Lellama Fish Market Visit and Cooking Experience – Jetwing Beach Hotel, Negombo, Sri Lanka

Jetwing Beach Cooking Experience - Negombo, Sri Lanka

Monday 7th December, 2015

Ever since my Year 7 geography class and learning about the capital cities and countries of the world, I’ve had a yearning to travel to Sri Lanka (or Ceylon, as it once was known) to see the tea plantations with my own eyes and learn more about Sri Lankan culture and cuisine firsthand. I was determined that this was going to be the year to actively try and make that trip become a reality.

Knowing that my trip was indeed a “once in a lifetime” experience, I researched a number of places to stay on Google and TripAdvisor, looking for something that would give me an opportunity to enjoy the beautiful beaches in Sri Lanka, and somewhere luxurious to rest and recharge for a few days, but which also offered a unique culinary programme. Sounds impossible? And after a bit of clicking and surfing, I stumbled across the Jetwing Beach website which had a link offering a trip to the local fish market and hands-on cooking experience with the chef for US$45. After sending a few email enquiries to confirm that the culinary experience was still available, I booked my accommodation and eagerly anticipated my impending holiday adventure.

Persistence and a little dash of tenacity are the key ingredients in securing this activity. Despite having a copy of the original email response from the Restaurant Manager, I enquired with the front desk on three separate occasions on the morning of my first day at the hotel as to when this would be taking place, more so that I could plan when to drag myself away from the pool, alcoholic beverages and palm trees and be ready for some knife-wielding action.

A lot of nodding ensued, a few casual “We will ask” responses and then in the afternoon, I called by the reception desk to ask about the activity once more. After a little wait, I was asked if I would be willing to go downstairs to the hotel kitchen and meet with the Executive Chef in his office to discuss my culinary adventure in more detail. Talking briefly about what I wanted to learn, see and do, a trip to the fish market was arranged for five a.m. on Monday morning, where I would be escorted by a couple of hotel chefs to visit one of the oldest fish markets in Sri Lanka and select the fish I wanted to cook with.

I think after that initial meeting with the chef, most of the restaurant and hotel staff recognised my face and were keen to talk to me about my visit, with a few short greetings of “Madam, you are going to the fish market in the morning. No?”. The manager on duty in the restaurant on Sunday night came to my table to introduce myself and ask if I was still okay to start the next morning at five a.m. Yep, bring it on.

Granted, getting up just after four a.m. at a resort to go and pick the catch of the day isn’t everyone’s idea of relaxation or fun, and it’s not something I’ve succumbed to doing at the markets back home. However, travel makes everyone embrace adventure, even jumping into a swank black car with tinted windows and four guys I’ve never met before, in the dead of night without a second thought, to go and look at some fish.

The avenue of neon palm trees - Negombo, Sri Lanka
The avenue of neon palm trees – Negombo, Sri Lanka

On the way to the market, we drove through an avenue of fluorescent glow sticks that symbolically resembled a grove of palm trees. I wasn’t sure if it was part of the town’s Christmas decorations but it was spectacular to behold. I was a little slow getting my camera to capture the image (the photo here was taken on the way back as the sun was coming up) but in truth, I’m glad I made the effort to get out of bed a little earlier than usual.

When we arrived at the market just after five a.m., trading was in full swing with tuk-tuk’s, bicycles, cars and even small motorboats, all jostling for a position around the perimeter of the building. To one side was the local fish sales and the opposite side housed the commercial enterprise, with large trawlers docked against the jetty.

I was led through the smaller market to look at the stalls selling a variety of mullet fish, tuna, shark, swordfish and crustaceans. My chef friends were asking me what fish I wanted to try, and to be honest, at at hour of the morning I did not have a definitive menu planned in advance. The difficult thing though was that once the vendors knew that I was the purchaser, the price seemed to escalate tenfold and so I needed to wander off and become somewhat interested in someone else’s stall in order to secure some of the chef’s recommendations.

