There is something right about making gumbo in Africa. Sure, we learned how to make a good gumbo back when we lived in Louisiana. And gumbo is about as common in Morocco as jambalaya was when we lived in Ohio. (For the record, when a tavern-owning alumnus of the school in Cleveland where Brian was President learned that Brian had accepted a new Head of School position in Louisiana, he told Brian that his tavern had the best jambalaya in Cleveland. Brian, who held both the alumnus and his tavern in high regard, responded in an eastside Cleveland context, saying, “No offense, but that is like saying a place in Baton Rouge has the best Slovenian sausage in all Louisiana.”) But the roots of Louisiana gumbo trace back to Africa, where the green vegetable okra, used to thicken gumbo, is actually called gombo. Slaves brought gombo from Africa to the New World centuries ago, and African slaves in the New World used it to make a soupy goodness that nourished them. Gombo in the pot became gumbo, the dish. So even though Morocco has no real tie of its own to gumbo, now that we live in Africa it just seemed right that Brian cooked a gumbo last week.
Plans for the gumbo began nearly two months ago when we made a big trip to Rabat for supplies at the Commissary of the U.S. Embassy. Just in time for Mardi Gras we found andouille sausage stacked in the Commissary’s freezer with pork chops and bacon and pork tenderloins. Overjoyed to find the Porkfest, we returned with a fair supply of each to squirrel away in our own small freezer. We planned to make a Mardi Gras gumbo, but time got away from us and it did not happen. Among other reasons, while we had the andouille we figured would prove difficult to obtain, we discovered that the okra we had seen previously in our souks had gone out of season. In Morocco, out of season usually means out of luck. No problem, we thought. We will find it in the limited selection of frozen vegetables at Marjane or Carrefour supermarkets. After all, we figured, we are in Africa; we ought at least to find frozen okra here. Nope, no go for gombo. The longer the andouille sat in our small freezer, the more room it seemed to take up. So, presuming we had nothing to lose by seeking okra-shopping advice from local merchants, Brian suggested we ask Youssef if he knew where we could find okra. Thus begins our story of high commerce in Morocco.
Youssef is one of the guys from whom we buy vegetables each week in the CIL neighborhood of Casablanca. An amiable man in his mid-forties, with excellent English developed during several years living in England, and a friendly demeanor that edges on solicitous, he builds his business by building relationships with the European and American expats who predominate in the CIL because they know they can find pieces of European and American comfort for sale there. Youssef harbors the entrepreneurial spirit that drives the pure capitalism prevalent in Morocco, and found a niche in hocking ready-to-use produce. From a table at the entrance of the courtyard housing the souks in the CIL, Youssef sells bags of shelled peas, peeled potatoes and carrots, artichoke hearts he whittles down from whole chokes, and more. Because he hocks his goods as semi-prepared foods, he charges considerably more for them than what we pay a few meters away at Zwil’s souk for regular produce. Because he always greets us as we enter the CIL’s souks, and because he remembers details about us like any good businessperson remembers how to flatter customers with small talk about their personal lives, Audrey insists on buying a few things from him that do not appear on her weekly shopping list. Over time, his prices have gone up, so that we spend almost as much for a couple items from Youssef as we pay Zwil for our week’s worth of fruits and vegetables.
He also keeps a well-attuned ear to the ground, providing good information about culture and events and happenings domestically and internationally, delivered easily to us with his strong English. So Brian thought that Youssef might provide some good leads on where to find out-of-season okra in Casablanca in March. Two weekends ago, after collecting our weekly produce from Zwil and shopping for meat from our happy Berber butcher a few meters away, on our way out of the souks and before we picked up wine from the Israeli-owned alcohol Hanout, we stopped at Youssef’s table to ask about okra. Youssef had no idea what okra or gombo was. (We have since learned from Abdeljalil, our tutor in the Moroccan Arabic dialect called Darija, that the Darija word for okra is mlokheyya, and its season is NOT in March.) But Youssef did recognize a photo okra when we pulled it up in Google images on a phone.
“Yes, I know this vegetable, and I know where you can get it,” Youssef said while beaming with pride in his ability to help us. He continued, “You need to go to the Black souks. Do you know where they are? That is where the Black Africans go to shop. They have lots of places where the Black women can get their hair put into styles, and they have all kinds of things the Black people who come up from the countries below the desert want to buy. This is where you can find this vegetable you want. You need to go to the Black souks.”
When we asked where in Casablanca we could find the Black souks, Youssef offered, “You know, I can go there for you and get this…this…”
“Yes, this okra. I will go to the Black souks this week and you can get it from me next week when you come to the CIL. I am happy to do this for you.”
We walked right into it: What a great idea, we thought. Brian, calculating how much okra he would need for his gumbo, pulled out a 50 Dirham note – roughly $5 – and gave it to Youssef saying, “If you can get one kilo of okra, we will get it from you next weekend.” Audrey followed him up by promising excitedly, “If it costs more than 50 Dirham, we will pay you the rest when we get it from you next weekend.”
