A Culture of Eating, Drinking, and Being Hospitable
Moroccan cuisine is considered one of the most important cuisines in the world. One of the reasons for its importance is its remarkable diversity of influences. In Moroccan dishes, one can trace the country’s long history of colonizers and immigrants who have left their mark in more than one way. The cuisine of the first inhabitants, the Berbers, still exists today in the staple dishes like tagine and couscous. The Arab invasion brought new spices, nuts and dried fruits, and the sweet and sour combinations that we see in dishes like tagine with dates and lamb. The Moors introduced olives, olive juice and citrus while the Jewish-Moors left behind their sophisticated preserving techniques that we see in the frequent use of preserved lemons, pickles, etc. The Ottoman Empire introduced barbeque (kebabs) to Moroccan cuisine. The French colony, although short-lived compared to reign of some of these other empires, left behind a culture of cafes, pastries, and even wine. Over time, cooks in the kitchens of the four royal cities (Fez, Marrakesh, Meknes, and Rabat) have developed and perfected the dishes that blend each of these distinct tastes. Every Moroccan dish has its place in society and varies with the market, the season, and the region.
The Moroccan Spice Cabinet – Moroccan food is marked by the medley of spices found in its dishes. Dried ginger, cumin, salt, black pepper and tumeric is a mixture found in almost every tagine and couscous. Cumin is used in almost every Moroccan dish and is considered so important that it is served on the table along with salt and pepper. Cinnamon can be found in tagines, bisteeya, and fruit salads. Paprika and Sahara chiles are used to spice up some tomato-based dishes, vegetable tagine, and charmoula. The South of Morocco is a source of pure saffron pistils that are used in food, tea and as an herbal medicine. Ras l’hanoot means “the head of the shop”. This spice is a mix of 20-40 different spices concocted by the shop owner. Cardamom is used in cream desserts, like muhallabiya. Sesame seeds are found on pastries and are very important during Ramadan to make special Ramadan desserts like sllou, a sweet and heavy paste made with sesame seeds. Cloves are sometimes used when making broth.
Herbs – Maadnous and qsbour (parsley and cilantro) are always bought together in the Moroccan souks. They are the most commonly used herbs in Moroccan cuisine and essential to almost every dish. Liqama, or mint is the second most important herb since it is used to make Moroccan mint tea. Shiba, or absinthe is illegal in some countries because of its stimulative drug properties. However, in Morocco it is a popular repacement for mint in tea during the winter when mint is out of season. Louisa (verbena) and marjolane are also used in tea and are valued for their healing qualities. Anise is used on pastries and bread. You can find thyme used in desserts, like roasted figs and apricots.
Oils – Olive oil is the best oil to cook Moroccan food with. Morocco has a rich land for olives, although most of the best olive oil is exported and becoming too expensive for the average Moroccan. Therefore, in many households nowadays, you see Moroccans cooking with vegetable oil. Argan oil is a strong, nutty flavored oil that is grown in the South of Morocco, between Essaouria and Agadir. It is not a traditional ingredient in Fassi kitchens, but it is used in the South as a dressing for salads, in desserts, and as a dermatological product. Because of these dermatological properties, this oil has also become a hot commodity in some of the luxury European cosmetic stores as a wrinkle-reducing oil.
Scented Waters – Rosewater and orange flower water are important ingredients in desserts, like cream pastilla, muhallabiya and fruit salads. They are also used in some drinks, like fruit juices.
Dried Fruits and Nuts – Dates are a Moroccan national speciality. They are best grown in the South, from the area of Goulmima to Zagora and the Draa Valley. They are essential during the month of Ramadan, when they accompany harira as the breaker of the fast. They are also widely used in tagines. See Lahcen’s recipe for lamb tagine with prunes and dates. Figs, dried apricots and prunes are some other dried fruits which are served in tagines. Almonds and walnuts are the most commonly used nuts in Morocco. Both are used in pastilla. Almonds are used in tagines alongside dried apricots.
Preserves Morocco is known for its olives and other exciting preserves. Olives are not just a tasty before-dinner snack. When you go to the olive vendor, you will find three different colors of olives: red, green and black. The red and green ones are used in many tagine recipes. The black ones can be stuffed with cheese in briouates. Preserved lemons are another key ingredient in many tagine recipes and some salads. Harissa is a Moroccan hot-sauce which is used to spice up kababs, couscous, marinades and some tagines.
