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Paula Wolfert on Her New Moroccan Cookbook and Four Decades of Food Writing

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[Photo: Sara Remington]

Beard Award-winning cookbook author Paula Wolfert's Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco came out in 1973 and introduced Americans to the flavorful world of North African cuisine. Now, almost forty years later, Wolfert has returned to the cuisine that launched her food writing career with The Food of Morocco (buy on Amazon), a career capstone that is destined to become a classic. Below, Wolfert discusses why she writes about traditional dishes, the Moroccan concept of baraka, and that one time Ms. magazine made fun of her for suggesting that women take up professional cooking.

So why revisit Moroccan cuisine?
Well, my book came out in 1973 and it's been in print all this time, but it came out before anything was available in the United States. It was before there were tagines in the United States. And even though I had lived there for seven years, I hadn't included all that I knew because I wrote the book midway. So when I went back in '93 — I left in '76 — things had changed so much. I sort of got interested in it again and I started plotting.

I didn't really think I was going to do The Son of Couscous, but I kept notes and I went back from time to time, and over a period of twenty years, I figured it was time for me to really regroup because everything now is available in America and I could tell the truth. I could tell people how they really eat in Morocco and keep it alive. And especially in today's world where everything is becoming fusion food and the distinctive and delicious Moroccan food is not being portrayed. It's all being reinvented. And I thought, you know what, this is the moment to do it.

Speaking of fusion food, you write in the introduction that the book doesn't cover what you call "invented" dishes, more modern takes on Moroccan cuisine. What draws you to the older, more traditional recipes?
I'll tell you why: the chefs do that, that's chefs' cooking. Paul Bocuse — you've heard of him, right?

Yes, of course.
paula-wolfert-chef-hat-2.jpgOkay. So many young people, you know. Okay, Paul Bocuse said that Moroccan cooking was one of the three great cuisines of the world. And yet nobody knows it! And all of a sudden with young chefs coming along who are really almost artists — I don't blame them for what they're doing. They are recreating the food because they don't just want to do their mother's cooking, or they don't just want to do ordinary, traditional cooking. This is a time when chefs are doing creative food, and that's great.

But what's happened is, except for a few books, there's really nothing documented of what the real food of the country is, the real food most people eat. I mean, real people in Morocco do not eat the fancy food of chefs, nor in America when we eat Moroccan food do we eat the real Moroccan food. We eat this packaged couscous that's cooked instantly, and they pour any kind of stew over it. And it's all lost.

And I feel, you know, I'm a traditionalist. I'm not against what chefs are doing. I just want to do what I want to do. That's my job. I'm not a chef. And I'm interested in the history, I'm interested in the culture, and food is integral to the whole of the way people live in Morocco. Moroccans eat differently than we do, and since I lived there for seven years I felt I should share what my experience has been.

Especially since it's considered by Paul Bocuse, as I repeat, one of the great cuisines of the world. He wasn't talking about what chefs were doing, he was talking about the cultural traditions, the great banquets as well as the peasant food that he had tasted somewhere along the way. I don't know where. But I mean it's very obvious that Moroccan cooking as I love it is still very much a woman's craft. Men chefs have a much more formal avenue and they're doing it in a much more formal way. And there's nothing wrong with that. Believe me. It's just two different aspects of the same cuisine.

Also, the cooking of Morocco is very distinctive. And it's delicious. It's very healthy if you don't eat so much sugar. [laughs] There's a way of eating in Morocco that's presented differently, and it's very hard to present that food in a restaurant.
[Photo: Paula Wolfert]

So how exactly is the Moroccan food as its presented in the States different from food as it exists in home in Morocco?
For some reason the Ethiopians can get away with it in restaurants and get people to all eat with their hands and have the Ethiopian experience. For some reason, maybe because the belly dancer cost too much money or something, they have to charge so much more, they feel they have to make it fancy [at Moroccan restaurants].

When Moroccan food is extremely well balanced, the spicing — you know it's not sweet and spicy, it's sweet and savory, or sweet and salty, or sweet and sour. And they have a balance of spices. They have a balance of ingredients. And it's based on very long cooking and bottom up cooking on top of the stove and it has its principles, that's what I love about it. I didn't want it to disappear with all the enthusiasm of our young chefs today. Which I love! It's just that I wouldn't eat their food every day, I'd eat Moroccan food every day. You know, who can afford to eat at restaurants every day.

They eat with their hands. Of course they wash their hands before they eat. Moroccan tagines, which are the stews, they eat with bread. They eat couscous with either their hands or a spoon. It's the same sauce on either the couscous or the tagine, except for the couscous sauce is very very thin and broth-like, and the tagine sauce is very very thick. But they're very similar in flavor and taste.

And there's the meat, the fish or the chicken, and the vegetables of the season or the fruits of the season or nuts of the season. And since they're eating with their hands or with a spoon, they're usually eating from a center plate. In other words there isn't a separate dining plate for each person.

In a funny way, the cost of eating that way, you can actually feed more people. Let me give you an example. A typical tagine feeds four to six people. If the four or six people are sitting around the table, and the tagine is in the center, and they have their bread in their right hand, with the three fingers of their right hand — this is the way that Moroccans eat. Americans won't eat this way, except when they go to Ethiopian restaurants they will. They pick up the sauce, the bits and pieces of the meat that are cooked very soft, the vegetables are well-cooked, the sauce is very smooth, and they bring it to the table. And then they eat. What happens is somebody knocks at the door and four more people arrive. What do you do? In a Moroccan home, you make room for the four more people, you hand them bread, and believe it or not there is enough food for eight.

