Regardless of which type of couscous being prepared for Friday’s traditional meal, gathering the ingredients is a universal Moroccan experience requiring patience, bargaining skills, and a sturdy bag.
Rabat – Shortly before 5:30 am on a Thursday morning, Mohammed and Jamila Bakkari are woken by the call to prayer coming from the large mosque across the street from their Temara apartment.
After praying, the couple will either go back to sleep, get ready for the day, or go for a run with their friends. Today, they go back to sleep.
At 9 am, they wake up a second time. Mohammed showers and helps his wife prepare breakfast. They eat together and leave a portion for their youngest son, who is still sound asleep, before driving to Rabat with large reusable bags in tow. It’s time to do some shopping for tomorrow’s couscous.
Mohammed and Jamila, my future in-laws, arrive at my apartment in Mabella just after 10 am. Mabella is a small but lively neighborhood just outside the center of Morocco’s capital city. My fiancé and I meet his parents outside our building, and the four of us walk towards Mabella’s old quarter. It takes us less than three minutes to reach the souk.
The place is packed. Thursdays are popular shopping days, as families prefer to keep the ingredients for Friday’s couscous fresh. Ideally, shopping is finished before 1 pm so as to avoid the sweltering afternoon heat.
There are a few types of Moroccan couscous, but typical families most often prepare vegetable couscous topped with meat or chicken for Friday’s meal. It’s savory, filing, and inexpensive. The vegetables used in this dish can include tomatoes, cabbage, potatoes, turnips, carrots, chickpeas, courgettes, and pumpkin.
In a lot of Moroccan households, most of the family’s shopping is done by the woman of the house while the man is away at work.
The Bakkaris do this differently.
Jamila shops for household items, clothes, shoes, cleaning supplies, and toiletries. She knows where to go, who to trust, and precisely what these items are worth.
Mohammed is an expert at navigating Morocco’s food markets. He knows exactly how to determine the quality of the goods being sold and negotiate a fair price. He buys a lot of items in bulk through his connections with vendors, which helps him save money. Thanks to his flexible work schedule, Mohammed always makes sure his family has what they need.
Mohammed has never been to Mabella’s souk before, but the unfamiliarity of this marketplace doesn’t intimidate him. No matter where he goes, he never falls for a rip-off.
In order for Mohammed to secure a fair deal, though, my fiancé and I must walk ahead of his parents as they approach vegetable vendors and inquire about prices.
As a ghostly pale foreigner, I stick out like a sore thumb—especially in this neighborhood, where tourists seldom venture. Some merchants will see me and assume that the family I’m walking with is wealthy, thus prompting them to declare a higher price.
Although Moroccans are known for their bargaining skills and Mohammed is no exception, haggling quickly loses its charm in busy souks baking under the summer sun. In these conditions, arguing over prices can actually be quite exhausting, especially when you’re hauling around a cumbersome shopping bag.
This problem is easily avoided. My fiancé and I simply have to appear as though we’re not with his parents.
After a vendor gives his price and Mohammed decides if it’s fair, he calls Jamila over to help him pick out the produce. They can tell which veggies are good just by touching them.
The Bakkari’s key to saving money in the souk is patience and teamwork. When the couple goes shopping together, they’re a force to be reckoned with.
In Mabella’s souk, Mohammed and Jamila act as a team. My fiancé and I watch as his parents split up and visit multiple sellers of the same product to compare prices and the quality of the goods. When they reconvene, the couple determines which vendor has the best deal.
Rarely do they settle on the very first price they’re offered.
Throughout their more familiar stomping grounds in Temara, Mohammed and Jamila have established friendships with the merchants offering the best quality of goods. Although some top vendors are stationed quite far from home, the trip there is well worth it.
In some cases, Mohammed uses different criteria to manage his purchases.
“Even if they don’t have the lowest price, I support them because they are kind to me,” he says of his favorite merchants. “Character means more to me than money. I prefer to buy from people with good hearts.”
In Mabella’s souk, however, he has to make his purchases based on quality and price.
For tomorrow’s couscous, he needs pumpkin, cabbage, carrots, and potatoes. While we’re here, he also wants to pick up onions, tomatoes, peppers, pears, and mangoes. He will buy the chicken for the couscous closer to home to ensure it isn’t tainted during the journey back to Temara.
Luckily, we have four pairs of hands to carry all these goods.
We head back to the apartment and prepare a meatball tagine for lunch. Mohammed and Jamila drive home after two hours of eating, chatting, and cleaning.
This laborious Thursday morning is somewhat unusual for Mohammed and Jamila, as Jamila usually prepares tfaya on Friday’s.
Tfaya is a sweeter variant of couscous made with caramelized onions, raisins, chickpeas, almonds, and meat or chicken. Mohammed buys the dry ingredients in bulk at the beginning of each month, so he only needs to buy the meat and onions for the dish every week.
Although the vegetable couscous is made with fresher and more plentiful ingredients, the raisins and almonds used in tfaya can rack up a steep bill. Consequently, tfaya is usually only prepared for special occasions and family gatherings. While it may be more expensive than the vegetable couscous, it is easier to serve to large crowds.
Regardless of which type of couscous being prepared, gathering the ingredients is a universal Moroccan experience requiring patience, bargaining skills, and a sturdy bag.
But this is, in fact, a labor of love. While the moments spent enjoying the flavors of the dish may be fleeting, the memories of shopping, cooking, and eating with family should be cherished.