Friday, June 1, 2012

La cuisine marocaine

Platter of couscous
It's the end of the semester, and my French class is wrapping up. When I first walked into the classroom, there were perhaps thirty students, but as the semester went on, people dropped out and what remained was a core of perhaps 15.

We're a mixed bunch - many nationalities, a wide range of ages, backgrounds and ethnicities. We share books, and work on French dialogues together, and we even exchange email about homework assignments - but let's face it, it's hard to get to know someone in a classroom.

So it was a good idea for our professor to offer an opportunity for some more casual socializing. How about a dinner together in a restaurant? We'd all have to speak French, of course, so it would have to be a place connected to French culture. We'd done a unit on Francophone countries, including Morocco - plus, Le Prof had related how she'd known fellow students in France who were Moroccan. The class was invited to a group dinner at Koutoubia, a Moroccan restaurant on Westwood.

I took a carpool of three, and when we arrived we were the first. The restaurant was dark and sumptuous, with exotic decor - decorative hangings on the wall; banquettes stewn with luxurious pillows, round tables with intricate inlaid parquetry and velvet-upholstered divans. Chandeliers glowed softly overhead.

We were met by the host and greeted profusely and ushered into a comfortable dining booth. As an older lady accompanying twenty-ish people, I was quick to say, "Je ne suis pas le prof, je suis etudiante!"

The soup course
When the rest of the party arrived, we were seated at a round table, richly filigreed with inlaid patterns,  where we could all comfortably converse. The first course was a bowl of lentil soup, flavored with tomatoes and celery. A basket of warm crusty bread faintly spiced with fennel and orange peel was passed.

As we ate, the host of the restaurant, wearing a flowing silk kaftan, worked the table, asking each person in French for an introduction, and questions about our school plans - we all tried as best as we could. Once we achieved that, drinks were brought - some had Moroccan red wine, others bottled Casablanca beer from Morocco, and others water.

La salade maroccaine
After that, a huge platter of Moroccan salads was placed in the center of the table. There were Moroccan spiced carrots, pickled beets, potato salad, chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, richly pureed aubergine (eggplant) at the center, and sauteed anaheim chiles. The flavors all sparked deliciously with cumin, spice and heat.

This was followed by another huge platter mounded with couscous - steamed grains of semolina wheat, crowned with steamed vegetables, chick peas, caramelized onions and roast chicken. A dish of harissa, the hot red chile condiment of Morocco, was passed - although I think we were served the mild version.

Throughout the meal we tried to stick to French, but as the conversation became more animated, we fell back into English. And one reason was that, for many of us, we were all really getting to know one another for the first time, and the conversation became more complicated and flowing. I learned that two of my fellow students were Russian immigrants - their Russian was better than their French. Another student is Vietnamese, but born in Paris and was studying French so he could communicate with his relatives there. Two young men were Mexican, but with very different regional backgrounds.

Three of the students shared a political science class, and a lively discussion of Moroccan food in the context of Middle East politics took place - who says politics is a dangerous topic? Not when it's about couscous!

One young woman was celebrating her recent - a few days ago - marriage, and is expecting her first baby. Another student shared memories of growing up in Texas. Loosened up by the camaraderie, I talked about my years in the theatre.

The evening ended with glasses of hot, sweet mint-flavored tea, poured with a flourish from a silver teapot, and delicious almond-flavored cookies.

As the group broke up, the owner posed us for a photo in front of the restaurant. What a fun group. We'll go back to class for one more session, then the final exam. Who knows? Maybe our experience will help us keep in touch.


Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

What a feast! The food looks amazing.

Brava to you for learning another language. For really sticking to it. For going to class when you certainly have a whole other life to attend to. I've been farting around trying to learn Italian on my own and what I need to do is bite the bullet and take a class (or two or three). You're an inspiration. Well done!

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

The food looks incredible, but the fellowship of the evening might have been an even better treat!

Gary's third pottery blog said...


Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

What a great end to the semester.

I have two good friends from Morocco and one of them threw a couscous party last spring.

Moroccan cuisine is positively divine.

Jackie Owens said...

Wow, looks so wonderful!

I need to re-learn French - thanks for giving me another reason ;)

Sheila said...

The food looks delicious!
If you are born in Paris,aren't you French?