Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Casa Blanca, Morocco: Mosques and Malls

Hassan II Mosque in Casa Blanca

The imposing door of Hasan II Mosque: Person for scale
I've been in DC a few days, but the feeling of Morocco is still fresh (perhaps preserved by the cold weather here in March). It was a short vacation; just 6 full days in Morocco, but enough to shift gears by being immersed in something wholly different from the Washington, DC and the US. The trip in Morocco ended with a very Moroccan encounter. Throughout the trip it was clear that speaking French (one of the official languages of Morocco) could get a person a long way. Our taxi driver to the airport was the first person to state it explicitly. In Morocco there are three price tiers: One for English speakers, a second for French speakers and a third for Arabic speakers.  I've traveled enough to know this is a type of norm; it's easier to navigate a country and relate to the people if you speak the language. When we left the hotel, we were told the taxi ride to the airport from the hotel would be 250 Moroccan Dirhams ($25). As we arrived at the airport, I handed the taxi driver 300 Moroccan Dirhams to cover the ride and a tip. He looked at me for a moment and said, "Perhaps for my sister the ride would be 250 Dirhams, but for you, at least 300." Just because you understand the system, doesn't mean you can escape it.

Me amidst the tiles of Hassan II Mosque
I enjoyed my trip to Morocco. It's a privilege to wander a city like Tangier that was once home to Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Moors, French, and the melting pot it is today. I would recommend that a friend take the time to spend a few days in Tangier, a few days in Fez, Casa Blanca and Marrakesh. Air travel to Morocco was easy flying into Casa Blanca and the trains run smoothly (and air conditioned) throughout the country.  I had to remind myself that the rapid growth of Morocco's tourism industry. In 2010, the country welcomed 10 million tourists a year, that number jumped to 14 million by 2014 and the government hopes to attract 20 million tourists by 2020. Basically a traveler should be savvy about travel and open to a non-western culture. It also helps to realize there are not standard rules of how to treat tourists. For example, the day we arrived in Casa Blanca, we went to pick up a taxi from a line of taxis lined up outside a huge tourist destination, the Hassan II Mosque. The guide book said never to pay more than 5 euros for a ride within the city. The first taxi driver wanted the equivalent of 10 euros for a short taxi ride. When we refused to pay that sum and walked away, literally 10 taxi drivers followed us down the street saying they would drive us for less (even for free!).  We walked a few blocks away to find a cab driver in a quiet neighborhood. We asked how much the ride would be, he pointed at the meter and looked at us like we were crazy for asking how much a taxi would cost.  Yet the next day, desperate for a taxi in a down pour,  not a single taxi had a meter out in their taxi, even when asked.

A view of the mall from inside the aquarium
Casa Blanca gets a bad name on other travel websites and in the guidebook. Perhaps because it's not picturesque like Tangier or Fez or Marrakesh. It's a large metropolitan city with a metro area of 9 million people.  The example is typified by the fact that our first night in Casa Blanca we ate Turkish food and then got a 60 minute Thai style massage by Thai masseuses.  It rained heavily our first morning in Casa Blanca so we went to an anthropologist's favorite place to study culture: The Mall. The Morocco Mall is the largest indoor mall in Africa. It contains the usual stores, plus a "luxe" area with huge monuments to Gucci, Fendi, and Louis Vuitton. Probably the most alluring feature is a 1000 liter aquarium in the center of the mall; I paid the $2 to ride the elevator that runs through the center of the aquarium. The food court overlooks the ocean, so anyone who can make it to the mall can enjoy their pizza (or tangine) with a view of the crashing waves.

The mosque from a distance
From the wall we walked the 5 miles of coastline back to our hotel. Casa Blanca has a well developed beach scene.  Close to the mall there is lots of deserted beach with a few surf shops. A good 2 mile portion of the walk was along the Corniche, an ocean side boardwalk lined with hotels and resorts. Eventually the Corniche ends, and the side walk deteriorated into broken concrete along side a busy road. But we walked the whole expanse, all the way back to the Hassan II Mosque which has a huge plaza that abuts the seaside. The Hassan II Mosque was built in 1993 by the previous king and named for himself. It is the 2nd largest mosque in the world with a capacity for 80,000 worshipers.  In the evenings, locals lounge around the plaza, on the benches and many levels of stairs surround the mosque. The sheer size of the building, the number of fountains, and the millions of tiles used in the detailed tile work is awe-inspiring. I've seen a person sized incense burner swing in a cathedral, and just the outside of the mosque made me marvel at the things humans will do to honor God (and garner the respect of fellow humans).

