''Think of Marrakech as an oasis in the pre-Saharan desert. Warring nomadic tribes, armies of traders and invaders—every culture has left its mark. The Arabs brought our religion across North Africa around A.D. 700. The Almoravid princes who built the walled city came north from the Senegal River in 1062. The Spanish were ever present. The French protectorate lasted from 1912 until 1956. And each wave of conquerors had to contend with the local Berbers, the tribal people from the mountains who were here first. My father was a Berber from a remote village in the High Atlas Mountains. He had two wives and 24 children and lived to be 103.''
Ahmed Zaidane Lasry is talking. He has been talking since he met us at the airport with a lipstick red silk foulard poking from the pocket of his immaculately tailored Italian suit; his whispered Arabic chirps are all it takes to slip us through customs. He is driving us to his home in the medina (the old city) of Marrakech, his well-used BMW negotiating the narrow alleys and almost brushing the burros they were built for—and it has become clear to us already that Lasry is a wall of words, a river of them. He went to school on life and came out a well-connected guide. ''Besides Arabic and Berber, I picked up English, Italian, Dutch, and German. But mon français est correct. Très correct.'' To begin to understand Marrakech—its traditions, its food—people rent houses, spend years. But we don't have houses or years: We have Lasry.
We have Wolfert, too. For an American cook, there's almost nowhere you go with Moroccan food that Paula Wolfert—who published Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco in 1973, and has defined Morocco's immensely sophisticated cuisine for us ever since—hasn't been. Much from that seminal book remains with me, especially her description of the country's legendary hospitality: ''
an embarrassment of riches, total satisfaction, abundance as an end in itself and as a point of pride for the host.'' That, and the memory of some convincing meals at a Moroccan restaurant in San Francisco (where I recall the cozy community of shared eating as much as the sweet and savory food), had left me longing to visit Morocco. Last spring, I hook SAVEUR executive editor (and star photographer) Christopher Hirsheimer on the adventure, and she immediately lures to our office a group of knowledgeable Moroccans, whom we pepper with questions: ''Should we go to Fez or Marrakech?'' we wonder. ''Fez is more refined and sophisticated,'' our guests reply, ''but less has changed in Marrakech.'' Done. ''Is our idea of Moroccan hospitality just a romantic sentimentality?'' I blurt. ''Does it still exist?'' ''Yes,'' they reassure us, eyes twinkling. ''It still exists.''
Lasry's house is full of women. Through what looks like just another door off just another noisy and crowded street, you enter a courtyard—the heart of the Moroccan house, the real living room, where polished rituals and messy intimacies alike take place. Written in Arabic over the double-height Moorish arch are the words ''Whatever God wants. There is nothing stronger than God.'' Lasry breathes in slowly: ''Now I am calm.'' On a banquette in the spring sun, Lasry's mother, Lalla Aicha Bouziane, almost 90, smooths her beautiful traditional skirts. Through a bedroom door off the courtyard bursts Lasry's daughter (from his first marriage) Myriam, 24, in jeans, just back from a business trip to Geneva. Lasry's wife, Asma Zaidane, about Myriam's age and pregnant with his son, fusses, along with Saâdiya, the cook, over the salads we are about to eat. We have been promised the preparation as well as the meal. Lasry turns to us. ''You are not guests; you are at home here. You do what you want.'' Proverbs flow like honey: ''My father would say: 'He who comes into my house is a friend; he who does not is a villain.' And 'A piece of bread with a glass of tea and a smiling face is better than a whole lamb on the table and a frown.' My father was a pious man. When we moved to Marrakech, he opened his house to students of the Qur'an who came from the mountains to study but had no food. Now, every Friday, 20 poor people from the mosque come here and eat dishes like seven-vegetable couscous. They know my door is open.''
Lasry's whole house is open—to the sky! Only a peaked roof three stories up shelters the courtyard from rain. Birds fly in and nest in star-shaped holes in the walls. His house is open to the world as well, we learn. ''People come, and someone must be here, because if people visit and no one is here, they'll stop coming. If they come, that means they like you. And everybody has a story. It's how we get the news.''
