Moroccan cuisine is unlike other Arab, African or Mediterranean foods that you may be familiar with. Although it has influences from other regions around it, Moroccan gastronomy offers an interesting offering of meats, vegetables and spices. Characteristic flavorings include preserved lemons, unrefined olive juices and dried fruits. Spices such as saffron, turmeric, cumin and paprika as well as herbs like parsley, cilantro and mint are heavily used.
A typical Moroccan meal starts with a variety of hot and cold salads. Some of these are relatively easy to prepare, such as boiled beets or carrots seasoned with lemon juice, olive oil and salt. Moroccan salad is a mixture of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and olives. Zaalouk is a mixture of crushed eggplant and tomatoes mixed with garlic and spices, served cold. Harira is Morocco’s famous lentil and tomato soup, which is also used to break the fast at Ramadan. Khobz, traditional Moroccan bread is served at all meals. You would see everyone from street peddlers to small stores selling it.
The main entrée is almost always cooked and served in a Tagine, a dome shaped heavy clay dish that is sometimes painted or glazed for decoration. The Tagine has a flat circular base in which you cook the food and a large cone shaper cover that retains the moisture while cooking. Tagine of meat (beef, lamb), chicken and vegetables is most common. There is also an array of vegetables prepared in Moroccan cuisine. Roasted whole artichokes with peas, diced pumpkin with cinnamon, quince and green beans are a few staples. Although Morocco has a large coastline, seafood is only found in upscale restaurants.
Couscous is one of the most popular entrées found here and is said to be of Berber origin. Berbers are the indigenous peoples of North Africa from west of the Nile Valley. Couscous is made of semolina and wheat flour by rolling it into fine granules. The end result is of almost powdery consistency which is steamed and served at room temperature with vegetables or meat stew, and sometimes seasoned with saffron to add color.
Pastilla is an elaborate preparation of layers of phyllo, eggs, almond paste and ground cooked chicken or mixed seafood. It is then topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar and can be served as an appetizer or entrée.
Desserts traditionally consist of fresh fruits. There are a number of bakeries and patisseries in Morocco but most of these sweets are eaten with tea between meals. Puff pastry, honey, nuts, dried fruits and powdered sugar are common ingredients used to make the traditional desserts which may remind you of baklava but are far more diverse in flavors. Green tea soaked in fresh mint leaves and lots of sugar is indispensable throughout the day. The Moroccan tea culture involves pouring tea from a beautiful silver kettle into small glasses and is enjoyed leisurely with friends and family.
For breakfast or snack, a popular item found everywhere is the Msemmen, a crepe made of whole wheat flour with layering of butter and oil. It can be eaten with jam or honey. Pain cake and doughnuts are also served at tea time as snacks. Walking in the Medina’s, you would find vendors selling boiled chickpeas in paper cones, steamed snails by the bowls, caked and dried fruits. Juice stands sell freshly squeezed orange, tangerine and grapefruit juices that cost under $1 per glass. Although alcohol is not permitted in the Muslim religion, a lot of Moroccans drink in the restraints and bars. While liquor stores may not be so common, beer and wine is available at supermarkets.
As appeared in Do It While You’re Young in January 2011.