The night before leaving Casa Blanca, I engaged the in the Russian nesting doll activity of watching the movie Casa Blanca about Rick and his cafe while drinking cocktails in Rick's Cafe in the old Medina of Casa Blanca.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Tangier, Morocco: Day 3, shopping and eating and eating

Rock the Kasbah. Get it? 
Our hotel experience at Kasbah Rose has been lovely. Each morning at breakfast we are greeted by the owner Loraine (from Holland) and her American friend, Carla. Perhaps American is no longer an accurate descriptor, both Carla and Loraine have lived in Tangier for over 30 years, running different businesses, and both offer excellent advice on where to spend our time in the city in terms of attractions and shopping.

About the rock the Kasbah
The freshest dates I've ever eaten

A few Phoenican Tombs and some locals enjoying the view

Phoenician tombs overlooking a port
 and some seaside property
Carla recommended we start our day with a walk to The Marshan, a wealthy neighborhood outside of the Medina which overlooks the Strait of Gibraltar and is also the site of the Phoenician tombs. These tombs, deep holes carved into a ledge with a view of the strait are an archaeological site and popular meeting point for locals. The Phoenician tombs are about 20 large holes which presumably once contained bodies of Phoenicians, early inhabitants of Tangiers, before Rome conquered the city in the 1st century BC. Currently the tombs are in no way preserved, but the carved out holes are immovable reminders of ancient history in Tangier.

A main road within Marshan

Large house inside Marshan
In Marshan, the houses are bigger, the streets wider, and the neighborhood still contains a mix of well preserved homes and those in need of renovation. Tangier is a city with European influence, and tourism is still a growing industry.

A mosque during prayer times--with shoes 
waiting for their owners on the ledge right outside
Despite being touted as a popular site within Medina, we found the Kasbah Museum closed and without signage suggesting why it’s closed on a Tuesday. Though part of the pleasure of Tangier is wandering around, in no rush, as the city carries on with its business. Usually as we wander, we eat, sampling dates, pastries, sweets, and plenty of mint tea.

Any disappointment  over the closed Kasbah Museum was assuaged by a fresh and flavorful lunch at an outdoor cafe, Chez Hassan. We watched the owner and cook, filet swordfish and grill squid for our made to order meal. We were serenaded by a West African street band, who seemed as interesting an attraction to us, as to some Moroccan school children out on the streets during their school lunch break. The band itself was a reminder of other African immigrants who pass through (or perhaps stay) in this city, a passageway to Europe.

Decidedly un-Arabic music 

One of many interesting passageways in the city

Inside Tinduf Bizzare

The afternoon also contained shopping, as we idled away an hour in Tinduf Bizzare, a dark, dusty shop packed to the gills and antiques and tchotchkes. I bought postcards of Tangier from the 1950’s but not before tripping on the reproduction of a musket. Moroccan pottery was stacked high, with a thin path through the chaos for an adventurous shopper. We made a short stop at Las Chicas, a boutique recommended both by the guidebook and a NY times piece about 36 hours in Tangier. Las Chicas was a beautiful shop, but I could not convince myself to spent $310 on a velvet blazer or even $100 on a fine kaftan. Tonight we’ll search for a mysterious cafe in the Medina where Rif musicians host a nightly jam session in a tiny room. Tomorrow we catch the train to Casa Blanca where we’ll spend our last 2 nights before returning home to Washington, DC.

The more upscale Las Chicas shopping experience

Matisse's bed! 
On Monday night, I made a pilgrimage to the Grande Hotel Villa de France, a 5 star hotel, legendary for its clientele during the French protectorate days of Tangier. Henri Matisse stayed in room 35 at this hotel between 1912 - 1913. As suggested by my guidebook, I asked nicely at the reception desk if I could see the room (merci si vous plait) and documented my visit with a few pictures. Though the room is not "preserved," there is a television and updated bathroom, it was interesting to see the same views of the see and distant mountain villages, that Matisse must have admired during those years.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Tangier, Morocco: Day 1 and 2

                    View from the hotel terrace
As someone with a scientific background, I am inclined to give credit where it's due. Hence, I must acknowledge that Anthony Bourdain and his episode about Tangier from his series on travel called Parts Unknown influenced my most recent choice for a vacation destination. It also helps that travel to Morocco is relatively easy with a direct 7 hour flight from Washington, DC to Casa Blanca. The flight was brutal as I truly felt like a sardine crammed into a metal can without even functioning in flight entertainment to distract me from my discomfort. After the plane ride, we caught a 4 hours train from Casa Blanca to Tangier.

