Things to see and do - Morocco
Moroccan cuisine is held in high regard around the world. Whether rich or light, simple or sophisticated, the variety of dishes is such that even the most demanding palate is delighted.
Traditionally a Moroccan meal will take place in the family room, the bayt el-seghir, at a low, round wooden table surrounded by couches. Nowadays, however, modern urban households often have Western-style dining-rooms. When invited to a reception, the guests are welcomed into a lavishly decorated living-room. Food is served in traditional earthenware tajine or couscous dishes. Each guest helps himself from the dish by dipping in the first two fingers and thumb of his right hand directly into the dish. Pieces of bread can be used to mop up sauces or retrieve pieces of meat or vegetables. Eating with one’s fingers can deter foreign travellers though because many Moroccan households are used to foreigners, they often provide cutlery. However, the only occasion on which it is absolutely essential to respect traditional table etiquette is at a diffa, a banquet surrounded by a whole series of rituals.
Bread is an essential part of any meal, to soak up sauces and pick up food from the communal dish. These round, flat loaves are made from durum wheat, barley or rye flour. The aroma of freshly baked bread wafts fragrantly throughout the medinas, as the women or children pass by with loaves on a wooden tray covered with a cloth.
Meals often begin with salads. Laid out on little plates placed around the main dishes, they remain on the table and are eaten throughout the meal. Each plate is filled with a different speciality: grated carrots with orange, aubergines and courgettes in olive oil (zaaluk), cooked artichokes, peppers and tomatoes, fresh broad beans, couscous, lamb’s brain, cucumber, green beans and lentils. Another familiar starter is soup. There are dozens of different kinds, but favourites include mashed or diced vegetables, cracked wheat (dchicha), semolina and aniseed, vermicelli, rice, pasta and gumbo. During the month of Ramadan, the fast is broken with harira, a thick soup of meat, beans, lentils, chickpeas and broad beans. It is substantial enough to be eaten as a meal in itself. Briwats are another delicious starter, made out of tiny envelopes of thin flaky pastry (warka) stuffed with minced beef or lamb and deep-fried. They can be either triangular, round or rectangular in shape. Modern cooks also prepare equally delicious briwats of shrimp and vermicelli or cheese and merguez. Finally, it would be a crime not to taste a pastilla. This is a flaky pastry envelope stuffed with almonds or hazelnuts (or both), onions, parsley and eggs, to which pigeon, or less often, red meat, fish, poultry or seafood, is added. Delicious!
Most main dishes are meat-based, generally consisting of mutton or lamb. Couscous is one of Morocco’s staple dishes, made from steam-cooked wheat, barley or corn, and served with a stew made from mutton, chicken or beef and vegetables (courgettes, turnips, potatoes, chickpeas). Depending on the region, it will be eaten with the fingers or a spoon. Tajine is Morocco’s most famous dish. It is a meat, poultry or fish stew, cooked very slowly over a charcoal fire in a terracotta tajine dish with one or several vegetables (onions, carrots, artichoke hearts, beans, peas) and / or fruit (prunes, sultanas, preserved lemon) together with a variety of pulses (blanched almonds, pine kernels) and of course all sorts of spices. There are several sorts of tajines, including mqalli, cooked in saffron, mhammar, cooked in red spices (of Arab origin) and mjammar, cooked over charcoal (of Andalucian origin).
Other specialities not to be missed are delicious brochettes of kefta, spicy meatballs (with cumin or paprika) rolled in breadcrumbs and fried. Kebabs are also very common char-grilled or barbecued and served with a spicy sauce.
The originally Turkish mashwi consists of a whole lamb roasted on a spit or in the oven. It is often served on great occasions, such as weddings. It might be seasoned with salt, butter, spices (saffron, paprika, cumin) and will be basted with sauces of coriander and other herbs. In some regions beef, goat, gazelle or chicken mashwi might also be served. The Moroccans are also extremely fond of offal. Generally prepared for the lamb festival of Aïd al-Kebir, it can be fried, steam-cooked or served in sauces. Chicken is also popular. This can be prepared in a tajine – chicken with olives and preserved lemons is a classic – or simply roasted.
The Atlantic coast is rich in fish and seafood. Stewed, baked or grilled fish can be found in Morocco’s great many seafood restaurants.
Desserts and pastries
The variety and quality of fruit in Morocco is such that most meals end with a dish of fruit or a fruit salad. However, some city folk consider it good form to order an ice-cream gateau to finish off a wedding feast.
