.

Desserts traditionally consist of fresh fruits. There are a number of bakeries and patisseries in Morocco but most of these sweets are eaten with tea between meals. Puff pastry, honey, nuts, dried fruits and powdered sugar are common ingredients used to make the traditional desserts which may remind you of baklava but are far more diverse in flavors. Green tea soaked in fresh mint leaves and Copyright Go Eat Givelots of sugar is indispensable throughout the day. The Moroccan tea culture involves pouring tea from a beautiful silver kettle into small glasses and is enjoyed leisurely with friends and family.

For breakfast or snack, a popular item found everywhere is the Msemmen, a crepe made of whole wheat flour with layering of butter and oil. It can be eaten with jam or honey. Pain cake and doughnuts are also served at tea time as snacks. Walking in the Medina’s, you would find vendors selling boiled chickpeas in paper cones, steamed snails by the bowls, caked and dried fruits. Juice stands sell freshly squeezed orange, tangerine and grapefruit juices that cost under $1 per glass. Although alcohol is not permitted in the Muslim religion, a lot of Moroccans drink in the restraints and bars. While liquor stores may not be so common, beer and wine is available at supermarkets.

As appeared in Do It While You’re Young in January 2011.

Teaching English as a volunteer

My volunteer placement in Rabat, Morocco was at Le Feminin Pluriel, a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1999. This organization has a small center that focuses on women’s empowerment and educational programs. They host conferences such as the one of the Mediterranean women’s writers every year and bring in guest speakers on various topics to their center on every Thursday. Last week someone came and spoke on “Technology.” The programs are mainly in French. There is also a library and a computer lab for the members to use.

Leslie and I were asked to teach English for two hours each day to the women and occasional men who are interested in learning. They have ongoing classes in the daytime and evenings, taught by volunteers from other organizations.

The biggest challenge here was that we didn’t know the competency levels of the students who would be coming, what the past classes had been about and not having a lesson plan outlined. The students don’t necessarily sign up for a class. They come in on any day randomly so we never know who or how many to expect each day.

The first day, we had 4 women and 2 men, of ages 20-51. For introductions, we talked about our backgrounds, families, where we come from, etc. and showed them pictures. I had a 15 slide presentation and Leslie got a photo album which was mostly photos of her dogs in different outfits. They enjoyed it and felt quite comfortable with us. We also asked them to tell us their names, where they were from, about their families and why did they want to learn English. Their motivations included wanting to help their kids study, converse with English speakers when travelling to the US, work in the travel industry, etc.

Then we started gauging their skills by giving them simple reading and writing exercise. We decided that we should divide them into two groups- Advanced Beginners and Basic Beginners. This would make it easier for us to give them individual attention and tailor the lessons to meet their needs.

Over the next couple of days, Leslie decided teaching wasn’t for her another volunteer, Stephanie took over. The same groups showed up each day, while a few more students dropped in and out. Apparently, the word spreads if a new good teacher shows up and then more students pour in.

Each day, we would start the class together by doing a conversation exchange or grammar exercise, and ten take our respective students through the rest of the lessons. I taught my Advanced Beginners class how to order food in a restaurant, shop for clothes in a mall, festivals and holidays we celebrate in the US, describing people and personalities, cooking and the grocery store, amongst many other things.

The students were very appreciative and seemed to like me a lot. They would say at the end of each class “Thank you for you” which I found very sweet. They said my name “Sucheta” rhymed with “Usteda” which means “teacher” in Moroccan Arabic or Berber (I am not sure). On my last day, one of the students got me a recipe for a meat with potatoes tagine that she managed to write herself in English. They also surprised me by throwing a farewell party. One of the ladies walked out and made fresh green tea and served it with assorted Moroccan cookies that were delicious! Everyone took pictures with their cell phones to keep as memories. I wish that I have made some impact on their lives and that I had more time to teach them. One thing I did learn from this experience is that teaching comes quite naturally to me. I really enjoy the interaction with people and they seem to respond well to my personality too. (I got positive feedback from the students). Perhaps taking the ESL certification and teaching English to non native speakers may be in my near future!

Orphanages in Morocco

Some of the volunteers from our home base have been volunteering at a local orphanage. Today I learnt a few things about the system in Morocco.

For starters, most of the kids in the orphanages are boys. This is surprising to learn since it is usually more girls than boys that end up in orphanages in every other country that I have come across. For instance the Mother Teresa’s home in India had 99 girls for every 1 boy as boys get adopted quickly and girls are abandoned by families. The reason in India for this behavior is that a boy is seen as an asset, sort of insurance in old age; whereas a girl is seen as a burden since she would consumer resources for her wedding and then would go off to take care of her in-laws family.

Here in Morocco, people believe that a girl is more affectionate and better caretakers of their families. Parents feel that their daughters would be more reliable than a son, who would probably be more involved with his wife and family, than take care of his parents. More and more women in Morocco earn a living these days. 25% of doctors, lawyers and government administrators are women. The average age of a woman getting married is 29 years old. All these statistics prove that the value of a girl is clearly increasing in this African country.

A second reason cited for the large number of boys in orphanages is that when women get pregnant illicitly and want to get rid of a baby, often times the gender is a factor in their decision. Women feel more comfortable abandoning a baby boy thinking that he would be better able to fend for himself. You will never find a street-girl or homeless girls here. A girl is more prone to exploitation, therefore less likely to be abandoned. Also, some of these women fear that if they kept their baby boy born out of wedlock, he may grow up to attack his mother or take revenge in some form.

The process of adopting a Moroccan baby is fairly simple, whether you are a citizen of Morocco or a foreigner. You must be a Muslim or convert to a Muslim before filing for adoption. Some of these children have living parents who are unable to care for them. In that case, you can gain custody of a child and bring him or her up like your own but would need to keep the family name. Only a couple or a single woman can adopt, single men cannot. The process takes about six months. Currently, most of the children are being adopted by people in Morocco and Spain. The social workers keep a check on the kids and finalize the adoption only after two years of monitoring.