Kasbah Rose, our hotel, with balconies
to the outside
As is his talent, Bourdain imbued the city with enchantment and seedy mystery. He ate delicious food and socialized with locals and expats. Tangier is a city steeped in history. It is a major port between African and Europe and during the infamous, semi-lawless days of the "international zone" when it was jointly overseen by Spain, France, and England, writers, artists, and discontents flocked to the city. The architecture tells the history of European occupation as colonial era European style architecture mingles with Moroccan style buildings. As pointed out by our tour guide, the Europeans built their houses and apartments with large windows and many street facing balconies. The Moroccans, with their Islamic background and emphasis on privacy, built their houses with few, small windows on the exterior walls and heavy wooden doors open to reveal interior courtyards and balconies.
French style buildings in the Medina

 Before arriving in Tangier, my friend (and regular travel partner) Jess, suggested I read Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles, an Englishman who could be considered king of expats in Tangier. He was actually a composer, musical historian and then writer. His novel Sheltering Sky book chronicles a young American couple as they travel through Africa starting in Tangier and ending in the Sahara. The book ends ends with their mutual demise as they overestimate their travel prowess and underestimate the harsh nature of the Sahara and its inhabitants. Despite the darkness of the book, I was inspired by one famous quote early in the book: "Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home.'"

Olives in the market
 I'm a tourist not a traveler; I always want to return home. Because I speak Spanish, I usually feel more at home in Spanish speaking countries. Tangier has an international feel that it welcoming in its own way, especially when some people speak Spanish. The city looks its age--that is to say old and run down, more than historical. I cannot say I feel at home in Tangier, however, I'm happy to visit and get a feel for the city.
Mural of Berber woman
View of the Mediterranean from the Kasbah

Cemetery within St. Andrew's Church garden

Berber Market
Our exploration of Tangier started on Sunday morning at the Berber market outside of St. Andrew's Church, an active Anglican Church. The cemetery of the church is devoted to expats and British Colonial service members who lived and died in Tangier. The graves are remnants of the English empire and its expansion into Africa. Many of the gravestones mention the devotion of these colonial serviceman to "the Moorish people."

The cemetery is a symbol of European influence on Tangier, a city so close to Europe, yet firmly Islamic and African in its culture and history. The Berber Market is held Sunday and Thursday. Women from Berber villages located in the Rif Mountains outside of Tangier come to sell fresh produce, milk, and cheese. Strawberries, peppers, potatoes, avocado, artichokes, tomatoes, flowers, herbs and much more are laid out on the sidewalks outside the white walls of the St. Andrew’s church garden. Scattered showers dictated our schedule.

Fresh goat cheese wrapped in palm leaf (from the market)
and mint tea

The morning was mostly sunny, yet by 11am rain forced us into shelter at a cafe overlooking St. Andrew's Church. Mint tea is a stable of Moroccan gastronomy and hospitality. The tea is made with a mix of dried green tea leaves and fresh mint, usually steeped in an embellished teapot and served in small clear tumblers. Once the rain cleared, we followed Anthony Bourdain's itinerary and had lunch at Saveur de Poisson, a popular seafood restaurant right outside of the medina. The restaurant serves a fixed menu starting with pepper paste, roasted nuts, and olives, followed by grilled squid, a whole grilled fish, and finished with dessert of honey with nuts and fresh berries.

Mint for sale: 20 cents a bushel

The appetizers at Saveur de Poisson

Whole grilled fish at Saveur de Poisson

Sheltering from the rain with locals
We decided to try our luck and walk out towards the new Corniche (the coastline) to the marina, a pet project of the current King of Morocco. However, the rain started again, and we took shelter with some locals and waited for the rain to pass.

Local bread bakery

European inspired bakery

On day 2, we spent the morning as more traditional tourists, and joined a walking tour of the old city aka the Medina. We wound our way through the city taking in views from around the fortress or "the Kasbah" and stopping to meet local vendors and buy goods. I bought two carpets, one made in the Atlas mountain region and one from the Sahara region. I wish I had taken pictures of the enormous room full of Moroccan and Persian style rugs, however, I was focused on picking the perfect rugs for the right price and only money left my pocket (unfortunately not my camera).

Balcony at the American Legation
 The highlight was the American Legation. Morocco was the first foreign nation to acknowledge the US as independent from the British. The American Legation building was gifted to the US in 1821, and is the site of the first US consulate and as such, the first piece of property held by the US in a foreign country.

