Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Pasha's Dinner: Morocco, 1860

“Le Maroc Contemporain” (published 1860) is an account of life in Morocco by Narcisse Cotte, who was an attache to the French Counsel. Cotte’s account is a very thorough description of his experiences traveling through Morocco and visiting many cities as part of his counselor duties. The book is in French – the description below is my effort at a paraphrase and summarize what I read there. As always, I am interested in what people ate, especially including, at the moment, Moroccan food. And as always, I found the Western visitor to Morocco in these early days very much impressed by the extreme differences between local foods and customs and his own.

In the city of Salé near Rabat, the author was invited to lunch at the home of Sidi Mohammed El-Zeneber, the Pasha. Until not long before this visit, this city was hostile territory, home of pirates, but had been pacified by a bombardment, and his visit was part of the peacemaking.
The Bombardment of the City of Salé by Théodore Gudin, 1851 (Wikipedia)

Cotte’s first impression of the lunch was that it was “copious” – twice as much as he had eaten at customary meals. The first dish served was a large earthenware vessel containing four chickens in a sea of nearly-boiling oil. He delicately grasped a thin piece of meat and brought it to his lips.

“Eat,” Zeneber said, and sprayed him with rosewater. The author apologized, noting the lack of forks and knives, which he was used to using. Zeneber ordered one of his officials to help. This man plunged his hand into the boiling oil and took out a chicken, which he divided into twenty pieces with his fingernails.

“Eat,” said the official, putting pieces of chicken into the author’s mouth, making oil drip down his beard.

“Eat,” also said the Pasha with irritating amusement. In every dish that he ate, Cotte tasted rancid oil and strong-tasting butter. Fish, mutton, eggs, and the national dish, couscous were made twenty different ways with sugar, red and green peppers, honey, tomatoes. These were the principal dishes of all the meals he ate, as well as tea infused with mint or lavendar. And table napkins were completely unknown; thus he found the last part of a banquet – the washing up – absolutely necessary.

Leaving the pasha and his very hospitable home, the author was happy to find himself in the open air outside.

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