Cooking Cous Cous in Fez

01/27/2014 11:00am ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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"Are you good cooks?" Muhammad asked, in the kitchen of a 250-year-old house tucked inside a dark alleyway in Fez.

"My mom's an amazing cook, but I'm a disaster," I said.

My mom, reading the ingredients of Muhammad's cous cous recipe, looked up and smiled. With her fluency in cooking, and my proficiency in Arabic, we knew we would make a formidable cooking team in Fez.


For my mom's birthday this year, I offered her a trip to the imperial cities of Morocco -- to take a cooking class in Fez, and visit sacred Sufi shrines. Since I live in Beirut and she lives in New Jersey, Morocco seemed like the perfect place to meet for our latest adventure.


"First, we have to go shopping," Muhammad said, escorting us out of the kitchen of Cafe Clock and into the bustling alleys of the medieval medina -- to buy fresh ingredients for vegetable cous cous in the bazaar.

From the size and shape of his muscles -- flexed as he carried our basket through the souq -- I figured Muhammad spent as much time in the gym, as he did in the kitchen.


Watching my mom dodge donkey carts filled with goats, I realized how much I missed her. Our last adventure had been five months before in Lebanon, where we visited the Roman ruins of Baalbek -- just days after rockets from Syria fell near the site. Morocco, in comparison, felt calm.

"Look, his feet are in the parsley," my mom whispered, as we stopped in front of a sweet man surrounded by fresh greens. Nearby, a Berber butcher was working up a sweat, sawing the tongue out of a severed head of a cow.


"We'll take two bunches," Muhammad said. The parsley would need a good rinse, before we cooked a pot of harira -- Morocco's famous tomato and lentil soup.


As my mom began placing turnips, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, and pumpkin in our basket for the cous cous, Muhammad started teaching my tongue how to pronounce the Arabic word for each vegetable in the elusive dialect of Fez.

The sad and suspicious eyes of a decapitated sheep followed us past the fishmonger's stall and back to the kitchen.


"Okay ladies, put on your aprons," Muhammad said, handing us blue aprons adorned with orange calligraphic letters spelling out Cafe Clock in Arabic -- in reference to the medieval water clock on the café's façade.

I tied the apron tight around my waist like a seatbelt to buckle myself in for the ride, since I've never been comfortable in a kitchen or around food -- and no one knows that better than my mom.

My mom was the one who spent countless nights with me in the hospital, when I was a failure-to-thrive baby -- for losing weight instead of gaining it. Because food's never really made much sense to me, my mom knows that a kitchen is usually the last place I want to be -- but for her birthday, I didn't want to be any place else.


"Start splitting and peeling all of the chickpeas for the cous cous," Muhammad said, taking a break from cutting carrots to set a mound of chickpeas on the counter.

The chickpeas were more like Mexican jumping beans -- every fifth one I squeezed leapt out of my fingers and onto the floor to seek freedom from the boiling pot. But my mom's chickpeas didn't flee, since they knew they were in the hands of a master chef.

"This reminds me of that chickpea in Rumi's poem," I said. Just two years before, my mom and I had stood in a sea of whirling dervishes in Rumi's tomb in Konya for Shab-e Arus, the anniversary of his death.

Whenever my mom and I are on the road, I often wonder: if I hadn't grown up seeing the Qur'an and poetry of Rumi on the shelves of the antique bookcase in our living room -- leftovers from the days when my mom studied comparative religion in college -- would I be teaching Middle Eastern studies and living in Beirut?


A chickpea in a pot leaps from the flame,
out from the boiling water,
Crying, "Why do you set fire to me?
You chose me, bought me, brought me home for this?"
The cook hits it with her spoon into the pot.
"No! Boil nicely, don't jump away from the one who makes the fire.
I don't boil you out of hatred.
Through boiling you may grow flavorful, nourishing,
and united with vital human spirit.

-- Rumi

For decades, my mom boiled me slowly like a chickpea in strange spices. Like any child -- or chickpea -- I often complained about the pain of being cooked, but as an adult I've come to appreciate that all of the foreign spices she selected and sacrifices she made infused me with a rich and unusual flavor.


"Now, stir some spices into the cous cous," Muhammad said, gathering containers of cumin, coriander, turmeric, chili, and ginger next to the stove. I barely knew how to hold the spoon or stir the pot. In traveling, I am adventurous -- but in cooking I am not.


As Muhammad caramelized the onions, my mom showed me how to make dough for the macaroons. Like a novice sous-chef, I imitated how she polished each miniature mound, and sprinkled almond slivers on top. In the past, I never paid any attention to the methods and secrets of the master chef making my meals. But in Fez, I watched her closely, since maybe one day I'll be cooking a chickpea of my own.

Behind our backs, Muhammad added a few finishing touches -- a lemon here, some garnish there. After four hours of slicing, dicing, steaming, and baking, he announced that it was time to sit back, and enjoy the feast.

Digging into our "home-made" cous cous with oversized spoons, we doubted we would have room for our browned macaroons. With Muhammad's help, and a pinch of mother-daughter love, we had created a Moroccan masterpiece--the taste of which, we knew, would last for many years as a priceless souvenir.

Boiling together in the world of time, my mom and I are cooking up fresh memories on the road to add to our magnificent feast. From the kitchen to the grave, we're traveling side-by-side to spice up each precious moment, and savor each blessed bite.