Tom foolery within the courtyard

Admiring a relic: toy soldiers re-enacting a battle between Moroccans and Portuguese 

Western style room within the legation 

Moorish style room within the legation

Sunday, June 5, 2016

What interns eat: Quick quinoa salad aka how I ripped off Whole Foods to save money

Yes, I do enjoy cooking: It is an outlet for stress relief, a way to express creativity, but it is also a necessary task to save money. Washington, DC is an expensive place to live...No matter which nebulous internet story you choose to believe, this city ranks in the top 5 most expensive cities in the US.  My friends in Texas might cry a little if they knew how much I pay for my almost 400 square foot box of an apartment. My studio apartment rent + student loans carves out the majority of my resident salary...and then there are all those other necessary costs to keep me happy like a gym membership, online yoga subscription, Netflix, Spotify, etc.  To have any money left over to actually enjoy living in Washington, DC, I HAVE to make most of my three meals a day, drink coffee at home and just be mindful of how I spend my money. But don't feel sorry for me. This Wednesday I'm going to a techno show at the 9:30 Club and next week I'll be seeing Taming of the Shrew at the Shakespeare theater. In the end, all my money gets spent, it's just a matter of how I want to spend it. (No, I have not been saving money as an intern. That comes later in life when I'm an attending.) 

Lunch for Monday

Sometimes I get lazy, and I run around the corner to my local, super yuppie, attractive, fit ( half the people are dressed in fashionable work out gear) Whole Foods to get a quick meal from from their ready-made-foods bar. I usually regret this move and just wish I had eaten fried eggs or a stale peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I can never gauge the weight accurately and end up spending $13 on food I could have prepared at home if I had more motivation.  I really enjoy ready made grain and pasta salads but now avoid buying at Whole Foods to avoid regret verging on guilt. 

Whole Foods makes a delicious fresh and sweet Quinoa salad with many elements including
edamame, red pepper, red onion, mango, almonds, raisins, coconut, lime juice and balsamic vinegar. Finally I copied the ingredients off of the To-Go container and told myself I would just make it and try not to buy it again. Full disclosure, I also make my own muesli cereal, so I have a lot of random ingredients on hand like dried coconut, raisins, dried cranberries and different types of nuts.  

So here you have it, a thrown together version of a great quinoa salad. The beauty of grain and pasta salads is you really can throw in random ingredients to a base of carbs and get a pretty good salad that will yield enough for 3-4 meals. I think the key to success is a common theme ie Mediterranean, Greek, antipasto, roasted vegetables, sweet additions. You can never go wrong with some crunch like almonds, pepitas or celery. I like to keep my dressings simple like citrus juice + vinegar + a touch of oil. 

A couple other tips: 
  • You actually have to rinse the quinoa or it tastes like soap. I use my french press to wash the quinoa. I pour in the cup of quinoa I plan to boil and add water and drain it three times before cooking. 
  • Let the edamame and quinoa cool before mixing all the salad components together
Final product
Sweet Quinoa Salad: 
(it is a lot of ingredients, but this salad comes together quickly) 
1 cup of uncooked quinoa--rinsed and cooked according to the instructions on the bag. The final product is about 2 cups of cooked quinoa
1 8 oz bag frozen edamame
1 red bell pepper diced 
4-6 green onions, thinly sliced including green part
(you can also use half a red onion, finely diced...this is what Whole Foods uses)
1/2 mango diced (you could definitely use the whole mango if you like sweet)
1/2 cup sliced or coarsely chopped almonds
1/2 cup or less of dried unsweetened coconut flakes
juice of one lime
(1/2 cup cilantro, finely chopped is optional but encouraged)
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tbs olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

1. Rinse the quinoa, cook according to directions on bag. Once it is done cooking, fluff with a fork and let it cool until the grains separate easily
2. In a shallow pan, steam the frozen edamame for 5 minutes. Drain and let them cool. 
3. Slice the green onion, chop the peppers, dice the mango, slice or chop the almonds. Add these ingredients and the raisins and coconut to a large mixing bowl. Set aside while the quinoa and edamame cool. (I let mine sit for 30 minutes)
4. Into a jar, squeeze the lime juice, add the balsamic vinegar and oil. Shake the jar until the dressing is emulsified. 
5. Once the quinoa and the edamame have cooled, add them to the mixing bowl with the other ingredients. Gently mix to incorporate the ingredients. Then pour over the dressing and mix gently again, trying not to smash the quinoa. Add salt and pepper to taste. 
6. Eat alone as a salad for lunch or serve with a protein or roasted vegetables for dinner. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

What Interns eat--Quick Vegan Meal: Tofu pancakes with rice noodles

My regular readers will already know of my love of Mark Bittman aka the Minimalist aka why did he leave the New York Times?  My most heavily used cookbook is Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.  I bought it in 2011, the year I started medical school. In 2010, the UN released a report stating what we eat, specifically the amount of animal products, significantly impacts our environment and is accelerating man made climate change. From the report: "Agricultural production accounts for a staggering 70% of the global freshwater consumption, 38% of the total land use, and 14% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions."  When I started medical school, I had this grand idea that I would start my crusade to help the environment by becoming vegetarian.