Asma carries into the room a low round table laden with ingredients for the cooked and raw salads she is about to assemble. We review the recipes in French and I try the few Moroccan ingredient words I've learned. As Saâdiya chops parsley for the salad of cubed cooked potatoes, I venture: ''M'ednus?'' ''M'ednus,'' echoes Lasry's mother with a radiant smile. Asma sprinkles minced garlic, then cinnamon, on rounds of boiled carrots. ''Tuma,'' I chant, and ''Qer.fa.'' ''Tuma!'' repeats the mother, like an incantation, ''Qer.fa!'' Baby zucchini are always dressed with kamun (cumin), and grated-carrot soup is invariably made with orange juice and orange-flower water. These are the defining flavors of iconic recipes. No freewheeling ''creativity'' can screw this up.
Lasry has quietly slipped into a long white djellaba, a ruby fez, and those funny flat leather slippers—and in so doing, has slipped back a couple of hundred years. Except, that is, for the Ray-Bans he puts on to announce that, until lunch is ready, we're going out into the market streets.
''Dark, fierce and fanatical are these narrow souks of Marrakech,'' Edith Wharton wrote in 1919. ''Marrakech is the great market of the south...not only the Atlas [Mountains]; with its feudal chiefs and their wild clansmen, but all that lies beyond of heat and savagery: the Sahara of the veiled Touaregs, Dakka, Timbuctoo, Senegal and the Soudan.'' Maybe. But Lasry walks the packed, dusty alleys of his neighborhood like the local mayor. We run to catch up as a shopkeeper selling wild artichokes actually kisses his robe. In a butcher shop raised from the street like a stage, a whole cow's head hangs, its tongue lolling. A holy man from the mosque where Lasry prays five times a day carries a great bunch of mint, and its scent lingers on the air as he embraces Lasry. We ogle olives piled mountain high and bowls of the preserved lemons indispensable to Moroccan cooking.
'Look, please!'' Lasry cries, as the streets act out their dramas. ''It is like in a movie.'' Men sit curbside beating out the soundtrack on hand drums—pam, pam, pam-pam-pam. We pass leather workers tooling their famous skins and suddenly Hope and Crosby ride into my brain on a camel, singing: ''Like Webster's dic-tion-a-ry, we're Morocco bound.'' Women in djellabas and veils chatter with girls in tank tops and leggings. ''Look how relaxed the dress code has become,'' Lasry enthuses. Still, it seems women like djellabas for the same reason their men do: They hide everything.
Back inside the house, Asma has thrown a cloth over a large round table pulled into a corner. I count five different mosaic tile patterns on floors and walls, highly colored like their design antecedents, the patterned rugs that hang at the sides of Berber tents to keep out the desert winds. Through the open roof come the sounds of the city. At 12:30 p.m., the muezzin calls the neighborhood men to prayer from a loudspeaker on the mosque next door: ''God is most great. I witness that there is only one God and that Mohammed is the prophet.''
Lasry sits between his mother and his daughter. ''You see?'' he says, grinning (and showing off a bit). ''This is how we eat lunch every day.'' We begin with the salads, a mosaic themselves on the tabletop, each with its distinct, bright flavor. We eat as our hosts do, with the first three fingers of the right hand, sometimes dipping with good, grainy wheat bread. Lasry cautions not to mix the flavors, to keep the salads separate on the plate. We drink as they do—Coke from big glass bottles set on the table. Asma goes to the kitchen—just a hallway with sink, burners, and more little low tables—to get the pressure cooker in which her lamb and green olive tagine (named for the pot it's traditionally cooked in) has been simmering. For form, she transfers the stew to a terra-cotta tagine for serving. Lasry's fingers find just the piece of gristly lamb his mother likes, and he offers it to her. The sauce is famously rich; its complex, spicy aromatics stretch a little meat a long, long way.