Across the other side was the fishing co-operative and large portions of tuna and other fish captured in the night’s haul were being cut, weighed and sold. We came across a few men struggling to lift a massive shark onto a set of scales to be weighed, and there were a few shouts when the final reading came to a staggering 232 kilograms.

The 232 kilogram catch of the day - Lellama Fish Market, Negombo, Sri Lanka
The 232 kilogram catch of the day – Lellama Fish Market, Negombo, Sri Lanka

It was fascinating wandering around the market, watching the dawn slowly break, seeing the trawlers head back out and other boats come back in. Yet in all the frantic hustle, my appearance did seem to be a little out of the ordinary, with one fisherman quite keen to ensure that I took a picture of him and some of his catch for prosperity.

Lellama Fish Market, Negombo, Sri Lanka
Lellama Fish Market, Negombo, Sri Lanka

With my fish portions secured and also fresh fish purchased for the hotel’s daily menu requirements, we headed back to the hotel and arrived just after six a.m. My chef companions went to the kitchen to start their day and gave me instructions to meet them outside the hotel restaurant at eleven a.m., ready to start my hands-on cooking lesson.

Having fortified myself with a few cups of coffee during the morning, I arrived early before the appointed hour, looking forward to learning the secrets of Sri Lankan fish curries and a few new culinary skills to add to my repertoire.

A cooking station had been set up outside for my lesson, with portable gas stoves and barbecue plates primed for action. The first order of business was to get my apron and chef’s hat on, which in the heat and humidity kind of gave me the same hairstyle as Krusty the Clown, but given the idyllic setting, I just had to go with it.

Armed with a sharp knife, my chef demonstrated how the vegetables were to be cut and I got to work on prepping the onion, green peppers, tomatoes, ginger, limes and lemongrass for our different curries.

It was a little disconcerting to have an audience ratio of four staff to one amateur cook to begin with, but once it became apparent that I can listen and follow instructions, chop vegetables without losing body parts and know a little bit about cooking in general, I had a one-on-one professional and highly enjoyable cooking experience.

The lunch menu consisted of a Vietnamese style steamed fish (mullet), fish curry (another variety of mullet), another fish curry (swordfish), grilled tuna, prawn curry and a dahl curry. I received a couple of recipes presented in a folder for a fish curry and the dahl curry to take home with me, but essentially the lesson was hands-on, cooking by instinct and taste.

The steamed fish was seasoned with salt, light soy sauce, sesame oil and fresh ginger, coriander and lemongrass. Whilst it was similar to what I prepare at home, what shocked me was that it is generally accepted that fish is steamed flat, yet our version was tightly wrapped in foil and bent in such a way to ensure it was snugly placed around the circumference of a small steamer and left to cook for 25 minutes.

We then progressed onto preparing the first version of the fish curry by slicing the mullet fish into thick slices and marinating the pieces in a combination of curry powder and chilli powder, before sautéing a mixture of the vegetables and coconut milk with the prepared fish.

While the pot was boiling, I was slicing pieces of swordfish for another fish curry and another flurry of spices, vegetables and coconut milk ensued to create another exotic dish. The chef asked me what I wanted to do with the piece of yellow fin tuna that was purchased, and with the midday sun beating down on us, it was perfect weather for seared tuna cooked on the grill plate, served rare. My little suggestion earnt me a winning smile from my teacher who then taught me to slice the tuna correctly and then create a simple marinade of cracked black pepper, sea salt and lime juice.

With the tuna set to one side, I then stepped up to the hotplate again to create the dahl curry from pre-washed red lentils, in much the same manner as the fish curries; a pinch of this, a dash of that, a spoonful or two of coconut milk, season, stir then sit. My chef also thought that the meal would be incomplete without the inclusion of prawns so I was set to work on creating a dry curry (sans coconut milk) on the strove top.

After an hour or so of learning, listening and instinctive cooking, I had made and prepared my own lunch to now sit and enjoy with the stunning view of the beach before me.

