Kes Kes, and Kasbah: Cooking With Kitty Morse in Morocco

By Ann H. Waigand

Photo by Owen Morse
Photo by Owen Morse

The space is not large, just a small atrium in the middle of a home in Morocco, a fountain, plants, and a charcoal brazier its only ornaments. But everywhere you look, people are sitting on the floor, and these people are busy.

Over here, someone is rolling something–it looks like small granules of rice–between the palms of her hands. Nearby two people are carefully sifting this same mixture, breaking the pieces down into even smaller grains, and handing the finished product back to the “rollers.”

On the brazier sits what looks to the untrained eye like a pot-bellied soup pot with a sieve on top. The aroma of gently cooking vegetables and spices wafts over the industrious group on the floor, who continue chatting, rolling, and sifting. They are making couscous.

You might think this to be a typical scene in a Moroccan home, but these couscous makers are actually travelers on a trip called “Come With Me To The Kasbah,” which has been run annually since 1983 by cookbook author, Kitty Morse.

Kitty's popular cookbook.
Kitty’s popular cookbook.

Kitty’s father owned Olive Branch Tours, Morocco’s largest travel agency, and she was born in Casablanca. Today’s cooking lesson takes place in her family’s house, a restored pasha’s palace, in the heart of a tiny medina in Azemmour, one hour south of Casablanca. Once Kitty’s students have prepared just the right amount, and the right size, of couscous, she will show them how to fill the top part of the kes kes–that funny-shaped pot–to complete the cooking portion of the meal preparation.

Baking Bread

Much of the cooking action on this 14-day tour takes place in this atrium. Like their Moroccan neighbors, who often come to help out with the cooking lessons, Kitty’s students quickly slip into a style of life that centers around home and marketplace.

“We go to the souk (the open-air market) every day,” says Kitty. “At the grain vendor, we purchase grain and have it ground into flour for bread and semolina for couscous. We go to the spice vendor. And we take our bread to bake at the communal oven.”

In fact, preparing and baking bread is a particular treat for Kitty’s travelers–and, for Kitty as well, who says “every time I go to Morocco, I gain seven pounds, I eat so much bread.” Kitty and her fellow travelers bring large plastic bags of flour home from the grain vendor and, again, take seats on the floor of the atrium.

This time, the amateur cooks get a chance to use one of the most indispensable pieces in any Moroccan household, a large, brown-glazed, earthenware platter called a ga’saa, a sturdy kneading platform about a meter in diameter that rests between the bread maker’s legs.

“Let your eyes be your guide,” suggests Kitty, reminding her students that the way to measure ingredients in Morocco is with your eyes. Most Moroccan women make bread once or twice a day, so they know almost instinctively the correct amounts of flour, water, yeast, and salt to place on the ga’saa. Under Kitty’s tutelage, the dough is kneaded in the shape of the letter “G,” then formed into small, round, flat loaves which are left to rise on a wooden board covered with a cloth. When the bread has risen, a young child or servant will take the dough to the local baker.

Bread and Bath

Kitty Morse
Kitty Morse

“There is a communal oven on every block in the medina; that’s a tradition,” explains Kitty. Usually next door, you’ll find a hammam (communal steam bath). The ovens for baking bread also serve to heat the water of the public baths. You take the bread to the baker a bit before noon or before the evening meal. Come back an hour later, pick up the bread, and it’s ready for the table.”

How does the baker know whose bread is whose?

“Remember how I made you poke holes in the dough before we sent it to the baker?” says Kitty. “Each family “marks” their bread loaf with a different pattern of holes or fork punctures. That’s how the baker recognizes which bread belongs to which family.”

As a young person, Kitty accompanied her father to Morocco’s Atlas Mountains and talked with tribal leaders there; tourism, she feels, is “in her genes.” Her tours are carefully planned with stops in Marrakech, Fez, Meknes, Rabat, and the Atlas Mountains.

Groups have been invited to dinner in a Berber home in the Atlas Mountains or in the American consul’s home (an historic place where Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill met to sign a treaty during World War II), and have dined with a Moroccan holy man, known for a variety of miracles.

Back in her home, Kitty brings henna artists to provide the special ritual–normally used for brides–of burning incense, playing music and singing songs and applying the lace-like drawings to hands and feet. Leading local painters and ceramicists–her friends–host meals in their homes and show their work.

It all fits together for Kitty Morse. “Cuisine is an integral part of culture,” she says. “So artists are also super cooks!”

WHERE AND WHEN

From 1983 to 2007, Kitty organized an annual tour to Morocco that included culinary demonstrations in her family home, a Moorish riad south of Casablanca.

Contact Kitty through her web site at kittymorse.com where you may also order her cookbooks, Cooking at the Kasbah: Recipes From My Moroccan Kitchen, Couscous, and The Vegetarian Table: North Africa.

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