Moroccan cuisine reflects the country's complex history and diversity of influences. from the ancient Berbers to those who have come and stayed. come and left, or just passed through--the Phoenicians and Roman. and Arabs. Muslim and Jewish exiles from Andalucia, trans-Saharan caravans across the interior and Portuguese along the coast. English traders who introduced tea in the eighteenth century, and French and Spanish who ruled as colonial administrators in the twentieth. Each culture has left its mark.
The country's storied past begins with the indigenous Berbers. A sizable percentage of the country's population today identify themselves as Berber, with many more having Berber ancestry. Berbers are found predominantly in the mountainous regions and the fringes of the Sahara, where they have retained their own language and customs while absorbing waves of influences. Great Berber dynasties once controlled not only Morocco but south into western Africa and north into Spain.
The name Berber possibly derives from a Greek and Roman expression referring to those who did not speak the Greek or Roman language, and was later popularized in other languages. While the name has lost its pejorative connotations (the same root spawned barbarian), many Berbers prefer to call themselves Imazighen (or similar, depending on the dialect), which means "free men" or "noble men." Berbers are not a homogenous people. and their language has three main dialects: Tachelhai, in the southwest, the High Atlas, Draa Valley, and Souss; Tamazight, in the Middle Atlas; and Tarifit (or Riffi), in the Rif Mountains. "But we have many shared characteristics," one High Atlas Berber explained to me. "A shared history, the same roots, similar characters in many respects, lifestyles, food..."
Berber cuisine remains generally rustic, sometimes almost frugal. reflecting the often harsh conditions and austere landscape where they live, but also a deep history that was once nomadic and seminomadic, with little time for various courses or flourish. They might have settled, but the ancestral cuisine remains. Grains, legumes, and vegetables continue to be mainstays of the diet. "We are largely vegetarian not by choice but by poverty," a man in one arid valley wryly told me. But Berbers are credited with developing some of Morocco's most prominent dishes, including the tagine and couscous, which they call sksou. Berber versions of these dishes are, not surprisingly, typically hearty with vegetables (and flavored with a bit of lamb or beef. even turkey) and show little of the complex seasoning found in other, more urban places like Fez.
Berbers are also credited with two national comfort food. the smooth. tomato-based soup called barira and bessara, a puree of fava beans thinned into soup and spiced with cumin and paprika and served with olive oil, as well as strips of preserved meat called khlea. They are also known for a number of interesting flatbreads, including a layered one called rghayif that is eaten with honey.
The moussem, or saints' day celebration. often celebrated around a pilgrimage to a mausoleum. remains important. These celebrations are firstly religious and secondly social and commercial, and involve days of music, dancing, and festivities, with the rather exuberant Berber character coming through. In verdant areas abundant with flocks of grazing sheep, the centerpiece of the feast is often a whole spit-roasted lamb, or mechoui, surely one of the country's greatest culinary experiences. Some of the more high-spirited moussems are in Tan Tan, famous for its camel and horse fantasia that gathers numerous nomadic Saharan tribes together, one based around the rose harvest in the Anti-Atlas town of El Kelaa des M'Gouna. and in Moulay Idriss in the hills above Meknes.
Phoenicians. Romans. and the Early Invaders
Morocco has a number of Phoenician and Roman settlements. Along the coast, ancient Punic colonies or city-states--namely Lixus (near modern-day Larache), Tingis (Tangier), Chellah (Rabat). Mogador (Essaouira)--brought advances in farming and agriculture techniques, and settlers planted olives, vines, and fruit orchards. After the fall of Carthage (in modern-day Tunisia) in 146 BCE. Rome secured its influence in the region, established Roman North Africa, and ruled from the Nile to the Atlantic across the top of the continent. In Morocco. Romans rebuilt the city of Volubilis (outside Meknes), expanded wheat and olive production and vineyards, and produced their beloved fermented fish paste called garum. These foods helped feed the vast Roman Empire until its collapse at the end of the fifth century. It's also likely that during their time in the area. Romans introduced cooking in clay vessels, which Berbers later adapted into tagines.
After the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 CE. Islam swept westward from the Arabian Peninsula through the Middle East and Egypt and into North Africa by the beginning of the eighth century. Along with a new religion (and its dietary restrictions), a new language, a new model of government, and a sophisticated level of culture. the Arabs brought spices from the east--cinnamon. nutmeg, ginger, turmeric--and gradually introduced Persian and Arabic cooking influences. These included cooking meats with sweet fruit. using a mixture of spices as well as aromatics, a fondness for using nuts in cooking, and a passion for delicate sweetmeats with almonds. honey, and sesame seeds. Almost immediately, the Arabs established the great city of Fez, the heart of Morocco's Arabic--as opposed to Berber--culture.