For breakfast, many Moroccans eat bread with olive oil, tea, and different kinds of Moroccan crepes. Lunch is the big meal in Moroccan households. Members of the family come home from work and school and they all sit around a low table in the salon. Traditionally, a female member of the family comes before the meal with a kettle of water, soap, an aluminum basin and a dishtowel which she hangs over her forearm. She comes around to every person at the table, pours a little water on their hands to wash with soap and then rinse. With everyone gathered around one big plate, the meal starts when the head of the family says “bismillah” (in the name of God). Using their right hand and a piece bread to scoop up the food, the feast begins! At lunch in most houses, you will find a selection of salads and a tagine or couscous all put out on the table at the same time. Then the host will clear the table, bring out a fruit plate and serve tea. Since lunch is so big, dinner is usually low-key. People sometimes eat leftovers from lunch or they might prepare a soup. The exception to this is big occassions, like weddings, which are always held at night and feature an enormous feast. The meal starts with a pastilla. Next, comes the tagine (either chicken or meat). After that, the couscous is served. Then comes a fruit plate. Finally, when you think that you don’t have an inch of room left in your stomach, the host serves mint tea with almond-filled pastries.
Bread, or khubz is sacred in Morocco. If a piece of bread from the dinner table falls on the ground, you are to pick it up and kiss it. It is also forbidden to throw away bread, so families keep their leftover bread aside to give to the poor, or to the livestock. Since very few Moroccan households have an oven, almost every neighborhood has a community oven where people take their bread dough to be baked. In the countryside, every family has its own traditional oven made of mud. At the table, instead of a fork and knife, Moroccans use a small piece of bread, their thumb and first two fingers to pick up food. You may discover that it becomes more useful than a fork at times, since you can use it to soak up the tasty sauce of the tagine while also picking pieces of meat and vegetables. Since bread plays such an important role in eating, it is always distributed evenly at meals so that no one will have to ask for a piece.
Harira is the most important soup in Morocco as it serves as the breaker of the fast during the whole month of Ramadan. During this month, at the break of the fast, harira is accompanied by dates, warm milk, juices, bread and traditional Moroccan pancakes. At the moment of the call to prayer, Moroccans all over the country utter “bismillah” (in the name of God), bite into a date and sip a spoonful of harira – their first taste of food after a long day of fasting. Harira is a tomato-based soup with chick peas, meat, lentils and small noodles.
Moroccan salads can be divided into two types: cooked salads and raw salads. Raw Moroccan salad is made of finely diced tomatoes, cucumber, onions, green pepper and cilantro. It is topped with a regular oil and vinegar sauce. Cooked salads, such as zaalouk, bakoula and choukchouka are made of different combinations of vegetables and spices all cooked together in a pan.
Tagine, also spelled tajine, is an historically Berber dish. It is a stew made of meats and vegetables and traditionally cooked in a conical clay pot to allow the steam to rise, condense and drip back down to the stew. Tagines are traditionally prepared on top of a portable clay majmar (much cheaper than a stove!) under which people put hot coals. Practically anything can be turned into a tajine: meat, chicken, fish, vegetables and some even make it with meat and fruits. Some typical tagine dishes include lamb with dates, lamb with raisins or prunes and almonds, chicken with olives and preserved lemon, chicken with dried apricots, and meatballs (or ketfa) with tomatoes and eggs. Of course, there exist more varieties than this. Every part of the country has its regional tagine dish and different ways of preparing it. Because this meal takes a long time to prepare, the woman of the house starts preparing the lunch tagine as soon as breakfast is over. See Lahcen’s page of recipes for a tagine recipe.
Couscous, known in Morocco as seksu, is a traditional Berber dish as well. It is a dish made of fine semolina and topped with meat and vegetables. Couscous is typically made with seven vegetables. To make couscous in the traditional way takes a lot of time and effort. Women separate and mix the grains of semolina by using the palm of their hands and salt water, a process that takes one hour for the semolina alone. Women in some parts of the country still prepare their couscous this way, but most families buy it in packages. Friday is the day of prayer, so it is a Moroccan tradition all over the country to celebrate this day with a couscous meal. Following the custom of eating food with their hands, Moroccans normally eat couscous by rolling it into little balls and popping it into their mouths. The popping motion is important, because if performed inaccurately, the ball will crumble before it makes it to your mouth.
