Morocco brings to mind vast deserts, intricately woven carpets, handmade zellij or mosaic tilework made with green, blue, and red hues. However, when it comes to food, it is tagine, a rich and fragrant chicken stew laden with spices, followed by bastilla, a savoury pie and the famed couscous with vegetables or couscous bidaoui.
Seasoned with history and marinated in cultural influences, Moroccan cuisine is more complex than what meets the eye. Gulf News Food took a step into the world of sophisticated and diverse aromas and flavours of Morocco.
A dash of Amazigh, Arabia, Andalusia and Africa
Morocco’s initial inhabitants were the Berbers, an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa. They first came to the country approximately 2000 years ago and brought along dates and figs, used in large quantities to prepare meat stews. Post the Berbers’ influence, Morocco was exposed to several Arab traditions through traders, who introduced bread, grains and spices such as ginger, cumin, caraway and saffron, in the country during the seventh century. They were the first to introduce the ‘sweet and sour’ cooking styles to Moroccans.
In Moroccan cooking, we use Argan oil as salad dressing, for both savoury and sweet recipes, and even as cooking oil.
We caught up with 52-year-old Moroccan celebrity Chef Choumicha Chafay, who said: “Moroccan cuisine is influenced by the history and geography of our country – we have Amazigh, Arabic, Andalusia, African influences in our cooking. We take every nice aspect from every country. For example, our sauces are inspired by Asia, our tea comes from China, and so on.
“When it comes to cooking, we use a lot of saffron. But, we also use Argan oil, which is often associated with cosmetics and beauty regimes. In Moroccan cooking, we use Argan oil as salad dressing, for both savoury and sweet recipes, and even as cooking oil. You can also drizzle it as a condiment for couscous, vegetables, salads, and eggs.”
With the passage of time, Moroccan cuisine took its influences from Europeans, Ottomans, the French, British, and Spaniards.
Spices of Morocco
One of the most famous spices of Morocco is ras al hanout, which translates to ‘head of shop’. We spoke to 25-year-old Moroccan expatriate Fatim Zahra, who works as a flight attendant in Dubai, who said: “We are known for our famed Moroccan spice, known as ras el hanout. It combines eight different spices and is used quite often in Moroccan cooking. Cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, ginger, paprika, coriander, saffron, mace, cloves, fennel, anise, nutmeg, cayenne pepper, fenugreek, caraway, black pepper and sesame seeds are some of the common spices in every kitchen.”
Another common ingredient used in Moroccan cooking is smen or preserved butter, which is prepared using unsalted butter and Kosher salt. Once prepared, it is fermented for a month or longer until it develops a strong flavour.
Chef Chafay also highlights the labour-intensive process that goes into perfecting the cuisine, especially since there are several cooking styles such as stewing meats and vegetables in thick broths or sauces known as marqa or marka, maslouq (boiling), m'bakh khar (steaming), mechoui (grilling), fel ferran (baking), m'hammar (roasting), and binnarine (cooking between two fires). “The preparation of Moroccan plates is not easy as it is a long process. We don’t use the traditional tools as much, but our ingredients remain the same. Moroccan cuisine is all about the ingredients, and I have personally adapted to using new technologies and modern tools as much as I can to simplify the steps by keeping the traditional, authentic taste of Moroccan food.”
Today, Moroccan cuisine is all about eating delicious food and following traditions.
A Friday in Morocco is incomplete without couscous and vegetables. Ask any Moroccan, and they will tell you the same. Often known as the national dish of Morocco, the dish symbolises happiness and abundance. Made in a large double-chambered steaming pot or couscoussier, the dish is made using vegetables, broth, a few mild spices and is then steamed to perfection.
Dubai-based 25-year-old actor and model Hamza Sadir said that he believes it is a one-way ticket to home every time he eats couscous. However, it is his mum’s version that he loves more: “It has been four years since I visited Morocco, and the one thing I miss is my mother’s couscous and vegetables. Lunch is usually when we have this, and it follows a specific cooking style. The dish is available in the UAE, but nothing matches my mum’s – I know everyone would say that, but when in Morocco, couscous is a must.”
Couscous became a staple in Moroccan cuisine because wheat was readily available to all. The dish is reason enough for families to gather and have a hearty meal in this communal society. When served, couscous can be rolled into balls and eaten by hand or spoon.
Another Dubai-based expatriate, 27-year-old Amal Chahidi, who works as a customer care coordinator, said couscous is “a family tradition”: “Every Friday, when couscous is made, we know it means a family gathering. It is a tradition for us because we have followed it for several years now – it makes it sort of ‘sacred’, you could say because we all gather to eat this dish after our prayers. However, there is a slight difference because the meat and the vegetables we get in Morocco … so there is a slight difference in taste.”
