Moroccan food is simply “moreish” – you keep wanting more! Like many things you find in Morocco, Moroccans take pride in their cuisine. Whether you are eating with a humble Berber family in the High Atlas mountains, being served a meal in the middle of the desert, or treating yourself to a well appointed restaurant, they will all deliver delicious food fit for a king or queen.
Fresh Quality Food Ingredients
I don’t think it matters whether you are omnivore or vegetarian you will find plenty of food to your taste in Morocco. One of the great things about eating in Morocco is the excellent quality of the ingredients available. Fresh produce of vegetables and fruit is available all year round with seasonal differences. The varied climate from north to south as well as sea level to high altitude means there are wide locally grown choices available throughout the year.
Morocco grows most of its fruit and vegetables so food is prepared from fresh quality produce every day.
There are excellent citrus fruits, apples, dates, pomegranates, and prickly pears. The market sellers will deftly peel a prickly pear for you, keeping their fingers away from the thorns then hold it out ready for you to eat. Moroccans also preserve lemons and use them a lot in cooking – they add a salty citrus flavor that can’t be imitated in any way.
Moroccans have quite limited range of salad choice that don’t include lettuce or other green vegetables. They do have excellent tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, carrots though. They also call foods like humus, tahina and yoghurt mixes salads, to be eaten with bread prior to the main course.
Dried Fruit and Nuts Galore
Many different types of dates are eaten throughout the year with date festivals in desert towns and oases celebrating this wonderful desert food. Some dates are best eaten when they have a crunchy texture and astringent taste, others are soft and sweet keeping well into the next summer. Other dried fruits are apricots and prunes which are added to recipes for beef or chicken.
Almonds are eaten by the handful or added to recipes. Another nut special to Morocco is from the Argan tree which is only found growing on the coastal areas especially around Essouiera. For culinary use the nuts are toasted and ground to release their delicious oil. It’s great in salads or as a dip.
Morocco has awesome olives and they grow everywhere! Moroccans eat olives at any time of the day. I was pleasantly surprised to find just how good they are. Whether they are black, pink ones, multi-colored or green, plain or spicy, they are all delicious. You can buy small amounts from the souq vendors so don’t scrimp on the olives!
Sugar and Spice
Moroccans use a wide range of spices and herbs – cumin, turmeric, saffron, paprika, cinnamon and ginger and chilli but there are many more depending on the recipe. They also use fresh herbs like coriander and parsley and different mints as well as dried like zatar, thyme. When it comes to condiments on the table Moroccans usually only provide salt and cumin in tiny delicately hand painted tajine shaped containers. Cumin is considered a digestive.
An odd mix to foreign taste buds is using cinnamon and sugar with savory dishes. One of the most popular to try is Pastilla It’s flaky pastry filled with minced pigeon meat mixed with delicate spices and almonds then dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon. It may sound weird but tastes delicious and is very filling.
Cooking with a Moroccan Tajine
One of the most distinctive Moroccan meals is cooked in a special container called a tajine. Tajines have been around for at least a thousand years so they are definitely tried and true. They are even mentioned in the story of 1001 Nights.
A tajine for one prepared in a Moroccan cooking class. Hidden under the pyramid of vegetables is very tender lamb with prunes
A tajine consists of two parts. There is a circular low sided base dish in which the food ingredients are cooked and a cone shaped fitted lid. The lid ensures any steam is condensed back down to the dish. They require little water so that has to be a bonus in a desert country. It also means all the flavors are circulated through the steam and returned to the meal. Tajines are used to prepare food similar to a casserole or stew and they produce very tender meat or fish.
Tajines are sold absolutely everywhere in various sizes from small to prepare a single meal or larger ones for a family group. The most utilitarian are heavy glazed terracotta with a metal band around the dish part for extra strength. A word of warning if you intend buying one – some are not suitable for cooking, only serving. I was told to look out for the small hole in the cone shaped lid to ensure it was suitable for cooking.
Traditionally the tajine is set on a base over a charcoal fire but with caution tajines can also be placed directly onto gas rings and electric elements. There are even aluminum tajines that withstand rough treatment and can be easily used when outdoors. Our guide used one to make a memorable meal under some springtime walnut trees in the High Atlas.
In winter many people make harira which is a rich soup that usually reflects the cook’s tastes rather than any particular recipe. It is tomato based with various ingredients added and can be spicy or mild. It may have lentils, chickpeas, rice, eggs, meat and is eaten with chunky bread as a snack or a full meal.
Friday is Moroccan Family Couscous Day
One North African favorite dish is couscous made from durum wheat. Many Moroccan families share a large dish of couscous for the main Friday meal together, Friday being the Muslim holy day. Any Moroccan woman wants to prepare a couscous that she is proud of so it should be light and fluffy as well as tasty. To prepare it perfectly requires an artful touch.
A Berber woman preparing steaming hot couscous with her bare hands in a village in the High Atlas Mountains.
The couscous is steamed over a pot containing meat and vegetables also to be served. The steaming hot couscous is then tipped into a large dish and a small amount of flour is added and worked through by hand. I was astounded how the women managed to touch it when the couscous was so hot. Hands of steels I say. This flour addition was repeated up to four times between each steaming.
When everything is ready the couscous is spread over a large serving dish. Any meat is then placed in the centre and vegetables placed artfully on top. Everyone takes a place around the dish which is usually placed on the floor or on a low table. The “pie shaped” section in front of you is your meal. It would be considered rude to reach over to take anything that is front of another person.
With your right hand, (the left is not used for eating as it may be used for personal hygiene) you make a small ball of the couscous and drop it into your mouth, working your way to the vegetables, Only once the vegetables are eaten do you start on the meat – this way the more expensive meat goes further and all will be full.
Fresh vegetables for salads and meat and fish prepared for meals on the Jemaa el Fna in Marrakech
If you are a guest at the table, you will find the host seated next to you will discretely place tidbits of food and extra meat to make sure you are treated with extra care. You will never see an empty “plate”. It is also traditional that there will be food left. If all is eaten the host will be ashamed that they did not feed you enough and that you could leave the table hungry. However that is highly unlikely to ever happen with a Moroccan meal!
A Light end to a Moroccan Meal
At the end of a meal, dessert is often simple like peeled sliced oranges sprinkled with cinnamon, hunks of watermelon, or piles of astringent pomegranate seeds to cleanse your palate.
Any time is time for Moroccan tea – a green tea with brewed fresh mint leaves and lots of sugar added. Moroccans know that foreigners are not so keen on sugar so will often leave it to be added later. However I know from my time in the desert, small cups of hot sweet tea can be just the right pick me up for energy.
Eating in morocco may inspire you to want to learn more about the food and how to prepare it. There are a number of excellent cooking schools in the cities and taking a class is a great way to learn some extra skills. Just what you need so that when you get home you will be able to recreate those memorable holiday experiences.