The Muslim conquest continued on to the Iberian peninsula in 711 and in a decade had penetrated into France. (Muslim rule gradually shrank southward over the next 750 years.) Al-Andalus, as Muslim Spain and Portugal was known, was a sophisticated, cosmopolitan meeting place of the Orient and Occident where the art of cooking reached lofty heights. The region would be interlinked with Morocco until the final collapse of Muslim rule on the Iberian peninsula at the end of the fifteenth century.
Under a succession of imperial Berber dynasties, the region gradually moved from a patchwork of states into a unified entity with a sense of identity. The Almoravid Empire (1062-1145) stretched at its peak north into Spain, east to Algiers. and far south into what is today Mauritania. Mali. and northern Senegal, some 2.000 miles from north to south. Perhaps, though, its greatest accomplishment was founding Marrakech. The Almohad Empire (1145-1248) showed Morocco at its most potent, controlling territory that reached north into Spain, south into Mauritania, and east all the way across modern-day Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. The Marinid Empire (1248-1465). though lacking the vast geographic range of its predecessors. managed to hold Morocco together for nearly two hundred years from its base in the great medieval city of Fez. An Arab dynasty. for the first time, took control in the mid-sixteenth century. The Saadians (1554-1659) traced their lineage back to the prophet Muhammad, as do their successors, the Alaouites (1665- ) who remain in power today. Both began their consolidation of power in the south. at the fringes of the desert with access to the trans-Saharan trade routes.
This was also the age of the great Saharan caravans that traveled north from Mali, Ghana, and Senegal with gold, slaves, cloth, and spices, and carried salt in the other direction. The peak of the trans-Saharan trade lasted from the eighth century until the end of the sixteenth century, with the collapse of the great Songhai Empire in West Africa and trade shifting more to the Atlantic. (Railroads at the beginning of the twentieth century and Land Rovers essentially smothered out what remained.) Goods carried on ancient caravans of long columns of laden camels passed through oasis towns like Sijilmasa (in the Tafilalt oasis, but today merely ruins) to Marrakech, Fez, and Meknes, to Tanger, and onto Mediterranean Europe, where the demand for gold coinage was nearly insatiable. Those in Morocco called the area to the south Bilad al-Sudan, "the Land of the Blacks." The name refers not to the modern-day country of Sudan, but to the geographic region stretching across North Africa from the Atlantic to the Nile, from the southern edge of the Sahara to the tropical equatorial region. A handful of products retain the legacy of this African trade in their names, most prominently hot red pepper, felfla soudaniya, or often just called soudaniya.
Reconquista and (Re)Settling
Almost immediately after the eighth-century invasion of Spain began the long and steady Catholic reconquista, a gradual process that ended in 1492 with the fall of Granada. When Spanish rulers expelled Muslims--after Granada's fall, and then with edicts over the next few centuries--many headed south to North Africa. Historians figure that some 800000 Andalusians settled in Morocco, where they added new "Andalusian" neighborhoods to cities such as Fez, and built whole new cities such as Chefchaouen or Tetouan, which they rebuilt over ruins. The refugees brought with them the Arabic-Berber (sometimes called Moorish) flavors that had been refined and heightened in Spain. These can be tasted in, for instance, the blending of the sweet and savory (or even sour), certain spice mixes. and ways of preserving fruits.
Expelled from Spain along with Muslims, many Jews immigrated to Morocco. Although their presence in Morocco dates to Roman North Africa in the early centuries of the Common Era, various large waves of these immigrants from Spain made the greatest impact. Controlling much of the trade of Morocco's two great commodities--sugar and salt--they often lived in mellahs, Jewish residential quarters. Mellah comes from the Arabic word for "salt." Some historians think this name originated not with the role of Jewish immigrants as salt traders but with the salty stream running through Fez's Jewish quarter, or even with the community's onetime role in salting the heads of executed criminals to display on city walls.
The Moroccoan Jewish community was once formidable. A 1936 census counted 161,942 Jews in the country. By 1948--the peak--the Jewish population is generally given as 265,000, with flourishing communities in Fez and Marrakech. in the coastal cities of Casablanca, Rabat, Essaouira, and Safi, and inland in Tiznit. where Jewish craftspeople were renowned for their silver jewelry. That year. with the creation of Israel, the first exodus left the country. Another wave departed in 1963, once the suspension on emigration (enacted with independence in 1956) was lifted, and more followed with the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Perhaps fewer than five thousand remain today, with most living in Casablanca.