...it [couscous] brings this emotional aspect, which we can never find elsewhere. It’s been a tradition in my grandparents’ house for as long as I remember, and since I can’t travel back as often, I try and perfect the dish by making it at home.
There’s also an emotional connection with preparing and making couscous in Morocco – maybe it is the feeling of home or the tradition attached to it. For Dubai-based 24-year-old football player Anouar Masdour, “Couscous is more than just a traditional Moroccan dish. Sure, it is eaten every Friday, but it brings this emotional aspect, which we can never find elsewhere. It’s been a tradition in my grandparents’ house for as long as I remember, and since I can’t travel back as often, I try and perfect the dish by making it at home.”
Meals of Morocco
Did you know, Moroccans eat a five-course meal every day? Breakfast usually features Moroccan mint tea or coffee, M’semen bread, a flatbread made with durum wheat semolina, dry yeast, melted preserved butter or smen, sugar, salt and water. Once kneaded, the bread is folded into squares. The flatbread can also be made using a meat filling and is often served with honey, black olives, olive oil and cheese.
Lunch begins with salads, followed by tagine and dwaz atay or tea cookies. Speaking of tea, Moroccans also serve tea maghrebi in a specific manner, wherein they pour the brew from a height. “It is to perfect the foam that forms on top. The tea is brew using mint leaves and gun powder green tea, which we traditionally call chum,” said chef Chafay.
The Moroccan style of tea pouring is also considered a ritual. Sugar and tea must be balanced, and pouring the brew from a height infuses the flavour of mint. It is viewed as an act of respect towards the guest, so tea is served before every meal.
Each city, or area in Morocco has a distinct cooking style and flavour
“There is also something known as desert tea. I am from the south of Morocco – each city, or area in Morocco has a distinct cooking style and flavour – so this tea is absolute bliss during the summer,” said Sadir.
Dinner meals in Moroccan families often feature tagine and Moroccan white bread, which is known as khobz. “You can make it [tagine] with chicken, lamb or even seafood. Tagine is actually cooked in earthenware, which has the same name. It is a conical pot with a shallow base… you can also make stews in it. We call it marqa or maraq at home,” said Chahidi.
Ramadan, Eid Al Adha and other occasions
We also serve rfissa – which is a trid or pastry made using stewed chicken, seasoned broth which comprises of Moroccan ras el hanout and lentils – to celebrate happy occasions.
“During Eid al Adha, we always have a large breakfast with Moroccan pancakes – m’semen and baghrir with honey along with other Moroccan pastries and desserts. Every Moroccan family begins the celebration with sweets,” said 34-year-old Dubai-based Moroccan expatriate, Ghita Antra, who works as an assistant director. “We also serve rfissa – which is a trid or pastry made using stewed chicken, seasoned broth which comprises of Moroccan ras el hanout and lentils – to celebrate happy occasions.”
Moroccan sweets include halwa chebakia or Moroccan sesame cookies with honey, ghriba or crescent-shaped almond cookies, almond briouat and maamoul or stuffed dates.
Weddings usually feature meaty dishes, among which the humble bastilla is served primarily. Made after a laborious process, bastilla can be sweet, savoury, or even both. “If you don’t have bastilla for a wedding, then the celebration feels incomplete,” said Masdour.
Ramadan is a very auspicious time for us. So once our fast ends during Ramadan, we usually prepare Harira soup and Briouates
For many Moroccans, Harira soup, made with vegetables, spices, and meat, is prepared during Ramadan and is comfort food for many. “Ramadan is a very auspicious time for us. So once our fast ends during Ramadan, we usually prepare Harira soup and Briouates – which are puff pastries that use a meat filling, cheese, lemon and pepper – and are served along with Moroccan salads, to balance cold with hot,” said Zahra.
Even funerals have a specific set of dishes prepared, highlights Masdour: “It’s divided in two types – main course and fruits. So, we have at least three different types of chicken dishes made for funerals and is prepared to honour the memory of our loved ones. It is like a feast, with a deeper emotional meaning.”
A healthy, flavoursome and diverse cuisine
A lot about the cuisine is said, but Moroccans want to tell the world that their food is more than just tagine and couscous. It is healthy, it is diverse, and it is universal.
“Moroccan cuisine is very healthy in general. Most dishes contain vegetables and rely on whole grains, freshly prepared food, spices and sweet fruit rather than refined sugar and deep-frying. Couscous is healthier than rice and a lot of use of olive oil. Most Moroccans do prefer eating at home and love home-cooked meals as it is fresh,” said Zahra.
For Ghrita, “Moroccan cuisine is very diverse, and each region from Morocco has a special dish they are known for, and it caters to a variety of palettes.”
Now that you have an idea about Moroccan cuisine, try out these traditional recipes from Bab Al Mansour’s kitchen:
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