Moroccan Cuisine

Discovering Moroccan Cuisine and Culture

GASTRONOMIC MELTING POT

Moroccan cuisine draws its richness from the kingdom’s turbulent history and its ancient traditions. The different peoples who have traded with Morocco over the centuries and those who invaded the country have left traces of their art and architecture passage and gastronomy.

From the original Berber population to the arrival of the Arabs, followed by the Andalusians and Jews who were expelled from Spain, and later Ottoman influences, Morocco’ ethnic diversity and what it borrowed and imported from different continents have all contributed to the shaping of a cuisine that is famous, worldwide.

“To Morocco, cooking is a tradition, and of a culture and civilization, the art of living and hospitality. In every home, tea and the accompanying array of cakes await the visitor, together with those symbols of hospitality, milk, and dates.

Moroccans have inherited simple rustic dishes based on ground wheat, semolina, aromatic plants, and spices from their Berber ancestors. Arabs arrived from the East in the seventh century, conquering the whole of North Africa. They settled in Fés at the beginning of the ninth century and brought with them the refinements of Baghdad’s sophisticated civilizations. A masterpiece of culinary literature called Kitab el Tabib, written in I226 by Chamseddine el Baghdadi, a gourmet from Baghdad, circulated in Cairo, Tunis, Algiers, and Fes.

Arab cuisine introduced to Morocco a new way of cooking meat and poultry, in sauce reduced at the end of the cooking process and flavored with exotic spices. Such as saffron, nutmeg, and ginger. The Ommeyades from Syria passed on the cake recipes based on flour, oil, honey, almonds, and pistachios. However, the most substantial influence on Moroccan cuisine, beyond a shadow of a doubt, has to be that of Andalusia. In the fifteenth century, the Andalusian Arabs were driven out of the Iberian Peninsula by the Reconquista (the Christian re-conquest of Spain). Granada, the last bastion of Spanish Islam, fell in that fateful year of 1492. Refugees settled in Térouan, Fés, and Rabat. They introduced a sophisticated way of life to these urban centers and, at the same time, brought with them their culinary traditions, a mixture of Jewish, Christian, and Arab cuisines. All kinds of meat, fish, and vegetables were included in their recipes, which were enhanced by selected spices. Sweet and savory, mild and bitter, were combined in one dish. The famous prune mixture, parsley, ground almonds and cinnamon, lemon and olive tagine, stuffed meat, and vegetables are all recipes from Andalusia or were adopted by the Andalusians. Borrowings from ‘Ottoman, African and Western cultures have been decided to these Eastern and Spanish influences. A large number of Algerian families — whose country was occupied by the Turks from the beginning of the sixteenth century until 1830 — fled when the French occupied Algeria and then settled in Tétouan. Their cuisine, steeped in Turkish influences, spread to Moroccan brochettes and grills (broils), close relatives of Turkish kebabs, as well as sheets of fried pastry such as briouats.

Undoubtedly, African influences go back a long way; there is also no doubt that trans-Saharan caravans have traveled the roads of Morocco from Sudan for many a century, carrying new spices, vegetables, and exotic fruits. English traders introduced tea to Morocco with a little more success than the French managed with the baguette and steak and chips. Moroccan cuisine’s great classics, like pastilla, couscous, and tagines, are found throughout Morocco, from north to south, from east to west. Only the methods of preparation and ingredients vary from one region to another. Marrakech cuisine, with its tangias and spiced tagines, differs from the cuisine of Fés. The Saharans eat barley semolina couscous and are not familiar with seafood. Simultaneously, the coastal areas enjoy couscous made with cornmeal and fish. But as a result of the rural exodus, the differences become blurred, but family cooking traditions remain and endure.

WOMEN’S CUISINE

Pride in oral traditions automatically handed down from mother to daughter, inimitable expert sleights of hand, Moroccan cuisine is the preserve of women, the supreme guardians of ancestral know-how. Their informed eye knows how to choose vegetables and meat with care, their nose orders the perfect measure of spices, their hands know the correct density of dough, the quality of grain instinctively. Sight and touch more than compensate for the lack of precise measurement. For a long time, a girl couldn’t consider getting married without knowing how to roll couscous grain between her fingers lovingly to prepare a fragrant tagine. In the countryside, illiterate women and girls are commonplace, but they cook perfectly, from the knowledge passed down through generations of women in their families. Too often, young girls are still ‘exempted’ from school. The female illiteracy rate remains very high in Morocco-consequently they have plenty of time watching and learning from the cooks at home. Women dedicate a large part of their day to preparing meals. It is their preserve.

