When we first arrived in Morocco, I was uncertain what to expect for food. I had heard of tagines, and had made what I thought was couscous at home, but beyond these vague notions, I really had no clue. Fortunately, being an adventurous sort who is open to trying lots of different foods, I was not timid about diving in to discover what Morocco had to offer. What I discovered was an array of familiar ingredients that were prepared and presented in a unique way. So, what is to be expected when eating in Morocco? Below I have laid out the elements of a typical meal that one might have, and the unique Moroccan style of each.
When ordering food at any establishment in Morocco, the first thing to arrive at the table is a dish of olives. With a history of olive cultivation that goes back to pre-Roman times, it is no surprise that they are available everywhere and come in many styles. The flavor is dependent on the particular curing method, and its accompanying brine mixture. There are soft and salty wrinkled black olives with their mild flavor, al dente green olives packed in chili sauce that have a nice spicy quality, meaty green olives cured with preserved lemons that are zesty, purple and green olives pickled with gherkins and carrots, and other variations and combinations of the above.
When you visit the souks (markets), there are vendors who specialize in olives, and they will have 10 or 12 varieties to choose from, all stacked in a tall conical mound that looks perched on the edge of avalanche, the movement of one olive poised to send the entire stack cascading to the floor. Despite this precarious arrangement, it is standard practice to taste the olives when selecting them, so not only do you get to savor the variety on offer, you take home the kinds that taste best!!! With the variety of flavors available, one can only imagine the number of interesting martinis that might be possible.
Bread is a mainstay of the Moroccan diet, and the only significant source of carbohydrates. Available on every street corner for about 10-15 cents a loaf, it is bought fresh daily and consumed at every meal. It comes in two forms, a round loaf the diameter of a tortilla or in a long baguette. Of the two, the round loaf is the most common by far and served everywhere. It is an inch thick, soft, chewy bread filled with air pockets that is enveloped in a crunchy, golden brown crust, which still has a dusting of the semolina used to prevent sticking in the ovens. It is a hearty bread that is easily torn apart and in many ways reminds me of Italian foccacia. Whatever dough recipe and preparation process they use, this bread would make an AWESOME pizza crust.
On several occasions, we talked our way into the back of bakeries to investigate the process, and were awed to find very simple operations. My guess is that the secret lies in the baking. The ovens are enormous, wood-fired, brick-lined kilns that are very hot. The area around the ovens is stacked with various size pieces of wood, much of it looking like it comes from the trimmings of the ubiquitous olive trees. The bread is ferried in and out of the ovens through a small flappered opening on long-handled wooden spatulas, with dozens of loaves being baked at a time. We purchased a loaf fresh out of the oven, and it was divine! When you order a meal in Morocco, the second component to arrive at the table, in addition to the delicious olives, is bread.
In the U.S., a salad is usually a bed of raw greens augmented by additional raw vegetables that are sometimes accompanied by meat, eggs, nuts, cheese or the like, all topped by a dressing. In Morocco, salads are typically some combination of various vegetables that have been slow cooked together in olive oil, herbs and spices until they are soft and the flavors have melded together into a delectable spread. They are served cold with the standard Moroccan bread, and more closely resemble what we think of as appetizers than a salad. Some traditional varieties include Zalouk, an eggplant and tomato melange that has a sweet tanginess to it, Tchakchouka, green peppers and tomatoes accented by chopped parsley and cilantro, and diced carrots in an orange juice sauce, or zucchini with preserved lemon.
We got to sample a variety of these dishes on our Abercrombie & Kent tour after a morning exploring the medina (walled old town) of Fez and soaking up its many shops, guild districts, beautiful hand decorated medrasas (Islamic schools), and holy mausoleums. Needing a break from walking, we passed through a non-descript door-in-the-wall and were delivered to a lovely riad courtyard restaurant embellished with the geometrically patterned tiles that are found throughout Morocco. Our guide, aware of our foodie proclivities, recommended this establishment because it is known for its salads. We were not disappointed. The only problem was that we were full before the main course even arrived having feasted on this sampling of splendid salads.
The staple dish of Morocco is the tagine. Named for the conical ceramic cooking vessel in which it is prepared, this slow cooked stew is similar to an Indian curry, but only in concept. Its basis is the humble onion, which is augmented by a mixture of spices that can include garlic, turmeric, ginger, cumin, paprika, saffron, cinnamon, and some proprietary mix that is dependent on the dish being prepared and the individual spice merchant’s personal recipe. People often find a particular spice merchant whose recipe they like, and they go exclusively to him to get it.
To this base is added a meat, often chicken, beef or lamb, but possibly fish, goat, or camel. The dish is further supplanted by vegetables and/or dried fruits and nuts. Set over a low flame for several hours, it is allowed to simmer slowly into a savory, kaleidoscopic mixture that can have a hint of sweet.
Served bubbling hot in its ceramic dish, it is consumed using bread as a utensil, with all participants digging into the communal serving dish. There are many varieties of tagines that differ by ingredients, but they all share the same basic structure and method of cooking. Some traditional forms include the citrus chicken and olive, made using preserved lemons (a whole lemon, peel included, brined in a salt solution), beef or lamb with dates and almonds, beef and vegetables (carrots, potatoes, zucchini, squash), or kefta, meatballs in a tangy tomato sauce topped with a poached egg.
