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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Morocco -- Food

One of the reasons I decided to go to Morocco was because the country is famous for its food.

According to Wikipedia, the cuisine is extremely refined, thanks to Morocco's interactions and exchanges with other cultures and nations over the centuries. Moroccan cuisine has been subject to Arab, Moorish and Berber influences. The cooks in the royal kitchens of Fes, Meknes, Marrakesh, Rabat and Tetouan refined it over the centuries and created the basis for what is known as Moroccan cuisine today.
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. (Fodor's Morocco)


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.

Mint tea is a symbol of friendship and hospitality.  It is served before and after meals. business transactions. even during shopping.  Pouring tea is down with a raised pot so that air can flow through the liquid and create a foam on the top of each glass.

Tea came to Morocco through the British around 1880.     


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. Bread is a symbol of generosity and hospitality. and it is treated with respect.  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 and slightly puffy, white bread with a chewy texture and soft crust.  This makes it perfect for sopping up sauces and scooping up food.  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.

Spices are also used to scent and flavor the bread.  Sesame (to make it crunch) and anise seeds (a licorice flavor) are often sprinkled in the dough.  Bread is baked fresh every day.  Many people bake their own bread. but others can get hot fresh bread from a street vendor in bakeries and in souks


Since ancient times. Moroccans have been using spices and herbs to enhance their cooking without making the dishes overly hot and spicy.  Phoenician traders passing through Morocco on ancient spice routes introduced Moroccan cooks to spices.  Centuries later. Arabian invaders. who prized spices more than jewels. added to the Moroccan people's knowledge of how to use spices.

Moroccan cooks have more than two hundred different herbs and spices to choose from.  Spice stalls in Moroccan open-air markets called souks (sooks). overflow with baskets. jars. tins. and sacks full of brightly colored herbs and spices.  Their scents perfume the air.

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.

Moroccans rub herbs and spices on meat and fish. and add them to stews. soups. salads. breads. desserts. and beverages.  Most Moroccan dishes contain a variety of spices.  For a dish to be considered well-cooked. no single spice should ever overpower the others.  Instead. there must be a balance of flavors with each dish having its own distinctive taste. color. and perfume.  In fact. Moroccans say that they can tell what their neighbors are cooking by the aroma of the spices drifting out of their kitchens.  

Moroccans rarely measure spices.  Instead. they taste and smell whatever they are cooking to achieve the right balance.  They use different spice mixtures for different dishes.  The most popular of all Moroccan spice blends is called ras el hanout (raz-al-han-oot). which means "the shopkeepers choice."  It contains anywhere from ten to one hundred different spices; although the average is twenty-five.  Each spice vendor has his or her own secret blend.  No two are alike. and every cook has a favorite.


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

Zaalouk in foreground with salade marocaine on top left
Moroccan salads mirror the nation's history and culture.  Salads with bulgar (a type of cracked wheat). came with the Berbers.  The Arabs introduced sweet and savory salads. while Spain contributed tomatoes and peppers.  French-style salads use uncooked greens. 

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 slow cooked over low heat. This allows the liquid to thicken and become syrupy.  The flavors blend and the meat and vegetables pull-apart.  

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.

Tagines originated from the Berbers who used them as portable ovens.  They changed over time as different cultures spread their influence in the country. The pots are glazed clay vessels with heavy round bases and cone-shaped lids.  This shape retains heat and traps steam so that whatever is inside does not dry out. Sweet and savory tagines come from Arabs.  The Berbers liked butter as a key ingredient while the Spanish and Moors used olive oil. 


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.

Couscous originated with the Berbers who topped the grain with butter.  The Arabs added sauces containing chickpeas vegetables dried fruit meat and spices.  Couscous is Morocco's national dish.

The grain and sauce are served as one dish usually on a glistening brass tray.  The grain is arranged in a pyramid with a hollow in the top so the sauce can be poured into it.  Diners roll bits of couscous into a ball dip the ball in the sauce and pop it in their mouths--a practice that takes some skill.  "The popping motion is important becuase if performed inaccurately the ball will crumble before it makes it into your mouth" explains Moroccan chef Lahcen Beqqi.  


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.


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.

Mhencha (ma-hen-sha). or the snake. is another popular pastry with thin light dough.  It is typically a long coil of warka dough filled with almond paste. then wrapped around itself and resembling a sleeping snake.  It is topped with powdered sugar and cinnamon.

 Fekkas (fik-kas) taste more like crackers than cookies.  They are made with flour. salt. sugar. butter. sesame seeds. anise seeds. almonds. and raisins.  The dough is rolled into a log and partially baked. then left overnight to harden.  The next day the log is thinly sliced and baked again to take the moisture out of the dough.  The result is a dry. hard. crunchy. slightly sweet cookie with a licorice-like flavor--and good for dunking in tea.

Dietary Rules 

Most Moroccans are Muslim and they follow dietary rules set down by the Koran. their holy book.  Acceptable food is said to be halal. which means lawful.  Unacceptable foods are said to be haram. or forbidden.  Haram foods include pork and pork products such as gelatin. animal blood. the meat of carnivores (e.g.. dogs. wolves. rats. lions. and bears). birds of prey such as eagles. and land animals without external ears such as snakes.  Eating the meat of animals offered in religious sacrifice or those killed by other animals. beating. strangulation. or by accident is also not permitted.  Alcoholic beverages are also forbidden.

To be halal. animals must be slaughtered in a way that causes it the least pain.  This involves quickly cutting the major arteries in the animal's throat. which drains all the blood out of its body.

Proper Table Manners

Traditionally. Moroccans eat with the fingers of their right hand.  Their left hand which is used for personal hygiene is never used.  Damp warm towels are passed around before and after the meal to ensure everybody's hands are clean.  The food is placed in the center of the table for all to share.  Bread is passed around and used to scoop up food.  This picture shows the family eating with utensils--another influence from the West.

Sources copied from:
                Fodor's Travel:
                Barbara Sheen (2011). Foods of Morocco. Farmington Hills. MI:  Kidhaven Press.

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