Jetwing Beach Cooking Experience - Negombo, Sri Lanka
Jetwing Beach Cooking Experience – Negombo, Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan’s take their hospitality very seriously and strongly recommended that my meal could not be appreciated without a bottle of Chardonnay to complement the fish and spices. Really, after getting up at an ungodly hour and cooking up a storm, who was I to argue? I was treated like royalty throughout the whole experience and the personal attention continued with my dishes served onto my plate, cold wine poured and steamed rice, coconut sambal and pappdums brought out to compliment my cooking. The head pastry chef suddenly appeared at my table to introduce himself and ask how I enjoyed my morning.

I was perfectly content and grateful that I had persevered in ensuring that I didn’t miss out on enjoying this unique experience, just absentmindedly gazing out to the sea when the chef approached my table with a gift of spices from the hotel kitchen, as a thank-you for participating in the culinary experience.

And just when I thought I couldn’t possibly eat any more, a beautiful palate-cleansing fruit platter arrived to revive me. Truly, great holiday memories are undoubtedly created from doing the things we love and learning from those who are willing to share their love of food and culinary heritage with new-found friends.

Foodie Trails – Gourmet Indian Masala Trail, Melbourne CBD

It’s funny how we are prepared to try new experiences on holidays, but rarely undertake similar adventures in the places in which we live. One of the first things that I do when planning a holiday to a foreign destination, is to sign up for a culinary food tour or cooking class in that country once I arrive, so that I can get a greater appreciation of the cuisine and culture. Although I live in a beautiful city with a rich and diverse offering of foods from many different nationalities, I rarely take the time to discover the edible treasures readily available on my own doorstep.

When I saw an advertisement for a walking tour around the Melbourne CBD with Foodie Trails, sampling authentic Indian cuisine combined with the opportunity to discover wonderful new places to source spices and obscure food items, it was a journey of discovery that I didn’t want to miss.

The starting point of the journey was the Visitor Information Centre at Federation Square where we met our guide Himanshi, before setting off on our gourmet adventure. What was exciting was that we only needed to walk a couple of hundred metres down Flinders Street before arriving at our first location on the tour, an Indian restaurant and café called Flora. I actually walk past this restaurant every day on my way to work but never had the courage to actually step inside and discover what lay beyond the glass doors.

Seated at a large table towards the back of the restaurant, Himanshi treated our group to a narrative of her love of food and travel stemming from her childhood upbringing in India. With maps of the states and provinces before us, we learnt about the origins of popular Indian dishes and spices, and how centuries of various rulers and empires from around the world had contributed to and influenced, what we know as Indian cuisine today.

The best part of any food tour is being introduced to new dishes under the guidance of someone who knows how it should best be eaten. Himanshi had arranged for servings of a traditional South Indian breakfast dish called idli, a savoury cake or dumpling, served in a warm red lentil and vegetable soup flavoured with chilli and mustard seeds known as sambar for everyone to try, served with a cold coconut chutney as an accompaniment. After watching Himanshi demonstrate how to eat the dumpling with the soup and coconut sauce, we all reciprocated and tried it for ourselves. Yum! It was absolutely delicious, and I particularly loved the coconut sauce which had fresh coriander through it.

No breakfast is complete without a hot beverage and Himanshi obliged by ordering chai masala tea for us to enjoy with our soup. Vastly different from a chai latte, masala tea is made from loose leaf tea, fresh ginger, various herbs and dry-roasted spices such as cardamom and cinnamon, which has been boiled and strained before served with milk. The warm spiced tea had a lovely taste and was very easy to drink, and although I could have happily indulged in another cup, it was time for us to leave and head towards our next destination.

After a short walk through the Melbourne city centre, we arrived at a small shop located in Russell Street called Ceylon Curry Corner, which is in close proximity to Chinatown. I must admit that one of the main motivators for joining the tour apart from my love of Indian cuisine, was to discover a place in the city that sold spices and traditional Indian foods. Once we walked into the shop, I knew that I had found that place.