Meticulous and intricate culinary preparation is all a matter of time. Women manage their ingredients and prepare those daily dishes for which they alone hold the secrets. The family gathers around ht mother, the mistress of the kitchen, for meals. On special occasions, all the women, both family and friends, get together to help each other. Excluded from the kitchen, it’s the man, on the other hand, who is in charge outside. He tends the barbecue, turns the kebabs, and makes the mint tea.

More and more Moroccan women work outside the home in today’s urban world, and their time is precious. Besides, recipes that take a long time to prepare are reserved for special occasions or simplifies. The cuisine has been modernized, but the refrigerator, freezer, gas stove, and food processor don’t prevent cooks from remaining faithful to tradition, working with their hands, but gaining a little extra time from having all the mod cons.

Harking back to a time in the not so distant past, women still like to prepare conserves such as lemons macerated in salt, olives, or preserved meat.

THE RICHES OF VEGETABLES, GARDENS, AND ORCHARDS

In general, an ordinary meal consists of a single dish and lots of bread. In the country, it often consists of just simple thick soup. On the other hand, on festive occasions, copious dishes follow one another in a specific order. Numerous salads are followed by pastilla, before the arrival of a stream of tagines and the final traditional couscous course.

Carrots, grated raw, served with orange juice and a dusting of cinnamon; green salads; tomatoes and cucumbers; also carrots cooked with cumin, zealouk; aubergine (eggplant) purée; charcoal-grilled (broiled) (bell) peppers cut in thin strips; vegetable fritters. These raw bors oeuvres and cooked vegetable purées are all laid out on the table as multi-colored appetizers and are bound to whet your appetite. Often served as an accompaniment to couscous meat, vegetables can also be eaten as a main course. The flavor of the dish depends mostly on the freshness of the vegetables. Their diversity and availability all the year-round in the markets make them one of the trump cards of ‘Moroccan cuisine. Also, the mistress of the house makes her choice in the souks with almost fanatical care.

Carrots, turnips, courgettes (zucchini), small and firm aubergines (eggplant) with green stalks are commonly used ingredients. Tomatoes have only been grown in Morocco since the beginning of the twentieth century, the French protectorate’s time, but today they are indispensable in Moroccan kitchens. In tagines and salads, tomatoes are always peeled and deseeded. Harvested from February onwards, broad (fava) beans are seasonal vegetables, as are artichokes and green asparagus, each in its way, varying the flavor of tagines. Onions must be firm and big enough. Chickpeas (garbanzos) are soaked in water for several hours before being peeled. Each vegetable has its own cooking time, which has to be respected to preserve its natural flavor.

Filled with sunshine, fruits complete a meal with a touch of freshness. Served fresh or as fruit salad, they are rich in sugar and vitamins and blend equally well with meat and vegetables in numerous tagines. Oranges, grapefruit, and lemons grow in abundance in the open country around Sous. The small bananas from the Agadir region are incredibly rare. Nowadays, for cooks to roll the semolina grains in the little flour and water, using the palms of their hands, simple couscous is made from swollen grains that are streamed, entirely separated, light and lump-free. Above all, couscous requires quality grains. Even couscous that is bought ‘ready for cooking’ involves an elaborate three-stage procedure of steaming, cooling, and mixing the grains with butter using the fingertips. Every region has its specialties, every family its preferences, every season its vegetables. Over the years, numerous local variations have been added around the couscous base, typically accompanied by indigenous vegetables —carrots, onions, and turnips. Couscous with seven vegetables is served in Casablanca the number seven is considered to be a sign of good luck ~ but many other variations exist, depending on the region: cornmeal couscous in the Atlas, fish couscous in the coastal areas, meatball couscous, alfalfa couscous, mussel couscous, fig couscous, raisin couscous, with spices and almonds.

Couscous grains are prepared and worked in a gulf, a large, round vessel made of wood or glazed earthenware. The metal couscoussier has primarily replaced the rustic clay couscoussier used in the past.

As with the blending spices, knowing how to achieve precisely, the correct mix of couscous is essential. Serving couscous with several different types of meat is a Western invention. Using just one kind of meat draws out more flavor from the vegetables and the bouillon. In addition to savory couscous, sweetened versions exist, such as seffa— grains prepared with butter, sugar, cinnamon, and honey.

Sweet, honeydew melons and marbled watermelons provide refreshment on summer evenings; medlars have slightly acidic flesh and huge stones (pits). Small apricots are very fragrant, and prickly pears are irresistible. Quinces are November fruits and often used as a vegetable accompaniment because of their slightly acid taste and sweetness.

