Flavors of Morocco
Morocco's first inhabitants, the Berbers, left their mark on the country's cuisine with staple dishes like tagines and couscous. New spices, nuts, dried fruits, and the common combination of sweet and sour tastes (such as a lamb tagine containing prunes), arrived with the Arab invasion. Olives and citrus fruits can be traced to the Moors. The Ottoman Empire can be thanked for introducing barbecue (kebabs) to Morocco. The French, although their colonization period was quite short, left behind a tradition of cafés, pastries, and wine.
Mint tea is at the very heart of not only Moroccan cuisine but of the culture itself. Whether in cosmopolitan Casablanca or a rural Berber village in the Atlas Mountains, there is one universal truth: até will be served. Recipes vary from region to region—and even from family to family—but all contain a mix of green tea, fresh mint leaves, and sugar. Coffee is served black (café noir), with a little milk (café crème), or half milk/half coffee (nuss nuss in the Morocan dialect). Orange juice, freshly squeezed, is abundantly available in cafés and restaurants.
Bread is truly the cornerstone of a traditional Moroccan meal, eaten at every meal (except with couscous) and also as a snack with mint tea. Due to bread's cultural and religious significance, it is never thrown away. Families put their leftover bread aside, either for the poor or to feed their animals.
Bread in Morocco comes in many shapes and sizes. The most common is a simple round, somewhat thick, white bread. Depending on the region, this same bread can be found in a whole-wheat form. In the countryside, breads vary from village to village. Batbout, a soft, pitalike bread is often sold in bakeries stuffed with kefta (seasoned ground meat) and hard-boiled egg slices. Hacha, another type, is a panfried semolina bread.
Several notable spices and herbs are common in Moroccan cuisine: cumin, paprika, garlic, salt, pepper, ginger, cinnamon, coriander, saffron, turmeric, sesame seeds, fresh parsley, cilantro, harissa (red chili pepper and garlic paste), olive oil, and olives. Preserved lemons are another key ingredient in many tagine recipes and some salads.
Breakfast in Morocco means mint tea or coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice, bread (often topped with olive oil and/or honey), and omelets with khlea (preserved dried meat). Two delightful Moroccan breakfast treats are raif (also call msemn in certain regions), a mix between a crepe and flat pastry, made with intricately layered dough, which is then fried; and baghir, a pancakelike delicacy that is not flipped and has many tiny bubbles on the top side, due to the yeast. Both can be topped with honey or jam.
Moroccan salads may be either raw or cooked. The most typical raw Moroccan salad (often called salade marocaine) is made of finely diced tomatoes, onions, garlic, parsley, and salt and then topped with olive oil. Cooked salads, such as zaalouk and bakoula combine different vegetables and spices, all cooked together and served either cold or hot.
A tagine is both the name for the stew served in most Moroccan homes for lunch and dinner and the name of the traditional clay pot with a tall, cone-shaped lid in which it is generally cooked. Moroccan tagines use chicken, beef, or lamb as the base along with a variety of other ingredients. Vegetables can include carrots, peas, green beans, along with chickpeas, olives, apricots, prunes, and nuts. Typical tagines include chicken and preserved lemon; lentils with meat and prunes; chicken and almonds; and kefta and egg.
Couscous is probably the most famous Moroccan dish, combining tiny little balls of steamed wheat pasta with a meat and vegetable stew that is poured on top. The meat base for the stew can be chicken, beef, or lamb and the vegetables usually include a combination of turnip, carrot, sweet potato, pumpkin, and zucchini with chickpeas and raisins sprinkled throughout. Couscous is typically a Friday lunch meal but can be served at other occasions as well.
Along the Moroccan coasts, fresh seafood is readily available. Seaside restaurants will serve the catch of the day grilled, fried, or in a tagine—an entire fish, baked with tomatoes, carrots, potatoes and spices.
In Morocco, eating establishments can basically be divided into two categories: the typical sit-down restaurant and what appears at first glance to be a questionable, seedy grill shop. Don't dismiss the grill option out of hand—they usually offer tasty, high-quality meat, at reasonable prices. Customers either buy their meat on premises or at a butcher shop next door. A nominal fee will be charged by the grill shop for grilling the meat. The shop also typically offers a menu with salads, grilled tomatoes and onions, french fries, and beverages to go along with the kabobs.
Pastilla is an elaborate meat pie combining sweet and salty flavors. Traditionally filled with pigeon, it is often prepared with shredded chicken. The meat is slow-cooked with spices and then combined with crisp, thin layers of a phyllolike dough; the mixture includes cinnamon and ground almonds. Pastilla is reserved for special occasions due to the complexity of its preparation. It can also be pre-ordered in some pastry shops.
Since meat is expensive and considered a luxury for many Moroccans, the idea of vegetarianism is foreign to the culture. Vegetarians, when eating out, should hesitate when ordering a meatless tagine, since in all likelihood the stock was prepared with meat. Salads, breads, cheeses, and eggs offer more reliable alternatives.
After a meal, Moroccan desserts are often limited to fresh seasonal fruit. Many types of Moroccan pastries and cookies exist, almost always made with almond paste. These pastries are often reserved for special occasions or are served to guests with afternoon tea. One common pastry is kaab el-ghzal ("gazelle's horns"), which is filled with almond paste and topped with sugar.
Both pork and alcohol are forbidden by Islam. Pork is difficult to find in the country except in larger cities with upscale markets and hotels catering to foreigners. However, alcohol is drunk (discreetly) by men all over the country and sold openly in hotels catering to foreigners. Both beer and wine are produced domestically.
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