With walls laden with packets of dried herbs and spices, and shelves stocked with jars of various foodstuffs, Himanshi took the time to explain the traditional elements and key ingredients found in Indian cuisine by passing them around our group. We then had an opportunity to buy our own spices to bring home and incorporate into our own cooking. I had been searching for a five-seed spice blend called panch phoran to use in a recipe for a Sri Lankan curry for quite some time, and I was excited to finally get my hands on a packet for only a couple of dollars.

Our last destination for the afternoon was a well-known Indian restaurant located at the top of Bourke Street called Red Pepper. Red Pepper has a contemporary, modern interior and our group was looking forward to enjoying what Himanshi had ordered for our lunch. It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed an authentic mango lassi and didn’t hesitate to order one to accompany the food, but I found that it was so delicious and refreshing that my glass was empty within only a few minutes.

Soon after, several individual platters of food were served, containing large portions of warm butter naan, and smaller bowls of goat curry, raita, butter chicken, chicken curry, lentil soup , rice and a small salad. Thankfully I had brought my appetite with me on the tour but where to start? Butter chicken is always a favourite and a dish that I have mastered making at home in my own kitchen, so naturally I started there. Everything on the platter was beyond compare – fresh, delicious, full of flavour, the meat dishes were tender and succulent, the sauces were beautifully spiced and not unbearably hot to taste. Naan bread is always wonderful and this was no exception yet somehow I had some left over to mop up the left over remnants of the curries at the end of the meal.

Just when I thought I couldn’t eat another mouthful of food, our gulab juman dessert arrived. These delectable dumplings are made from cottage cheese, immersed in a sweet sugar syrup with a touch of cinnamon and absolutely yummy, even on a full stomach.

This marked the end of a wonderful tour of the Melbourne CBD area, sampling a fantastic selection of culinary delights at popular Indian cafés and restaurants within its locale. Himanshi surprised us all with a little goody bag by way of thank you for participating in the tour which contained a lovely key charm and a packet of spice mix to make our exotic Indian creations at home. What better way to spend a Saturday afternoon in the city?

http://foodietrails.com.au/

Flora Indian Restaurant & Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Ceylon Curry Corner Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Red Pepper Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

New Fresh Style Tapas Menu – Spice Bazaar, Seddon

I absolutely love cooking and happily refer to myself as a “one-handed cook”; the knife in my right hand and a glass of wine in the other. Lately I have been reminiscing about my Year 7 Home Economics class. In terms of cooking and learning new culinary skills, I was fearless. I remember making my own choux pastry, Chelsea buns from scratch, brioche and all kinds of dough concoctions, then coming home and wreaking havoc in Mum’s kitchen, trying hard to recreate all the things I had learned.

About four and half years ago, I signed up for a Tapas cooking class at Spice Bazaar, as a way to prepare myself for an upcoming trip to Spain. Since that first day, I’ve had a lot of fun cooking different cuisines and learning new techniques under Jill and Patrick’s expert tutelage, with the added bonus of making new friends as we all prepare the ingredients and recreate the recipes together. My friend Adrian posted some beautiful pictures on Facebook from the new Fresh Style Tapas class that he went along to on his birthday, and after I had recovered from the severe case of food envy, I enrolled as soon as I could.

The new menu that Jill has devised for the Fresh Style Tapas class includes Gazpacho shots, a lighter style Tortilla made with zucchini, Jerez style Garlic Prawns, crispy grilled chicken marinated with harissa, lime and garlic, Spanish meatballs served with a traditional almond sauce, Moorish lamb skewers, accompanied by sautéed garlic mushrooms and roasted pumpkin cubes with a honey dressing, followed by a delicious White Chocolate Mousse topped with passionfruit jelly to finish.

There were a total of eight participants in the Fresh Style Tapas class, so after we made our introductions, donned on our aprons, it was literally time to sharpen the knives and start preparing our dishes. Due to the length of time needed to ensure that our dessert would be ready in time, we got to work on melting the chocolate and preparing the ingredients for our mousse. Although I profess a deep love for chocolate mousse, I’ve never actually made one myself and Jill’s recipe is very easy and simple to make. After whipping together a yoghurt, cream and chocolate mixture and spooning it into small glass containers, we made a jelly using gelatine powder and passionfruit juice which once cooled, covered the mousse. Once that step was completed, the mousse went into the fridge to set.