MELT IN THE MOUTH MEAT AND CHOICE SPICES

Moroccan Meat and Spices
Moroccan Meat and Spices

‘Once a luxury foodstuff, mutton, and lamb are the most commonly eaten meats. In couscous, the shoulder, neck, and leg of lamb are preferred.

These meats have a special place in religious festivals and celebrations (Aid el Kebir, naming a newly-born). According to Muslim belief, animals must have their throats ritually slit while Allah’s name is invoked for meat to be halal or lawful. Islam forbids the eating of pork or other animals that have not been consecrated before slaughter. When a sheep is sacrificed, every part of it is used. The meat is dried in the sun and keeps very well and is useful when preparing improvised meals for unexpected guests, provided it is well cooked. Meat is only eaten cooked and well cooked at that. In the absence of cutlery, it has to be removed from the bone using only the right hand’s fingers. Eating beef is a recent development and eating veal is rare. Although chicken has long been considered a luxury dish, it plays an essential part in the Moroccan diet. Free-range chicken, raised in the open air, is appreciated for its firm flesh, with no risk of disintegrating during cooking. The organically reared chicken is cooked very quickly and doesn’t have to be simmered. Chicken is always cleaned before being prepared, and the neck, gizzard, and liver are retained to add flavor to the bouillon for couscous.

Some recipes involve boiling for several hours, but meat is just as tasty, grilled (broiled) as kebabs dipped in cumin and cooked over charcoal or a wood fire, or on festive occasions on a spit over a fire. It needs to be simmered and basted frequently so that it can easily be picked off the bone.

Without spices, seasoning, or fresh herbs, the cuisine would be bland and flavorless. Thanks to spices, the range of dishes offer colossal diversity, even though the number of base ingredients is limited. Spices are sold both loose and in bulk in the souks. Wise cooks buy these spices in small quantities and store them out of direct light in airtight jars because once they are exposed to the ait, the spices soon become stale and lose their flavor. Cinnamon sticks, root ginger, cloves, nutmeg, whole spices are preferable.

Once grated, they exude mellow flavors. Commercially available prepacked spice mixes are best avoided because they lose their pungency in blend format. The subtlety of the perfect blend depends upon the art of mixing the exact proportions to create a balanced blend without losing the flavor of the individual spices – this is work for an expert. Cumin and paprika or cinnamon and ginger are straightforward to blend. Certain spices are better at permeating meat and vegetables at the start of the cooking process. In contrast, other spices, such as cumin, cinnamon, or nutmeg, are more appropriate for adding when cooking is complete to avoid masking the other spices’ flavors.

TAGINES AND COUSCOUS: THE MAJESTIC CLASSICS

TAGINES AND COUSCOUS
TAGINES AND COUSCOUS

Derived from the original round earthenware dish with its pointed lid,  ‘tagine’ is now used, more commonly, to describe the actual contents.

The heavy, earthenware construction of the tagine vessel protects food from ‘open flames while also making sure that the heat is evenly distributed; it is also ideal for slow simmering and braising. If large quantities of ingredients are involved, tagine dishes are usually cooked in a large cooking pot first and then transferred to a serving tagine dish. Decorated with glazed motifs, the tagine adds a decorative feature at the table, while its conical-shaped lid also keeps the food warm. There are a hundred and one ways to prepare a tagine; based on meat, chicken, or fish, depending on regional availability; cooked in olive oil or groundnut (peanut) oil, accompanied by olives, prunes, raisins, lemon, and quinces. The unique flavor of the finished and determined by the proportions and blend of spices used to cook the tagine. A perfect Tagine is never greasy. The sauces that coat the meat should be thick and smooth but never runny.

Tagine sauces are prepared in four different ways: m’charmel is a red sauce based on saffron, pepper, cumin, ginger, and red chili. M’hamer sauce is based on paprika, cumin, and olive oil and, like m’charmel, lends a reddish color to the tagine. M’qualli sauce, with saffron and ginger, has a more yellowish color, similar to qadra sauce, which consists of thinly chopped onions, saffron, white pepper ginger, and butter. A little imagination, coupled with a great deal of skill, completes the essential requirements for making a tagine. Coriander (cilantro), parsley, lemon, garlic, olives, or honey are added, according to the recipes’ base meat or vegetable ingredients. These sauces give their names to the dishes: tagine m’charmel, m’hamer chicken, etc.