The diversity and originality of Morocco’s pastries has yet to achieve recognition abroad, mainly due to the serious competition put up by the well-established export trade of Lebanese and Tunisian pastries. In Morocco mint tea is always served with a range of mouth-watering pastries. The most well known are “cornes de gazelle” (kaab ghzal), made out of almond paste scented with orange blossom water. The sfenj is a fried doughnut, similar to the Spanish churro, sold on street corners. Haloua shabbakiya, a honey cake, and honey briwats with almonds are eaten after the filling harira soup during Ramadan. Ghriyyba is a biscuit made with butter, semolina, sesame seeds and almonds which melts in the mouth. Krachel are small macaroon-shaped biscuits eaten alone or with butter and honey. Made from the same pastry as krachel, faqqas are small almond cakes to which sultanas are added. Sellu, a brown cone of flour and grilled almonds, is extremely nourishing and often prepared during Ramadan or to build up a young mother after she has given birth. A crunchy sweet version of pastilla with milk (keneffa) is made from flaky pastry cooked in milk and dusted with ground almonds. Mhannsha, made from almond paste, is a long coiled cake slightly resembling a snake, hence its name.
Milk curds are made by adding wild artichoke hearts, orange blossom water and sugar to milk. This extremely fresh sort of yoghurt drink is served at the end of meals. Iben is buttermilk made in a goatskin (chkoua) or a pitcher (khabia). It can be drunk alone or mixed with sweet couscous (saycouk). Jbane is a fromage frais made from thick curdled milk to which sugar is added. Salted jbane can also be found, generally made with goats’ milk.
In Morocco, the term spices covers medicinal herbs and culinary spices. A complex hierarchy has been developed to classify them according to their rarity and age. The most important are pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger and saffron. Coriander, cardamom, cumin and aniseed are among others which were adopted much later. Thyme, marjoram, liquorice and bay are in the bottom category, the “poor man’s spices”.
Freshly ground black pepper is used in most dishes. Cinnamon is added to pastries and some sweet tajines, such as those with prunes and almonds. Powdered ginger is used in sauces. Strands of saffron, prepared from pulverised stamens, are used sparingly in most tajine dishes. Flat-leafed parsley and fresh coriander seeds perfume a variety of dishes, particularly meat dishes. Cumin is often added to mashwis and egg dishes. Paprika, the powdered form of dried red peppers, adds spice to some tajines, kefta (meatballs) and fish. Ras-el-hanut (“shopkeeper’s choice”) is a blend of the best spices available such as cloves, ginger, rose buds, cinnamon, capsicum, galangal, mace, aniseed, turmeric, cardamom, garlic, nutmeg and cantharides. It is generally reserved for feasts and banquets. Nutmeg is added to white meat and fish dishes; mace is added to meatballs.
Mint tea is an integral part of any Moroccan’s daily life. It is drunk at all hours of the day, to welcome guests, as an aperitif or an after-dinner drink and even during meals. It is the third token of hospitality, after milk and dates. Tea is generally served with pastries, pancakes (rghaief, baghrir or msemmen), or simply with bread.
Serving tea is a ceremony in its own right. Nothing is left to chance and the whole ritual is steeped in symbolism, from the number of glasses to where they are placed on the tray. Tea is prepared by the family’s most dextrous member, in front of the guests and according to ancestral rituals. The chosen one, seated cross-legged on a low seat, first rinses the teapot with boiling water, after the customary bismillah. He or she then extracts exactly the right quantity of tea. The green tea leaves are rinsed twice, and the first rinsing water is kept because of its high tea content. The first glass poured out is examined and then poured back into the pot, mint and sugar are then added to the other glasses. The teapot is protected by a veil while the tea brews. To intensify its aroma, the tea is poured from a great height using the right hand, the left hand is of course not used as it is impure. A glass is then handed to an expert for approval. If they are satisfied, the other glasses are filled.
Wines and spirits
Even though alcohol is forbidden in Morocco, as in most Muslim countries, wine is both produced and exported. There are three main wine regions: the first is near Oujda, the second extends from Fès to Meknès and the third from Rabat to Casablanca. White wines are generally drunk with fish and seafood (valpierre, chaudsoleil and ksar). Cabernet reds, namely Président and Guerrouane go well with beef and mutton. The Boulaouane rosé is delicious but can prove particularly treacherous! Fig alcohol, mahia, distilled at 40° is a rough, powerful drink. Flag pils or Flag spéciale beer is particularly appreciated in the hot summer months.