Many traditional Jewish dishes were lost when the community left, such as dafina. a spicy-sweet stew traditionally cooked on the Sabbath with calves' foot and tongue. dumplings, and dates. A handful of dishes have been integrated, however, and are not considered strictly Jewish today, including hargma, a popular stew of calves' feet and chickpeas. Jewish influence can also be seen in ways of preserving foods and in some pastries.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Portuguese punctuated the Atlantic coast with a number of fortified ports, including Tanger, Asilah, Anfa (now Casablanca), Azemmour, Mazagan (now El Jadida), Safi, Essaouira, and Agadir. They sought direct trade from south of the Sahara for gold, and coastal outlets that would allow them to avoid the Genoese dominance of Mediterranean maritime trade. They also wanted to tap into Morocco's rich lands of cereals and fish.
In 1830. France took control of neighboring Algiers from the Ottomans, who had ruled since 1520. With the exception of the norhteastern border city of Oujda, Morocco was able to hold them at bay until the early twentieth century. French occupation began in 1907 with Casablanca, and in 1912 the country was partitioned into two Protectorates governed individually by France and Spain, with Tanger designated an international zone. France ruled the majority of the country from its new capital in Rabat. The French built ports in Casablanca and Kenitra and new towns in Rabat, Fez, Meknes, Marrakech, and elsewhere, largely leaving the ancient medians untouched. They introduced baguettes among flatbreads and morning croissants among rhayif; a slightly different version of cafe culture, with the terraces sprawled out on wide, ville nouvelle boulevards; and a wine industry.
Spain's early impact in Morocco came in the Mediterranean coastal enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta, which Spain held beginning in the fifteenth century. Under the Protectorate. Spain ruled the Mediterranean north of the country, with Tetouan as its capital, until the 1956 independence. For a large part of the twentieth century, Spain also controlled the deep south with the colony of the Sahara Occidental (Western Sahara. until 1976), the Tarfaya Strip to its north (until 1958), and the beach town of Sido Ifni (until 1969).
The lingering Spanish influence remains clearest in the north, where tomatoes and paprika are more widespread in the cooking than in the south. and where fish is frequently fried without a spicy marinade. Today, many Moroccan immigrants to Spain come from the north. When they return--to spend their holidays or to live--they bring with them a new layer of influence.
Morocco became independent in 1956 and has been led by a series of kings--Mohammed V. Hassan II, and, since 1999, Mohammed VI.
During the centuries of imperial rule. royal kitchens have ensured a high-level consciousness of the culinary arts. In 1979, King Hassan II set up a royal cooking school on the grounds of the palace in Rabat. It continues to run and each year accepts forty Moroccan girls under twenty-five years of age (many from the countryside) for the two-year program. The girls are trained in the high art of classical Moroccan cooking by sheer repetition.
Morocco continues to assimilate influences in the kitchen while keeping its unique culinary identity. A recent, important influence is a woman known as Choumicha. One of the best-known personalities in the country, Choumicha has become something of a culinary media empire, with books, TV programs, and, for a time, a cooking magazine. On TV. she prepares traditional recipes with elderly women around the country and also adapts Moroccan dishes for a modern, more time-pressed audience. She has published a large, lovely cookbook, though it's her small, inexpensive booklets with recipes focusing on a single theme such as tagines or desserts that are hugely popular with Moroccans.
For many years. travelers heard that to eat well in Morocco, to eat authentic Moroccan cuisine, they had to dine in a private home, something that is difficult for the casual visitor. But that has happily changed with the explosion of riads--a style of house that opens to a courtyard. and now refers to a small bed-and-breakfast, with just a couple of rooms, in the median. A local cook or two prepare meals for a handful of clients, using ingredients bought in the neighborhood markets, and the meals are frequently served family style. The experience feels like being a privileged guest in a private home.
And there is the surprising. and welcome. trend of very good, inexpensive eateries in gas stations along motorways and on the edges of towns. At many Petromin, Baraka, Petrom, Afriquia, and Shell stations across the country, rows of tagines slow-cook on embers while freshly made flatbreads bake in traditional earthen ovens. You can tell the best ones by the number of cars in the parking lot.
International supermarkets can be found on the outskirts of larger cities, with Marjane (considered the best), Carrefour, Acima, and a local chain called Aswak Assalam offering both local products and imported ones. usually from Europe.
The culinary mosaic continues. To grow, sure, but also to be more accessible.