Cooking in two teams of four, whilst I finished off the dessert, the other team members got to work on preparing for the other dishes to be eaten during our entrée course. Instead of a potato based tortilla, Jill has come up with a light and healthier alternative using zucchini, similar to a frittata. Together we chopped our way through the list of ingredients and as one person cooked on the stove, there was an opportunity to start preparing the harissa, lime and garlic marinade required for the chicken dish to be eaten during the main course.

More chopping, grating, zesting, measuring and spice throwing to create the marinade and allow the flavours to infuse through the chicken, then we repeated a similar process for the Moorish lamb skewers using a blend of Chermoula, Sweet Paprika and Smoked Paprika mixed together with oil, garlic, chilli, herbs and lemon juice to marinate the lamb. One of the things I love about cooking in the Spice Bazaar kitchen as opposed to cooking at home, is that all the ingredients, cooking implements and utensils are right in front of me, and then I get to put all the dirty dishes and knives into the sink where they get magically washed and put away by Cheryl, the kitchen assistant. It makes cooking a breeze and not at all like Year 7 Home Eco when you had to clean up after yourself while the teacher was yelling at you to hurry up!

With the tortilla warming in the oven, its time to create a classic Spanish gazpacho soup to be served as a shooter. After blanching the tomatoes, and preparing the other ingredients, we tested our trigger skills on the blender and prepared the soup with a little of oil drizzled in to create a silky, smooth texture. Once the mixture is strained over a bowl, the soup is served in small glasses and garnished with some finely chopped cucumber. Whilst the finishing touches are applied to both the tortilla and gazpacho, its almost time to plate up for entrée, as one of our teammates is slaving over the hot grill and cooking the Moorish lamb skewers to order.

Cooking is thirsty work and another thing I love about Spice Bazaar is the opportunity to take a breather and enjoy what you have just created over a nice glass of wine, expertly matched to the dishes on the menu. The gazpacho was lovely with a creamy texture with the cucumber giving a light, fresh finish on the palate. I enjoyed the lighter style tortilla which looked stunning when served in the colourful tapas crockery. The chermoula in the lamb skewers provided a touch of heat to our dishes but was lovely and rich to taste. With the plate of skewers in front of you, it’s hard to resist at one but you need to be mindful of the next wave of dishes to be made and enjoyed for the main course.

After half an hour or so of grazing, chatting and drinking, it’s time to get up, wash the hands again and start preparing the rest of the menu. While someone strong starts carving up the pumpkin into bite size cubes, there is the opportunity to start preparing the balsamic and honey dressing or start chopping the ingredients for the sautéed garlic mushrooms and start finely dicing more gloves of garlic for the Jerez style prawn dish.

One of the highlights of the menu, is the exotic sounding Spanish meatballs served with a traditional almond sauce. The meatballs are made with pork mince, chopped garlic, onion and parsley, seasoned and mixed with egg. While the meatballs were being formed, I rolled them in flour and started on creating the almond sauce, which involved gently frying almonds and bread in a frypan, adding wine and stock, before processing the mixture in the blender or food processor. A word of warning – make sure you do this in a glass vessel as the mixture is very hot and the quantity expands. Once puréed into a creamy, smooth and frothy mixture, the almond sauce is poured over the cooked meatballs and placed in the oven to finish.

Feeling a little bit like a short order cook, I got to work on grilling the marinated chicken fillets over high heat on the stove, while my other cooking companions cooked the prawns and started assembling the pumpkin and mushroom dishes. Many hands make light work and it all seems very easy when you have three or four extra pairs of hands helping prepare the ingredients for when they are required. Whenever I enjoy a cooking class or lesson, I find the best thing to do is practice the recipes at home within a week or two so that you don’t forget the sequence of ingredients and techniques that have been learnt, and that you actually have a go at the steps that someone else might have completed for you during the day.

