Paula Wolfert, known for her cookbooks on the cuisines of the Mediterranean, discusses the inspiration for her newest book, The Food of Morocco from Ecco.
What led you to your fascination with Morocco?
To answer I’d quote something Edith Wharton wrote more than 90 years ago: "To touch the past with one's hands is realized only in dreams, and in Morocco the dream-feeling envelops one at every step.” When I first set foot in Morocco 50 years ago, there could not be a better description of how I felt. I came as a 21-year-old beatnik. I’d read the amazing novels of Paul Bowles. I was, I thought, prepared for most anything, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s been a 50 year love affair with Morocco and the seductions of its cuisine.
What made you revisit Moroccan cuisine?
This book is a distillation of everything I know about Moroccan cooking. I stand by my earlier book, still in print, in which I presented Moroccan cooking as a prism through which to view an exotic foreign land. This book is different. I understand the cuisine so much better now. I’ve added more than a hundred new recipes, and placed a greater emphasis on the whys and wherefores of Moroccan cooking techniques. At the same time I wanted the new book to reflect the way the American culinary scene has changed in terms of availability of ingredients. It’s far easier today to recreate authentic Moroccan food.
What is it about Mediterranean cooking that inspires you?
First of all, the flavors. And the way different cultures utilize the same ingredients in such an amazing variety of ways. It’s a wonderful collection of national cuisines.
What do you love most about Moroccan food?
Moroccan food is wonderfully diverse and therein lies its glory. In truth I can never decide which I prefer: the fabulous urban couscous dishes, great pastillas and complex dessert pastries, or the long slow-cooked Berber style tagines of the Moroccan countryside. In fact, I like it all, the food of the palaces and the food of peasants and fishermen made of simple ingredients and simply prepared.
Favorite dish to make? Favorite dish to eat?
I love making slow-cooked dishes in clay pots, so I’d have to say tagines. But if I had to choose one dish to eat it would be pastilla, which I consider, along with bouillabaise and paella, one of the 5 or 6 greatest dishes in the world.
How do you think the cuisine has evolved since you first started writing about it?
When I first went to Morocco, only 10 percent of the population lived in cities. Today it's closer to 80 percent. This has brought huge changes. During the seven years I lived in Morocco, we always prepared our own bread at home, then sent it off to the neighborhood wood-fired oven to be baked. People today are too busy to do this. In Casablanca many middle-class women purchase prepackaged food at supermarkets and prepare their tagines in pressure cookers. These are practical solutions, and I understand them. But meals prepared this way lack full flavor and the special seductive quality of Moroccan food at its best. For home cooks who want to prepared true Moroccan food, I offer my new book as a guide.