As you can tell from my blog, which documents my cooking and eating around the world, I am not vegetarian. However over the past few years, I have cut out a significant amount of meat from my diet--not in small part due to having vegetarian friends like Jess in medical school. Now when I cook for myself, it is primarily vegetarian, and in this mix I also try out interesting vegan recipes. I have not yet given up animal products. I haven't kicked my yogurt habit. It is difficult to control my lust for fancy cheeses, especially queso Manchego or drinking red wine and eating brie and french bread with my mother. I do my tiny part for the environment by abstaining from meat 5-6 days out of the week. It will only make a difference if more of us can at least be as good as American elementary schools and have a meatless Monday or several meatless days a week.

So that's my soap box--now on with the cooking. I was excited to try this tofu pancake recipe because I am such a fan of the greasy orange Kimchi pancake that is served at most Korean restaurants. The kimchi pancake is spicy, crispy, orange, greasy and served with a tangy dipping sauce. I always want to know--how do they get it so orange and crispy?? (the answer is kimchi, chili garlic sauce, and tons of oil)  Why do  I like something so orange and crispy? These tofu pancakes are like miniature kimchi pancakes. Tonight I made them without kimchi, but this tofu pancake recipe can be dressed up many ways to keep it interesting.

This recipe is truly quick and can be made easily from things that I always keep on hand like tofu, chili garlic sauce, kimchi, and rice noodles.

Asian Tofu Pancakes adapted from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian


For the pancakes:
1 box of tofu-firm
1/2 cup of water
3 tbs of chili garlic sauce
4  green onions, washed and thinly sliced including the green part
2-3 small cloves of garlic, finely minced
** (you can also substitute 1/2 cup of chopped kimchi for the green onions and garlic)
soy sauce
1/2 cup of flour
sesame oil-optional to add to the frying oil for taste
vegetable oil for frying
rice noodles--I usually use the MaiFun Rice sticks

For the sauce:
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup rice vinegar
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp sesame oil
3-4 green onions, thinly sliced including the green part
optional-ginger, more garlic, lime

1) In a large mixing bowl or a food processor, crumble the tofu. To the crumbled tofu add 2-3 tablespoons of chili garlic sauce (depending on your desire for spice) and the water. Option one, run the mixture in the food processor until smooth. OR if you're like me and do not have a food processor, you can use an immersion blender and grind the tofu until it is nice and smooth.

2)  If you used a food processor, transfer the processed tofu into a mixing bowl. To the pureed tofu mixture, add the sliced green onions, garlic,  3 tablespoons of soy sauce and the flour. Stir until incorporated. This makes a thick batter. If you want crispier, thinner pancakes (but harder to flip), you can add water little by little until it becomes the consistency closer to breakfast pancake batter. I like to keep the batter thick because it is easier to manipulate and flip.
thick batter 

3) In a large frying pan, add enough oil to coat the bottom. Heat the oil over medium heat. When the oil sizzles with a drop of water, you are ready to fry.

4) Using a tablespoon, drop about 2 tablespoons worth of batter into the oil to make small pancakes. Fry each side of about 4 minutes or until golden brown. Really--just let them sit for 4 minutes. I get very impatient and try to flip my pancakes early. But this tofu dough falls apart easily and the pancakes will break and get everywhere if you don't wait 4 minutes per side. Don't flip them until they are golden along the edges.
just starting to get golden on the edges 

5) Flip and cook the other side at least 4 minutes. Once done, set aside and let drain on a paper towel

Dipping sauce and Noodles

Noodles: While the pancakes are frying--or as you were making the dough, bring a pot of water to boil for the noodles. When you have 10 minutes left of cooking, drop the packet of rice sticks into the pot of water. Turn off the burner and let the noodles sit for 10 minutes. At the end of 10 minutes, try a noodle to make sure it is soft. Then drain into a sieve or colander and rinse with cool water to stop the cooking.

Dipping sauce: In a small bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, rice vinegar, sugar and sesame oil. Feel free to add a dash of Sriracha or some diced ginger or more garlic. Season the dipping sauce to your palette. Add the sliced green onions to the sauce. Now you are ready to serve the tofu pancakes.

If I want more vegetables, I will also quickly steam a bag of frozen broccoli to serve with the noodles and pancakes.

Broccoli encouraged