Three and a half hours seem to disappear very quickly when you are having fun! With the chicken looking crispy and cooked to perfection, and all the main course dishes and garnishes prepared and resembling the same quality as Masterchef, its time to kick back, throw off the aprons and enjoy the rest of meal with another glass of wine.

Finished with lemon juice and chopped parsley, the flavours and texture of the pork meatballs cooked with the almond were astounding and its very easy to prepare when you know how. The prawns were fresh and lightly cooked with a Spanish sherry vinegar, cayenne pepper and garlic. The pumpkin dish was beautiful and the roasted flavours with dried rosemary and a thick, rich honey glaze is delicious on its own or can be enjoyed with the meat dishes. I’m not a fan of mushrooms at any hour of the day so I didn’t go near that dish!

My favourite dish of the day was the harissa, lime and garlic marinated chicken which again is easy to create. The chicken thigh meat was light and juicy and the harissa and lime flavours really work well together, especially when grilled on the barbecue. And just when I thought that I couldn’t possibly eat another thing, the pièce de résistance was served. Once your spoon cuts through the passionfruit jelly and you savour the slighty sweet white and fluffy chocolate mousse, it really is game over.

Another fantastic four hours spent learning new recipes, making new friends and over indulging in fabulous tasting food that I had helped to prepare, and so it was time to say good-bye to everyone, roll home and plan the next dinner party.

http://www.spicebazaar.com.au/

Spice Bazaar on Urbanspoon

La Maison Arabe, Marrakech Morocco

It’s my last day in Marrakech, my final cooking class, and quite frankly I’m exhausted and wondering whether my plan to complete four sequential cooking classes in Marrakech might have been a little too ambitious. But walking into the beautifully decorated La Maison Arabe hotel complex, all symptoms of tiredness and exhaustion seem to melt away.

At a table outside by the pool, I meet my fellow cooking companions and our hostess and wait for the day’s program to commence. When it was time to begin, we started with watching a demonstration of Moroccan pancakes being made with savoury fillings, cooked on a hot grill by a dada in the outdoor kitchen. They were so delicious that I almost forgot that I was there to cook! After devouring our pancakes, we made our way to the purpose-built kitchen on the other side of the pool area. The kitchen was fully equipped with individual cooking stations with sinks, stoves and spices, LCD TV monitors and mirrors and I almost felt that I was about to appear as a guest contestant on a televised cooking show.

Having settled at our station and put on our aprons, we were introduced to Fatima, our cooking instructor and began with making batbout, Moroccan bread. Thankfully, having made it a couple of days earlier, the technique came back instinctively when it was my turn to knead the dough mixture. While the bread was proving, we gathered together to watch a demonstration of how to make authentic Moroccan mint tea, which tastes much nicer than the variety that it is usually available from the supermarket.

After enjoying our tea in the sun, we had the opportunity to visit a communal bakehouse near the hotel and watch the local people bring in their own bread to have cooked in the oven while they do their daily shopping in the souks. Around the corner from the bakehouse, we visited a smart-looking shop with glass jars of spices, decorative interior lights and an array of souvenirs for our spice workshop.

Back in the kitchen, it was time to don the aprons again and start preparing Moroccan salads for our lunch. Under strict instructions to carefully peel the skin from the tomatoes to fashion into a rose decoration, I threw caution to the wind and sliced half the skin and tomato flesh together into a pulpy mess. Satisfied with my hideous creation, I kept cutting the rest of the vegetables required for the rest of the salad. Fortunately, Fatima took pity on me and donated her beautifully crafted rose into my bowl.

With one salad completed, it was time to start on the zaalouk, tomato and eggplant salad. After completing five different cooking classes in Morocco, zaalouk was the only constant dish prepared in each class, which speaks to the incredible variety of food within Moroccan cuisine. After five different variations, it’s still my favourite salad.

Putting the salads to one side, the gas burners were lighted in readiness for the chicken tagine we were about to prepare. Fatima carefully guided us step by step through the process, from chopping the ingredients and adding the spices in order, and in next to no time the chicken was cooked and it was time to add the preserved lemon and olives to the dish.

