Cumin, paprika, garlic and saffron. You can smell it in the air. Onions, harissa, citrus and dates. Wherever you are, Morocco’s flavors and smells will make your mouth water and your tummy growl. This colorful country is a feast of flavors and colors and tastes unlike anywhere I have been. You just can’t get enough.
We’ve been in Morocco for three weeks now, and we still have more than a week to go. We have learned some of tips for the cuisine of this North African nation that has
been a crossroads for thousands of years. From cultures near and far the Moroccan cuisine developed into the flavor-filled mix of vegetables, meat and spices we know today. The Berber’s long history in this region, combined
with the Romans, the Vandals, the Phoenicians, and later the Jews, the Spanish, the Brits and French, certainly makes for a unique combination of cultures and flavors.
Today Morocco stands independent under King Mohammed VI, and the delicious food is a proud tradition as seen in the medinas and restaurants, street food and homes through out the cities and rural regions of Morocco. Seafood on the coast; beef, sheep, goat, chicken and even camel makes an appearance in the interior; and the ever-present olive can be found at breakfast,
lunch and dinner.
We had a very special experience during our ten days in Asilah on the Atlantic Coast. Our airbnb in Asilah came with a full-time cook, a sweet and talented Moroccan woman named Latifah. She fed us the
most remarkable meals during our time there and we were spoiled beyond reason. We learned a lot about the cuisine, watched her cook and asked her so many questions. She took us to the market with her and helped us understand the foods she was
making for us. What a remarkable opportunity this presented and we were so grateful. We wanted to stuff her in the suitcase and keep her forever! So through Latifah we learned the cuisine.
There are some surprises too – like the flavorful fava bean and garlic
soup called B’sara served for breakfast. Not a dish found on restaurant menus but if you ask it can be made for you. We did just that, wanting to try it and the proprietor gladly made it for us even though it was lunch time and well past the normal morning hour it is usually eaten. It tasted much like a split pea soup but spicier and very satisfying.
Another surprise is the pastilla – a completely
unexpected sweet and savory “pie” resembling spanakopita but filled with nuts and dates, chicken or pigeon, sweet and savory spices and baked then sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. It can’t decide if it’s dinner or a dessert, but it is delicious and unusual all at once. The dish is created with a super thin filo type pastry made by hand by artisans in the
markets using a very surprising shaped cooking shaft that the thin dough is placed on for just a few seconds to let it cook. Pastilla is usually reserved for special occasion meals, but can be found in most restaurants serving tourists. We were very lucky to have a special one made for us by Latifah.
More well-known are the bubbling tajine dishes cooked and served in their unique crockery. Tajine can be made from many things including lamb,
beef, chicken and vegetables and the best part is usually the wonderful rich broth at the bottom of the pot. My favorite ones were the chicken olive and lemon and the lamb, dried fruit and nut. These two are also favorites among locals and its easy to see why. I had them multiple times and each time it was delicious.
Another well-known dish is Couscous. But the couscous we know back in America is very different from what we have enjoyed here in Morocco. In fact, making couscous is a major undertaking and is reserved for Fridays, the holy day in Morocco. We spent much of one day watching Latifah make us a remarkable (and gigantic) couscous feast that included chicken, carrots, zucchini, potato and turnips and of course the couscous itself. A special steamer is used to steam the couscous over boiling water – a most unusual and time-consuming preparation.
When all is said and done this lovely and colorful pile of deliciousness is topped with a flavorful broth that has been simmering and reducing for hours. It just really is a special meal and poor sweet Latifah had a real workout in the kitchen on this day.
Grilled meats on a stick, similar to such things in other countries, can be found at restaurants and street vendors. Known as Brochette’s, popular varieties are lamb, chicken and beef, as well as ground lamb, but my favorite was a lime-marinated fish brochette I had in a restaurant.
While in Asilah by the sea we had a great opportunity to sample the local seafood. Latifah made us the most amazing selection of grilled and fried fish including sardines and dorado served with a delicious green chili sauce and lemon. Simple and sublime. We also had anchovies in lemon, octopus salad, rich and delicious fish soup and tiny deep-fried sardines.
The country is teeming with the freshest and most colorful produce that makes its way into every meal. All of these goodies are locally grown and pesticide free, usually harvested with hours or days of your purchase. Unlike the United States, rarely are things in the market being shipped in from other countries. My favorite was the persimmon, pomegranate and tangerines – hands down the best of those I have ever had. A walk through the market is a kaleidoscope of tomatoes, radish, squash, plums, grapes, pears, oranges and lychee, as well as a never-ending variety of nuts and beans and grains.
But there is one thing I have not yet elaborated on – the key to all of the distinctive Moroccan foods we have savored over the past three weeks. The spices. Moroccan cuisine has developed through a magical mix of spices, in a region abundant with the finest. In the markets you find the colorful choices piled beautifully on display while Moroccan grandmothers sniff and purchase
the savory wonders. Most common in dishes are salt, pepper, ginger, turmeric (often referred to curcumin), saffron, paprika, cumin, cinnamon and white pepper. A special spice blend known as Ras El Hanout is a blend of dozens of spices and is unique to individual shops and regions. Ras El Hanout means “best of the shop” and will include cardamom, nutmeg, anise, mace, cinnamon, ginger, pepper, turmeric and often other “secret” spices.
I’m taking away from Morocco a real gift in this cuisine, an excitement to try new flavors and techniques I’ve learned here. I wonder why there aren’t more Moroccan restaurants back home and encourage you to get out and find the flavors of Morocco wherever you can. Because there are so many amazing things about this country – but if you can’t visit – at least eat Morocco. You won’t be disappointed.