Through the next week, Brian kept thinking of the gumbo he would get to make, waiting impatiently for the weekend to come when we would pick up our okra from Youssef. Finally our shopping day arrived and we headed for the CIL. With our first stop at Zwil’s souk, Brian put the celery, peppers, and onions (the “Holy Trinity” of Louisiana cuisine) he needed for gumbo into our big wicker weave shopping basket. Next we went to our happy Berber butcher for a chicken to complement the andouille waiting in our freezer (and to make a roux for the gumbo’s base). Finally we stopped at Youssef’s table on our way out of the souks.
Youssef greeted us warmly as he always does, then his demeanor changed dramatically. Looking forlorn, he said, “I went to the Black souks to get your vegetable for you, but they did not have it. I looked everywhere, but there is no okra anywhere in Morocco.” Our hopes sank.
After a dramatic pause to read our disappointment, Youssef brightened again as he reached under his table, grabbed a paper bag, and drew from it four small plastic bags stuffed with okra. Our dashed hopes rose again as he explained, “I have a friend from Sudan who comes to Morocco every two days to bring things to sell. I called him up and told him about my American friend who needs this gombo, and I asked him if they had it in Sudan. He said they have it all over Sudan, but it would be too long a way to bring it to Morocco. I told him my friend needs it because his wife is pregnant and demanding it to satisfy her craving; otherwise she would scratch her arms and her neck and get a rash.”
At this Audrey jumped: Pregnant?!!!
Youssef grinned sheepishly as he maintained, “I had to tell him this so he would bring it, because you cannot refuse a pregnant woman when she craves something. You have to get it, whatever it is, or they scratch themselves on the neck and arms and get a rash.” Youssef pretended to scratch his forearms and his neck for visual effect. “My wife, this is what she did, and so I got her what she craved. And I told my friend in Sudan that he must help me so I can help my American friend with his pregnant wife.”
So Youssef told us how, to help the American satisfy his wife’s craving and stop her from scratching her arms and neck into a rash, his trader friend brought okra from Sudan, where there is plenty of okra right now. These okra were picked just two days before, and Youssef’s friend had brought okra to him in the CIL just one day before. The okra looked very large, very green, very fresh. Despite being bigger than one usually would want to cook with, they would make a very good gumbo!
Then Youssef’s countenance changed once more as he cast his eyes down and dropped his voice to an apologetic level. Like a nine year old digging his toe into the ground as he confessed to breaking a window with his new baseball, Youssef said, “When my friend brought this from Sudan, he said it cost 80 Dirhams.” No problem, we figured. We had paid him 50 Dirhams the week before; we would give him another 30 Dirhams now. Another pause…then, “He told me 80 Dirhams EACH.” Whoah, four quarter-kilo bags at 80 Dirhams each? Making it 320 Dirhams, or about $32 for a kilo of okra! Brian’s eyes popped out of his head.
In Morocco, business gets done on a word, and once you enter into a deal you become committed to see it through. Not considering The Sudan Scenario, Audrey had told Youssef a week earlier that we would appreciate whatever he could do to get okra for us, and we would pay him whatever extra it cost beyond the 50 Dirham. He found us okra; we had to pay him. Brian reluctantly pulled out 300 Dirham, thinking that amount, plus the 50 Dirham from the week before, covered it with a little more for his trouble. Youssef looked at the 300 Dirham, looked at Brian, scrunched his face pleadingly, and said, “It was so much time to go to the Black souks to look for it and then to get my friend to bring it from Sudan when it was not anywhere in Morocco.” In other words, “Couldn’t you give me a little more?” Brian sighed and pulled out another 20 Dirham note, giving Youssef the equivalent of a $5 okra finders fee.
If that seems very little, consider first that $5 goes much farther here than in the U.S. Second, truth be told, we do not really know if the okra actually came from Sudan. How intriguing, we thought, that Youssef’s Sudanese friend apparently brought the four 80 Dirham quarter-kilo bags of okra from Sudan in the very same unusually long and thin plastic bags Youssef uses to package the vegetables for sale on his table. Hmmm. Yet, despite that mystery, we also do not know that the okra did not come from Sudan, and to suggest to Youssef we thought he might be lying in order to gouge us would insult his honor – a big no-no in Moroccan culture. So, having laid out the parameters of our deal so loosely that he could reasonably offer the wild Sudan scenario – shame on us for being sloppy and naïve in our business dealings – we paid about $37 for two pounds of okra.
In the end, we learned three important lessons.
Lesson One: When negotiating a business deal in Morocco, be absolutely explicit about any expectations, limitations, or caveats in order to avoid creating loopholes someone can exploit to your financial peril.
Lesson Two: If we really want something here in Casablanca, resourceful Youssef will pull out all stops and find it for us somewhere and somehow.
Lesson Three: Unless we REALLY want it – like pregnant-woman-craving level of wanting it – do not ask Youssef to find it for us because we will pay quite dearly for it.
POSTSCRIPT – Brian made a really good gumbo that we ate and shared with friends over a few days. If it was not a $37 gumbo, it was close.
On your mark…get set…here we go!