With our tagines cooked and ready to eat, we bade farewell to Fatima and went outside by the pool to wait for our lunch to be served. When I registered for my class online back home in Australia, I also registered for Moroccan wine tasting to enjoy with my meal.

When the salad course was served, I was given a glass of a light and fruity Beauvallon Blanc (100% Chardonnay) from the Meknes region which was an excellent accompaniment with the cold salads and baked bread. Hot on the heels of the first wine, my next wine arrived to enjoy with the tagine course.

Reading the wine notes, this red wine came from Domaine du Val d’Argan, which I had read about in a recent Gourmet Traveller Wine article on Moroccan wine by Jancis Robinson MW, where she wrote about a roussanne wine she had enjoyed in a riad in Marrakech and went in search of its producer, Domaine du Val d’Argan near Essaouira. My sample was the El Mogador red blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mouvedre, which was delicious wine but best drunk with restraint in the heat of the day.

The dessert course was a beautiful milk pastilla made with deep-fried filo pastry, a light orange blossom custard and toasted almonds matched with a glass of Thalvin Cuvee du President (CP) Rose (50% Cinsault, 40% Grenache, 10% Cabernet Franc) from Domaine des Ouled Thaleb in the Ben Slimane province.

After enjoying a wonderful day and delicious meal with new friends, I returned to the kitchen one last time to say thank-you to our host and was pleasantly surprised to receive a gift bag containing the recipes of the day and a small terracotta tagine to take back home to Australia.

Souk Cuisine, Marrakech Morocco

It’s the fourth day of my personally created culinary holiday in Morocco and whilst I’m slightly tired from awakening with the call to prayer in the medina at 4.30am, I am no less enthusiastic to participate in another cooking class.

Souk Cuisine is recommended by Lonely Planet, but what inspired me to sign up for this class was that I would be cooking alongside, and supporting local women who instruct at the cooking school.

Meeting outside Café de France at 10am, I’m introduced to Gemma van de Burgt who runs the school, and the other class participants who have come from the US, the Netherlands, England and finally myself being the token Aussie.

We started off the day by splitting into smaller teams and being given a shopping list of the ingredients to be purchased for the day’s lesson, along with a small pencil case of local currency to use when shopping around the souk. After initially freaking out about my appalling ability to communicate in Arabic and my non-existent bartering skills to use with the local market sellers, I quickly regained my sense of adventure and loved the “Amazing Race” style tour of the souks to locate spices, fresh fruit and vegetables. It was lovely just walking around at a leisurely pace and seeing a part of the medina where the locals shopped for their own food. If one seller was particularly busy with customers, we had the freedom to find and support another vendor who might be selling smaller quantities of the same product and who would also benefit from our purchase.

When all of the items on our team shopping lists had been purchased, we walked back through the medina to the riad where we would be cooking our lunch. Arriving at the beautiful riad, we had the opportunity to refresh ourselves with a drink, grab our recipes and aprons and then split again into teams to cook particular dishes on the menu. The courtyard of the riad had been set up in the style of an outdoor kitchen underneath giant banana leaves and white cloth, with transportable stoves and workstations, bathed in warm sunshine.

The menu for the day consisted of Moroccan salad, courgette salad, sweet carrot salad, zaalouk, briouates, sweet pumpkin salad, sardine tagine with chermoula, tagine fish with preserved lemon and ghriba biscuits.

As I had previously made salads and meat tagines in my other classes, I was keen to try something new and make the fish tagine. One of the local women came over to assist at the workstation and teach us the recipe. However filled with enthusiasm and keen to start cooking, our little team had begun to slice the green peppers incorrectly, and her disappointment was evident! After being assured by Gemma that the dish would still be okay, we moved onto slicing carrots, potatoes and tomatoes before learning how to make the chermoula to marinate the fish and vegetables and assemble the tagine.