It's called "baraka." Good fortune. That's what Moroccans believe in. There's always enough, there's the hospitality, there's the warmth. There's the sharing of things, and the food in the pot is always enough for more people. Now, if you had taken a tagine for four, and divided it among four serving plates, it would look like a small amount for each person. And yet. And yet if you eat it from the same pot, all eight of you, somehow the food provides enough.

A lot of this hinges on the sauce. The concept of the sauce. It's not the same as the French concept. It's not a separate entity. It's complimentary to the dish, and it can spread. And it spreads with the bread, and people just eat from their area of the plate, the area of the tagine that faces them. It's very interesting.

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Jamaa el Fna, Marrakech. [Photo: yotut / Flickr]

Now I'm not telling everybody to do this. But I'm explaining why the food is different in the way it's cooked and is different in the way you present it. Now if you go into a Moroccan home, that is the way you will be served. If you go into a Moroccan restaurant, for Moroccans, which doesn't really exist except in street food or Jamaa el Fna in Marrakech, then they give you food, they put it on plates, and they give you much more and it's not the same thing.

Is there a particular region or Moroccan style you consider to be a specialty?
Most of these are Berber people that I'm particularly interested in, which are the original people of the country. They're the ones who invented the cooking of couscous, they're the ones who invented tagines, and these are things that are very inspiring because they're centuries and centuries old. It's a sharing, and it's becomes a pillar of their society, in the way they have a family or a tribe and they eat all together.

How has the country changed since you were first introduced to Morocco, and what effect has this had on the food?
Well, a lot. Because up until the 1980s most people lived in the countryside and lived a traditional life. Once they moved to the cities, all of a sudden they had home ovens. All of a sudden they didn't have room in their little apartments in Casablanca or Rabat to sit on the floor and roll their own bread the way they do in the country. So they started to buy the bread from somebody else who made it. They learned to bake in their home ovens.

All of a sudden big companies came in to furnish these people with easy access to food, so supermarkets came. This didn't exist when I lived there, but in the 1980s the supermarkets came. People changed the way they cooked. They started to cook using pressure cookers instead of a tagine. They started to do other things to make life easier and faster for themselves.

And guess what happened? It was just like the 1960s in America when we were all eating frozen TV dinners. This is what they were doing in the 1980s. They were buying faster food and they were buying pressure cookers. And then all of a sudden a woman comes on TV in the late 1990s, just like a woman came on television in the 1960s in America, and showed people how to cook again. And the woman in Morocco is named Choumicha.

Video: Choumicha

And she showed young women — because their mothers were the ones who became corrupted by living in the city and wanting to do fast things — and the young people in Morocco today are just like the young people of the 80s and 90s who started really getting into cooking and doing it the traditional way, the right way, the way Julia Child taught everybody.

They're just twenty years behind us but young people are cooking traditionally. In the cities, they're interested again because it's real. It's part of their lives. There's not just one way to make something, but people finally want their heritage. Of course they want to make things a little easier for themselves, I don't blame them, I want to make things easier for myself too. But there's a real interest in cooking and all of a sudden you see people standing at the kiosks where they sell magazines or newspapers, girls sharing a cooking magazine seeing things their grandmothers used to make that their parents didn't. This is in the cities, this is not the country.

You've been writing cookbooks for a long time. I'm curious how you've seen food writing change since you started?
Everything has changed and I'm not sure that I could get away with — It's all different today, the whole thing with blogs and printing online. It's a wonderful way for a lot of people to express themselves. I didn't have that, I went out and did exactly what I was interested in and I was lucky to get published. I mean, today people publish themselves if they want to be heard. I had to really do something original in order to be heard because the economy was different.

I don't know, it's hard to answer that question because you know I'm 73 now and I started when I was in my 30s. So we're talking about a 40 year expanse and a lot of different things happened along the way. But I've written eight books, all but one is still in print. I don't know how to answer your question because each decade things were changed and women — I mean, there was a moment when Ms magazine mocked me for telling women if your husband leaves you and the only thing you know how to do is cook, make a career in cooking. They thought I was crazy. This is when Ms magazine first starting, but I was right! You know eventually, cheffing became great. And this was before they thought cheffing was fabulous.

Well one way that the food writing world has changed is that much of it is online, and the New York Times wrote the other day about how you're very active on Facebook.
I have about 2,400 members, they're from all over the world. A lot of them are from Morocco, a lot of them are Moroccan, a lot of them are American girls married to Moroccans. A lot of them are chefs, Moroccan chefs and non-Moroccan chefs, and a lot of them are people just like me who are fascinated with Morocco and love the country. And I don't just put up recipes, I bring in the culture and the art.

I have about five different people who post their recipes on the site as well, so it isn't just about me. I don't pretend to know it all. Actually I've learned lots. We've been on it for five months now and we have people from Australia and people from Indonesia, people who love Moroccan food and cooking. And we've all become sort of friends and everyone is very supportive and if anyone comes on and says nasty things I just delete them. They can't come back. Nobody shows off, I might look like I'm showing off a lot because I post a lot of things but I'm also posting things from other people.

It seems like there's a very active back-and-forth going on.
I thought to start a blog it's all about me. But that's what my book is, my book is all about me. I am interested in sharing and opening up and seeing what else is going on. And I have learned a lot, things I didn't know and I've become very friendly with a lot of the people.

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