Baba ghanoush, kebabs, baklava, braziers and spices… a mysterious and romantic image of Morocco comes to mind, when thinking of making some of their delectable and well known dishes.
Given its location on the northwestern edge of Africa, Morocco’s cuisine today is a distinctive amalgamation of the many people who have called it home.
The food prepared in this region reflects the influence of centuries of unique cultures who have called it home, and who brought commerce and trade to this region’s shores.
Let’s delve into how this unique blend of flavors came about, explore some of the staples of the diet there, and then jump in to sample some the local gastronomy with a couple of recipes representative of a typical menu.
A Myriad of Influences
Moroccan cuisine comes to us today from a variety of influences – indigenous peoples, traders, invaders, immigrants and colonizers have all played a role in the development of the local culture and dietary habits, as each brought new ingredients, cooking techniques and cultures that remain influential today.
Over 2,000 years ago, the first known inhabitants were nomadic Berbers who first gave us the combination of ingredients still found in soups and stews today.
They took advantage of locally growing produce and combined olives, figs and dates when preparing lamb and poultry, mixing everything in one pot for wonderful stews. For Foodal’s own delicious homage to this wonderful tradition, check out our Moroccan lamb, veggie, and lentil stew.
This heritage is found in Morocco’s favorite dish, tagine. It actually gets its name from the cooking vessel the stews are made in, a glazed earthenware pot with a conical lid that seals in flavors.
Foodal recommends this 2-Quart Terra Cotta Tagine available on Amazon
When the Arabs invaded this land in the 7th century, they introduced new breads, cereals, grains and spices, as well as the sweet and sour flavor pairings favored by the Persians like raisins with lentils or apricots in couscous dishes.
Cinnamon, dried ginger, saffron, cumin, and caraway as well as nuts like almonds and walnuts found their way into the souk, or marketplace, and into the pots atop their portable clay cooking braziers.
When the Moors arrived at Gibraltar from Andalusia in the 15th century, they introduced new varieties of olives, and oranges and lemons – all of which are still very popular in Moroccan cooking.
And later, the Jewish Moors left their stamp on the region with their practical preserving techniques, which are evident in pickled lemons and vegetables that maintain popularity today.
Of particular importance to Moroccan culinary habits was the technique of barbecuing and grilling meat on skewers, known as kebabs, which the invading Ottomans brought with them during the 16th century conquest.
They were also responsible for pioneering local tastes for baklava and yogurt, and increasing the popularity of lamb.
France has also played a significant role. Although their colonization of the area in the 20th century was brief compared to that of other empires, French flavor and influence can still be found in the Moroccan fondness for café culture, pastries, and even wine.
Today’s Culinary Practices
As a country that observes the Islamic faith, the Muslim diet restricts the consumption of pork and alcohol, although some individuals will be seen enjoying wine and buying alcohol in the larger cities.
During Ramadan, Moroccans consume a thick soup called harira, which is served at night after a day of fasting, and is made of lamb, beans and fresh dates.
Foodal recommends The Food of Morocco by Paula Wolfert for a definitive recipe and how-to book for cooking Moroccan.
At the end of Ramadan, a family will dine on a typical feast of roast lamb dipped in cumin; cashew bisteeya, a pie made with phyllo pastry; couscous and custard.
All of this is followed by mescouta, a date bar enjoyed for dessert on special occasions, and served with the ever-present mint tea.
Tagines & Couscous: Delicious Recipes for Moroccan One-pot Cooking is another great introduction.
Flatbread (like pita, and other varieties) is a staple of every meal and is considered sacred – according to tradition, it will never be thrown away, and any pieces that are old or that have fallen on the floor will be served to the animals.
This bread is often baked in communal ovens, and it replaces cutlery as Moroccans will scoop up food with a bit of bread held between the thumb and first two fingers.
Couscous, made from semolina (like this basic homemade pasta dough) is served in a wide variety of styles and is another dietary staple. The national dish is tagine, a rich and flavorful stew made of lamb or poultry, chickpeas, vegetables and spices.
And of course mint tea is a must with every meal, with the presentation and pouring being nearly as important as the actual drinking of it.
Except in years of severe drought, Moroccan farmers produce all of the country’s food. Local fruits and vegetables include: oranges, lemons, dates, figs, melons, olives, apricots, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, almonds, cashews and walnuts, and various cereals and grains.
With a large coastline that runs along the Mediterranean and North Atlantic, fish and seafood is abundant. Beef is rarely grown or consumed, with lamb and poultry being the most often consumed sources of meat.
The Spice Bazaar
Central to the flavor palette in this region, spices are used in almost every dish.
- In varying quantities, a medley of dried ginger, cumin, salt, black pepper and turmeric is used in most tagines and couscous dishes.
- Cumin is served alongside salt and pepper, it’s so fundamental to the local diet.
- Cinnamon goes into cashew pies, pastries, and baklava as well as tagines and fruit dishes.
- Paprika and chilies from the Sahara find their way into veggie tagines and tomato-based recipes.
- Cloves are found in soups and broths.
- Saffron is grown in the south, and is used in pastries, entrees and soups.
- Cardamom is also a staple spice in custards, sweets and cream desserts.
- Sesame seeds go on pastries and are ground into a sweet paste, mixed with honey.
Herbs and Oils
- Cilantro and parsley are used to flavor savory dishes.
- Mint is revered for tea making, and in the winter when it’s out of season, absinthe sometimes replaces it.
- Verbena and marjoram are also used in teas.
- Anise goes on pastries and breads.
- Thyme is used in desserts, combined with roasted figs and apricots.
- Olive oil is widely used as the cooking oil of choice.
- Argan oil (from the fruit of the Argan tree, which is indigenous to Morocco) is used for salad dressings, drizzled over couscous, and for dunking the breakfast bread in.
As you can see, the culinary flavors of Morocco are broad and varied – rich and spicy, with fresh fruits and vegetables and delectable sweets for contrast. Once you’ve sampled food from the region, these remarkable blends will have you coming back for more.
So, here are a couple of recipes to start you out on the road to Morocco.
Moroccan Chicken Tagine
This rich stew with its unexpected flavor combinations is rich and tasty, and will have everyone coming back for seconds. It goes well with a cool tabbouleh salad and flatbread, and the meal can be finished off with mint tea and date bars for dessert.
This tangy salad is cool and refreshing, the perfect complement to shish kabobs, meat grilled on the BBQ, or tagine.
For best results, ensure that the mint and parsley are chopped well and the cucumbers, tomatoes and onions are cut into small bite-sized bits.
About Lorna Kring
Recently retired as a costume specialist in the TV and film industry, Lorna now enjoys blogging on contemporary lifestyle themes. A bit daft about the garden, she’s particularly obsessed with organic tomatoes and herbs, and delights in breaking bread with family and friends.