With the tagine slowly cooking on the stove, it was time to move onto making briouates. Thankfully I had learnt how to make this dish in Fes so I had the privilege of cutting up the warqa pastry, showing others how to make them and to repair the ones that didn’t quite resemble a triangle shape! With all the dishes finally prepared by the different teams, we were well and truly ready to head upstairs to the rooftop terrace and eat!

As much as I love cooking, I also get a lot of pleasure from eating and enjoying a long, leisurely lunch in the afternoon with no particular place to be. There was a colourful array of delicious salads to start with, whilst relaxing with a couple of bottles of Moroccan wine and chatting about our various holiday adventures and life at home while the tagines were brought out to the table. Unfortunately all good things eventually do come to an end, but I didn’t leave before indulging in a couple of ghriba biscuits with traditional mint tea before heading off for an afternoon siesta.

http://www.soukcuisine.com/index_ENG.html

Faim d’Epices, Marrakech Morocco

I’ve reached the halfway mark of my gourmet cooking adventure in Morocco and I have arranged a culinary day with Faim d’Epices, recommended by the Lonely Planet guide. My email instructions are for me to be at Bab Ksour and wait for someone to pick me up in a van with the purple star anise logo at an appointed time, which thankfully arrived right on schedule as I was starting to get a few marriage proposals from a few dodgy looking men!

After the privilege of two private cooking sessions, this is a small group class where I will be cooking with eight other people from the UK and Ireland, who are also visiting Marrakech. A short journey through the city and we arrive at a small, rustic farm on the outskirts of the Marrakech with a grove of olive and orange trees. I meet Michel, who owns and operates the cooking school, resplendent in his unique corporate uniform of purple sneakers and matching hat. Sitting together in the lounge area over hot beverages, we introduce ourselves and learn what Michel has in store for us. With his witty humour and French charm, he takes great delight in letting us know that we are there for his good pleasure and to cook his lunch.

Donning on aprons, we start the day with a group demonstration on how to make batbout (Moroccan bread) with Nezha, our instructor and learn the art of mastering the “box” and “stretch” techniques to form the dough. Then its our turn to head over to our individual cooking stations and start making our own bread. I loved the large, special-purpose terracotta dish and getting my hands into the flour, semolina, water and yeast and bringing the dough to life. After half an hour of boxing, stretching, boxing and stretching, the bread is formed into a small circle and wrapped in a towel to allow it to continue to prove.

Next on the agenda is our spice test. Using our special funky, blacked-out purple sunglasses, Michel passed around different spices, herbs and Moroccan ingredients for everyone to identify by using our sense of smell only. When I identified ras el hanout, I had a hard time convincing Michel that this blend of spice was readily available in Australia and that I had used it once or twice before!

Time to cook our batbout on the stove and Michel turns up the music and brings out the drums to entertain us while the bread is cooking on the stove top. When the bread is cooked, we create prepare a mixture of sugar, cinnamon, orange blossom water and butter to slowly cook and soften the prunes in preparation for the lamb tagine.

With another demonstration session learning to make cucumber salad, zaalouk and Moroccan salad, it was time to fire up the gas and start to prepare our tagine. Chopping onions with the smallest vegetable knife known to mankind was an interesting challenge! Nezha guided us through the order and quantities of spices and preparation of the tagine. As our tagine was slowly cooking there was an opportunity to rest outside and enjoy the view of the orchard and the warm weather.

The whole day was relaxed and fun in a beautiful setting away from the manic mayhem of the medina. With a final demonstration and hands-on opportunity on how to make msemen (Moroccan pancakes or crepes), the roasted almonds are finally added to finish the tagine and then it was time for a long, indulgent lunch on the back patio, eating our bread, tagines and salads. Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly eat another thing the pancakes, fresh fruit and homemade ice cream suddenly appeared in front of me.

This is the cooking class that keeps on giving, even after you have finished for the day. All the participants were given a bag of ras el hanout to take home, a beautifully presented glass test tube containing our technical instructions (aka recipes) and I received an email certificate with my “official” Junior Moroccan Masterchef qualification, photos taken during the day and additional recipes to try at home a week later. Merci Michel and Nezha!

http://www.faimdepices.com/