Pastilla, As is apparent in its Spanish-sounding name, pastilla (bisteeya) is an Andalusian dish brought to Morocco by the Moors when they were chased out of Southern Spain in the 15th century. It has since become a trademark Moroccan dish that many Moroccans proudly claim was “perfected” in Fez. It takes a long time and a lot of work to prepare, so the only time that you will see this dish in Moroccan households is for a wedding or some other special occasion. It is large pastry-like dish with a chicken or pigeon stuffing wrapped in a very thin, crispy pastry crust, and sprinkled with cinnamon and some sugar. This gives the dish a unique combination between a sweet and savory taste.
The most common style of barbequing (“meshwi”) in Arab countries is kabab-style. Every city in Morocco has two kinds of restaurants: the usual sit-down kind and the hole-in-the-wall grill shops. Customers at the grill shops can go either buy their meat there or at the butcher just a few doors down. Both places will chop the meat into cubes, stick it on a skewer and put it over the fire. Although these restaurants are unimpressive in appearance, you are guaranteed a tasty and inexpensive meal.
Barbequing is also a very important part of ceremonies in Berber villages. It is the main course at weddings or in ceremonies honoring an important guest. In villages where every family has a herd of sheep and goats, it is an honor if a family slaughters one from his herd. Berber-style meshwi can be cooked either over a pit or in an oven under the ground, depending on the region. Ceremonies usually take place at night and while the meat is cooking, the celebration commences. People gather around the pit and play drums, sing, dance and talk.
After a big meal, Moroccans usually eat fruit for dessert. This does not mean that sweets don’t exist, however. Moroccans have quite a sweet tooth and they don’t hesitate to snack on heavy cream-filled pastries between meals. Pastries also play an important role in Moroccan society because they are an essential complement to mint tea when welcoming guests into your home. Many Moroccan pastries, such as cornes de gazelle and briouates have an almond paste filling. Some pastries only appear in stores during big religious holidays like Ramadan and the ‘Aid. One of the most popular Ramadan desserts is shibekkya, which is fried in oil and then coated in honey, which makes a sweet and gooey accompaniment to harira.
Moroccan Mint Tea, or what Moroccans will jokingly call “Moroccan whiskey”, is the national icon for hospitality. The ingredients are simple, since the tea used is a standard Chinese gunpowder tea. However, the preparation and service are fine-tuned and essential when welcoming a guest. Just like many Asian countries, Morocco has a tea ceremony of its own. People drink tea informally all day in between meals. But any time a visitor enters a house, the first thing that he or she must be offered is tea. When members of two different tribes meet to discuss issues of the region or politics, a tea ceremony is required before getting into politics. Mint tea is traditionally served in small glasses, although some tea shops will serve it to you in tall glasses with the mint inside. When it is served, the person pouring the tea holds the teapot high above the glasses so as to create a little foam in each person’s glass. See Lahcen’s recipe for a Moroccan mint tea recipe. Moroccans tend to like their tea extremely sweet, but you may choose to use less sugar in yours.
Some Moroccans joke that unemployment is so high that you find more men in cafes than in the work field. Cafes are mostly for men only, but in bigger cities, you can find some exceptions to this rule. Black coffee or qahwa kahla is taken Turkish-style in Morocco. But people also take their coffee with milk in varying proportions. Qahwa meherris (trans: broken coffee) is coffee with a dab of milk. The opposite is helib meherris (trans: broken milk): milk with a dab of coffee. In between these two are qahwa nus-nus: half coffee, half milk; and of course, café au lait (qahwa helib) .
Although Islam forbids drinking alcohol, you will still see many Moroccans (almost exclusively men) in bars and buying alcohol in the grocery stores. The French introduced wine making to the country and there is still a significant industry. The most prominent winery in Morocco is the Celiers de Meknes, which produces a range in qualities, some of them quite tasty. The cheapest wine costs around 30 DH. You can get a nice bottle of red for 50 DH and above. Recommended are Guerrouane, Domain Sahari Reserves, Beauvallon and Medaillon (arguably the best label in Morocco).