Fish tagines are always prepared or stuffed with chermoula, garlic, coriander (cilantro), lemon, olive oil, paprika, cumin, and parsley based marinade. On middle-class and more basic dining tables, couscous is a highly sociable dish, a dish served on Friday, after worship, a dish for festive occasions or ceremonies, for births, marriages, and burials. Arranged on a round dish, it looks like a smooth-surfaced cone, soaked in a little bouillon sauce, while the meat and vegetables are placed decoratively in the central cavity.

Enjoyed and highly rated as a unique dish, couscous no longer retains its exclusivity, strictly speaking, because it is served as a final course at most diffas (banquets serving couscous). Only consuming a few mouthfuls is considered sufficient to please the host. Made from wheat, barley, or cornmeal and accompanied by vegetables and meat, couscous is always prepared in the same way. Although it is rare, nowadays, for cooks to roll the semolina grains in the little flour and water, using the palms of their hands, authentic couscous is made from swollen grains that are streamed, correctly separated, light, and lump-free. Above all, couscous requires quality grains. Even couscous that is bought ‘ready for cooking’ involves an elaborate three-stage procedure of steaming, cooling, and mixing the grains with butter using the fingertips. Every region has its specialties, every family its preferences, every season its vegetables. Over the years, numerous local variations have been added, around the couscous base, typically accompanied by indigenous vegetables —carrots, onions, and turnips. Couscous with seven vegetables is served in Casablanca-the number seven is considered to be a sign of good luck ~ but many other variations exist, depending on the region: cornmeal couscous in the Atlas, fish couscous in the coastal areas, meatball couscous, alfalfa couscous, mussel couscous, fig couscous, raisin couscous, with spices and almonds.

Couscous grains are prepared and worked in a gulf, a large, round vessel made of wood or glazed earthenware. The metal couscoussier has primarily replaced the rustic clay couscoussier used in the past.

As with the blending spices, knowing how to achieve precisely, the correct mix of couscous is essential. Serving couscous with several different types of meat is a Western invention. Using just one kind of meat draws out more flavor from the vegetables and the bouillon. In addition to savory couscous, sweetened versions exist, such as seffa— grains prepared with butter, sugar, cinnamon, and honey.

THE ART OF HOSPITALITY AND ENTERTAINMENT

Hospitality
Hospitality

In Morocco, the pleasures of eating are inextricably associated with the satisfaction of entertaining guests. A nation of food lovers, the Moroccan people seize thousands of opportunities for family gatherings with parents, friends, or strangers. Every festival is celebrated — religious and numerous family occasions for rejoicing.

In traditional houses, living rooms are lined with benches covered in simple cretonne, velvet or rich brocade, stretch out lengthways, from large, white, blue, and green, mosaic-tiled patios. These banquettes, with their neatly arranged, well-padded cushions in the same fabric, provide comfortable seating. Rabat carpets warm the tiled floors and give the living room a feeling of warmth and insulation. With no sofas against the walls, this layout allows a large number of guests to be entertained at the same time. At mealtime, one or more round tables are shifted to a comer of the room. Being invited for a meal involves being warmly welcomed on arrival by the master of the house. Greeting etiquette, which merely requires a ritual response, is an obligatory token of politeness. Inquiries are made about the health of everyone, particularly children, amid expressions of mutual admiration. Entering someone’s house to share a meal means putting time on hold and the door on the outside world’s troubles. The rules governing hospitality are a sacred duty.

The house’s mistress’s serenity and gentleness belie a long and hard day’s work in the kitchen, preparing two lavish meals numerous trips to and from the living room to check that nothing is missing the guests arrive, everything is ready. The atmosphere is fragrant with orange blossom. A burner releases the aroma of sandalwood. Water is boiling in the urn for the tea. White embroidered tablecloths cover the round tables. Fés and Tétouan embroidery have motifs that recall the cross of Toledo. In Rabat and Salé, table linen is embroidered in scalloped blanket stitch, in pastel shades; its multicolored embroidery, Azzemour, typifies Meknés its needlepoint — each town boasts its technique.

Once the guests have been seated at the table, supported by the cushions on the banquettes, or seated on pouffes, the ritual familiar to all meals, and skill acquired in early childhood, commences. A washstand ewer with a long spout is passed around the table. Rinsing one’s hands is a fundamental part of the ritual. Likewise, the meal does not begin until the host has uttered the sacred word: Bismillah. Small side plates are placed in front of each guest to be used for bread or small pieces of meat or bones. Salads, in small bowls or plates, are arranged in a circle on the table, where they remain throughout, as an integral part of the meal. A feast for the eyes, place settings are laid out with consummate skill, and the spices’ color, olives, and preserved lemons further enhance the enchanting scene.