The ceramic cooking vessel, the tagine, is ubiquitous throughout Morocco, available for sale at any number of roadside vendors or shops. It comes in various sizes based on the number of people eating. While its odd shape might seem merely decorative, this and the ceramic material of its construction are an important part of the cooking method. The conical top needs to fit securely and not have any wholes or gaps that might leak to the outside. This allows the steam to collect in the top and slip back down the sides into the stew, a slow convectionary action that suffuses the food with the collected flavors of the ingredients.
The ceramic material also imparts its own earthy flavor tone to the contents, something that is not able to be duplicated by other materials. The result is melt-in-your-mouth meat in caramelized onions accompanied by steamed vegetables with accents of dried fruits, nuts and/or olives.
To experience a proper tagine, one needs to order it several hours in advance to allow for the slow-cooking process. This also allows for a custom order if so desired, and there are even places where you can take your own ingredients to be used in the dish. When approaching a restaurant, you can often see tagines on a gas burner or placed on a grill filled with real charcoal, and the top of the lid will have a piece of fruit or other marker to indicate that it is reserved for someone. Of course, Moroccans are also subject to the business of everyday life and cannot always order in advance, but this does not mean they have to forego good tagine. Restaurants also cook standards which can be had on short order. However, DO NOT be late as once they are spoken for, you are out of luck.
Another staple in Moroccan cuisine is couscous. Often mistaken for an individual grain, it is actually a very fine pasta with the consistency of corn meal. In western countries, it often appears in an instant form to which boiling water is added, and it is allowed to sit for three minutes, resulting in a somewhat lumpy, damp sand consistency.
Real couscous, however, is steamed for several hours in a couscouserie, a kind of double boiler apparatus that renders a light, fluffy pasta with a soft texture. Due to the long preparation process, couscous is traditionally reserved for Fridays, the Islamic Holy Day, when schools and many businesses close midday and people have a big lunch and attend mosque and is thus imbued with additional elements of Moroccan culture.
The standard preparation is couscous with seven vegetables, which despite the name, does include meat. It is served in a heaping mound on a large communal dish, with the meat buried in the middle, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, squash, onions, zucchini, and turnips piled on top, with a side of subtly flavored broth that is spooned over the entire thing for added flavor. It always seems to come to the table in a quantity well beyond what can be finished, but given its wonderful taste, we try anyway. To enjoy this slice of Moroccan life, you typically have to put in your order the night before to insure there is adequate preparation time and sufficient quantity for all.
If you have any room left after the above courses, there is dessert. However, unlike in western countries, where dessert is usually a sweet confection or pastry, the typical dessert in Morocco is a plate of sliced fruit sprinkled with a spice mixture whose base is cinnamon. The most common fruit is tangerines or oranges, which seem to grow everywhere and are available at every souk, but strawberries and bananas are also prevalent. Given that fruit is light, being mostly water, and naturally sweet, it makes a nice accent note to the meal and cleanses the palate. The hint of spices also lends them a certain sweetness, which raises them above plain fruit and gives them their dessert credentials.
To stave off the stupifying affects of a large meal, there is the tradition of Moroccan mint tea. Tea in Morocco, like many places in the world, has been elevated to a ceremonial art form and its consumption punctuates a variety of social occasions. Being a highly social people, this means there is a lot of tea consumed, but typically only in small quantities at any given time. Traditionally, it is a green tea that is infused with fresh mint and served with a whopping dose of sugar.
Proper preparation and serving takes a bit of time, but Moroccans have a relaxed pace and savor social occasions so taking a break for tea is important. The standard style is gunpowder tea, which is so named as the leaves are rolled up into BB sized pellets that resemble black powder when dried. This is measured into a teapot sized for the number of partakers and a small amount of hot water is added to rehydrate the leaves and pre-steep them to remove the bitter taste. This first glass is poured off, a large handful of mint is put into the teapot, and the pot is filled with water, making sure to submerge the mint leaves so they do not oxidize in the heat and add a bitter flavor. The teapot is returned to the stove, brought to boil for a few minutes, and then removed.
Typically, several LARGE blocks of sugar (each one equal to 4-6 sugar cubes) are added to the pot at this point and allowed to dissolve. The tea is served in small glasses, about the size of a juice glass, that are decorated with a painted design around the rim if not colored glass. When poured, the teapot is raised high above the glass to aerate the liquid, cool it off, and produce bubbles in the poured glass. The quantity of bubbles is an indicator of the quality of the tea. The first glass or three is poured back into the teapot to stir the sugar in and further cool the tea. The glasses are then filled, again pouring from a height to produce a froth, and then the tea is ready for consumption.
For me, the standard tea bordered on syrupy it was so sweet, but fortunately, many people only slightly sweeten the tea when serving to foreigners and provide more sugar on the side for those that want it. After a small glass, some nice repartee, and some relaxed reflection, it is time for the next task. It was easy to adapt to this pleasant ritual, and it is something that I will miss after leaving.
Prior to coming to Morocco, my only experience with Moroccan food was eating at a restaurant in Seattle. I came away with the perception, which I have heard from others also, that Moroccan food is very sweet. However, I did not find this to be the case at all. Certain dishes did have a hint of sweetness, such as pastilla or tagines made with dried fruit, but it was only an accent note to the savory melody that carried the tune of the dish. If you were concerned about the food being too sweet, rest assured that authentic Moroccan food is not overly sweet, with the exception of the tea.
I would encourage you to come to Morocco yourself to discover this however. You will not be disappointed.
-written by Aaron, photographed by Tammy