Flavors of Morocco
Close your eyes, inhale, and breathe the spices of North Africa. Situated on ancient trade routes, the kingdom benefits from a vibrant import trade from all corners of the world and an agreeable climate. Despite the summer heat, the fertile red earth, expansive coasts, and cooler mountains produce a bountiful harvest from field, orchard, and ocean. Arab, African, Jewish, Persian, and French influences fuse with ancient Berber culinary skills in the kitchen.
Mint tea is at the very heart of Moroccan cuisine and culture. Whether in cosmopolitan Casablanca or a rural Berber village in the Atlas Mountains, there is one universal truth: thé is served (that's the French word for it; it's called atay in Arabic). 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 Moroccan dialect). Orange juice, freshly squeezed, is abundantly available in cafés and restaurants as well as from street vendors.
There is no foodstuff more important to this nation than bread. Seen as God-given, bread is used for mopping up the juices of thick stews, or in place of a fork, in a country where food is traditionally eaten with the fingers. Due to its cultural and religious significance, bread is never placed directly on the ground or thrown away, and it is common to see great piles of stale crusts drying in public areas, ready for collection by the poor or those wanting to feed animals. Bread comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, from the crumbly harcha (a popular, yellow, semolina-rich teatime snack) to the easy-to-eat, puffy batbout, which resembles a pita pocket and is best stuffed with fish, salad, or meat. The daily bread of the nation is khobz, which is a common round loaf of whole-meal or white flour.
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-and-garlic paste), olive oil, and olives. Preserved lemons are another key ingredient in many tagine recipes and some salads. It is common to find cumin on the table as well as salt and pepper.
With Muslims rising at dawn to pray, breakfast is an important and often hearty meal, consisting of a variety of dishes and beverages. There’s mint tea and freshly squeezed orange juice, bread, olive oil, honey, nuts, and omelets fried with preserved meat (khlea). There are the usual French croissants, pain au chocolat, and crepes, plus two delicious traditional Moroccan alternatives. The first is msemn, a layered pastry–pancake oozing melted butter and honey. The second is a small holed pancake called a baghir that is similar to a drop scone or crumpet. This is equally delicious eaten with honey or jam. Those on-the-go often enjoy a steaming bowl of beysara, a thick soup made of fava beans laced with olive oil and cumin.
No meal is complete in Morocco without a salad (salade marocaine), a simple dish of chopped tomatoes, cucumber, parsley, and onion, quite often brought to the table whether ordered or not. Dressed with a dash of lemon juice and good amount of olive oil, this tangy, refreshing salad goes well with all manner of main courses. Other popular salads are made with cooked vegetables, such as roasted eggplant pureed with tomatoes and spices, boiled carrots with cinammon and orange juice, and roasted bell peppers in a spicy tomato sauce.
A tagine is the name for both the stew served in most Moroccan homes at 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 vegetables like carrots, peas, green beans, and a variety of other ingredients, including chickpeas, olives, apricots, prunes, and nuts. Typical tagines are chicken and preserved lemon, lentils with meat and prunes, chicken and almonds, and kefta (meatballs) and egg.
Couscous is probably the most famous Moroccan dish, combining tiny balls of steamed wheat pasta with a meat-and-vegetable stew poured on top. The meat base for the stew can be chicken, beef, or lamb, and 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 is served at other times as well.
Along the Moroccan coasts, fresh seafood is readily available. Seaside restaurants serve the catch of the day—an entire fish—grilled, fried, or in a tagine baked with tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, and spices.
In Morocco, eating establishments are basically divided into two categories: the typical sit-down restaurant and, what appears at first glance, a sketchy, seedy grill shop. Don’t dismiss the grill option out of hand—they usually offer tasty, high-quality meat at reasonable prices. A truly exceptional meal need not be complicated. In fact, a great feast may be had by simply visiting a fish market or butcher and buying just enough fish or meat to have grilled at one of the pavement or beachside cafés close by. Waiters at these usher you to a table, rush off with your shopping bag, and return a few minutes later with plate upon plate of prepared food.
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 cinnamon, ground almonds, and crisp, thin layers of a phyllo-like dough. Pastilla is reserved for special occasions due to the complexity of its preparation. In urban areas, it is common to find a phyllo chef hard at work preparing the sheets for sale to women without the space, time, or skill to prepare the pastry at home.
The idea of vegetarianism is foreign to Moroccans, as offering meat is seen as the ultimate in hospitality and an indicator of status. Vegetarians should be wary of “vegetarian” dishes on the menu, because they may simply be the tagine or couscous of the day with the meat chunks removed. Having said that, fresh produce abounds and salads, bread, and eggs are reliable alternatives. Try the Berber omelet, an omelet on a base of stewed tomatoes, onions, and spices available at even the most primitive and meat-heavy roadside cafés.
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 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 hypermarkets and hotels catering to foreigners. However, alcohol is drunk (discreetly) all over the country and sold openly in bars and hotels catering to foreigners. Both beer and wine are produced domestically.
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