The meal offers generous portions in keeping with the host’s generosity. A house that receives a few extra surprise guests never runs short of provisions.

Meals are planned to cater for twice as many guests. Similarly, rushing through the various courses or leaving food on the plate is deemed an insult to the master of the house and a terrible form indeed. Besides, such conduct also shows disregard for the fact that the hosts have to feed the rest of the household, including children and servants.

In the center of the table, the dishes are revealed one by one. In a specific sequence, diners are expected to savor each mouthful delicately and always eat in moderation. A pastilla, grilled (broiled) meat, a fish or chicken tagine, all are eaten from a typical dish, using three fingers, the thumb, index finger, and the third finger of the right hand, without getting in the way of the person sitting closest. Bread, of which there are always copious supplies, is used as a table utensil instead of cutlery because iron metal has still been considered unlucky throughout Muslim societies. Only spoons are allowed for eating the final course of couscous, which is accompanied by a large bowl of fruit, or sweet semolina, flavored with cinnamon. Drinks, arranged on separate trays, are served on-demand or at the end of the meal. Once the master of the house has pronounced the Hamdullilah, the guests may then withdraw from the table, to be ushered into another corner of the room, where large trays bearing tea and numerous small cakes await them.

FEAST FOR SPECIAL OCCASSIONS

Festivities, family feasts, and culinary preparation mark every significant stage in life. Religious festivals or family celebration, the return from Mecca, the evenings of the month of Ramadan, all are a pretext for celebrating and enjoying unique dishes associated with specific events. Paradoxically, throughout the month of Ramadan, when Muslims are expected to fast throughout the day, food consumption increases dramatically. It is the month when cooks spend most of their time preparing to eat while fasting themselves. The main food item affected by this increase in consumption is the tomato. It is an essential ingredient in the preparation of harira, a thick, highly seasoned, tomato-based lemon-flavored soup made with lentils, chickpeas (garbanzos), rice, and meat served in the evenings. All Muslims fast from daybreak to sunset, renouncing all food and drink and the pleasures of the flesh during the daytime. Before sunrise, the last meal, or shor consists of milk, sweetened semolina, and pancakes. At sunset, four marks the end of the day’s fast and is announced by sirens’ sound in all towns and villages. For 30 days, steaming herira presides overall domestic dining tables. This substantial dish is accompanied by hard-boiled (hard-cooked) eggs, slow, a mixture of toasted ground almonds and flour, sugar, cinnamon, and butter; chebbakiyas, rich, succulent, and aromatic honey cakes, dates, pancakes, coffee, and milk. Next comes the tea, accompanied by the obligatory small cakes. 

In many families, dinner is served around midnight. The 26th day of Ramadan, known as The Night of Destiny, celebrates girls’ passage from childhood into adulthood. Girls between the ages of eight and ten, attired in pretty dresses, their hands painted with henna, are initiated into fasting rituals. They are presented with a sewing needle dipped in honey and a thimble fall of milk, symbolizing their imminent entry into womanhood.

Aid el Fitr celebrates the end of Ramadan. On that morning, family and friends gather around a table laden with savory foods, tea, and delicacies.

Alms are given to the poor. Cakes prepared in advance are handed around. The festival of the day of Achoura affirms the obligation of ‘all Muslims to pay Zakat, alms to the poor. Meals start early in the morning and consist of the couscous with lamb’s tail preserved in salt since Aid el Kebir, zmméta, orange-flower water, honey semolina, and haces, sweet bread rolls with sesame and dried fruits. Achoura is also a children’s festival when they receive small presents consisting of dates, nuts, and dried fruits. Mouloud commemorates the birth of the Prophet.

An opportunity to feast on hearty breakfasts and dishes of couscous is a period for popular Muslim gatherings around the tombs of holy men. Aid el Kebir provides an ideal opportunity to cook a whole sheep on a spit over a barbecue.

Family celebrations are also religious affairs that mark essential stages throughout the cycle of life. The essentials of all rituals remain the same, although variations exist from region to region. On the seventh day after birth, a child is given a forename, while the men of the household slaughter a sacrificial lamb, A large number of guests squeeze together around the table for festive meals. Even the smallest events of childhood are cause for a celebratory dinner: the day of weaning, the first tooth, and circumcision are occasions when the child is king for the day. As for marriage ceremonies and feasting, this involves cooks in a flurry of activity for several days in advance, where significant quantities of sugar, flour, jars of oil, pyramids of guzelle’s horns, buttered Ghribs, feggas, and Fala, a mountain of nougat, are central to the festive preparations. Huge and protracted celebrations take place in both families, consecrating the future life of the newly-weds.

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