Partaking of a country’s food has always been one of my favorite parts of traveling, giving a sense of fully connecting me to a place and its people. Breaking bread is a universal experience that brings people together, and cuisine is a strong expression of culture which is infused with the rhythms of daily life and steeped in other cultural expressions like weddings or religious practices.
Having grown up in the melting pot of America with its long history of European immigration, I have a lot of experience with various cuisines such as Italian, German, French, and other continental foods; so crossing the Mediterranean to Morocco, though only a short ferry ride, was a culinary leap. Though it shares many of the same ingredients as other Mediterranean countries, such as onions, tomatoes, zucchini, potatoes, eggplant, lamb, beef, and olives, these are brought together in a unique fashion that mixes influences from European, African, and Arabic countries into a melange that is all its own.
To better appreciate a country’s foods and hence its culture (as well as be able to enjoy it later :-)), one of my family’s favorite activities when traveling is attending a cooking class in the places we visit. We were very fortunate to find an excellent program in the seaside town of Essaouira called L’Atelier Madada. Taught by Chef Mona and her interpreter Alison, we learned many of the techniques and ingredients that go into Moroccan dishes. One of the main lessons is that Moroccan food is sloowwww cooked. Most staple dishes take a couple hours of low heat simmering, which allows the flavors to meld into a tangy deliciousness that is subtle and spicy at the same time.
The Italians may like to think they originated the modern Slow Food movement, but Moroccans would say, “We never stopped.”
Many flavoring ingredients in the Moroccan epicurian palate are readily available in most Western countries, such as turmeric, ginger, cumin, saffron, paprika, cilantro and parsley, but there are a few specialty items that can be hard to obtain. One is preserved lemon, which is made from a Meyer’s lemons that has been soaked in a salt brine for a month or more, and is used whole, peel included, in a number of dishes. Another is orange blossom water, which is a liquid made by soaking the flowers of the bitter orange to extract their essence.
The unique combination of cultural influences that give Moroccan cuisine its distinctive character is further enhanced by it’s food industry. Staple ingredients are acquired at the local souk (market), which is essentially a farmer’s market, and has been picked fully ripened within the past few days. Meats are acquired at the local butcher shop, and its freshness is attested to by the head of the animal still hanging in the stall. All this freshness contributes to the depth of flavor in the dishes since vegetables have been allowed to ripen while growing as opposed to being picked green and having to be ripened in transit or at home.
Western cultures have started a new eating trend based on being a “locavore,” meaning a meal’s ingredients have traveled within a set distance, usually less than a few hundred miles, to arrive on the plate. This is in response to a food system that typically moves foods across the country, if not from other countries, hence the need to do things such as pick unripe vegetables. Moroccans would find this locavore movement amusing as they don’t know anything different.
Of course, this limits selection to what can be grown locally and to what is in season, but in this semi-tropical climate, it is easy to find a wide selection of fruits and vegetables, including strawberries, blueberries, apples, oranges, tangerines, lemons, bananas, kiwis, persimmons, grapefruit, carrots, potatoes, zucchini, cabbage, squash, lettuce, and beets, as well as a few surprises such as dates.
One of the final aspects of Moroccan cuisine that contributes to its character is the heaping dose of hospitality with which it is served. Many Moroccans are not affluent and meat can be a once-a-week luxury. Nevertheless, as a guest for dinner, the week’s meat will be prepared for the honored guests. In one of those odd twists of fate, the unfortunate event of a vehicle breakdown resulted in the good fortune of being invited to eat with a Moroccan family while our camper was being repaired. The proprietor of our campground, whose assistance throughout the ordeal was invaluable, invited us back to his home where his mother had prepared a wonderful couscous meal that included a whole chicken. We heartily consumed what we could, but in true hospitable style, there was much more than we could finish. The honor that was paid to us by this gesture is one that I will not soon forget.
Having experienced a variety of ethnic dishes over the course of my travels around the Mediterranean, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the unique character of Moroccan cuisine. Though it may share many of the same ingredients as other cultures in the region, in the true spirit of fierce independence that marks the Berber people, they have taken these and created a culinary style that they can call their own.
-written by Aaron, photographed by Tammy