A Foodie's Guide to Exploring Morocco

Marrakech, Morocco.
Marrakech, Morocco. 16:9clue
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From ancient spice markets to freshly picked saffron, Morocco overflows with color and flavor. A longtime crossroads for the African, Islamic, and Mediterranean worlds, Morocco's traditional recipes draw influence from around the region, layering flavors in ways that have been handed down from generation to generation. Hospitality is revered here, and sharing food is the quickest way to make friends. You are offered endless glasses of sweet mint tea, and family members use their fingers to eat from a single tagine dish that steams with aromatic herbs.

A traveler to Morocco can experience this beautiful cuisine in three ways: shopping the food souqs, participating in the cooking, and, of course, eating. Depending on the season, you could even add a fourth by participating in a harvest. Morocco offers luxurious evenings around a dinner table, locally grown spices and rich oils, and ingredients sourced fresh from the farm and the sea. With nine different regional cuisines, Morocco is filled with possibilities for anyone who loves food.

Classic Flavors

The tangine, a rounded baking dish with a conical lid, is the centerpiece of Moroccan cooking.
The tangine, a rounded baking dish with a conical lid, is the centerpiece of Moroccan cooking. Kevin Gessner

The symbol of the Moroccan kitchen is the clay tagine, a round baking dish with a conical lid. Fresh meat and vegetables are layered inside the tagine base, with aromatic spices throughout—each cook adds the ingredients to taste—and the food cooks gently over warm coals. Nuts like almonds or walnuts and fruits like dates, figs, and apricots are very popular. While the food relies on a wide variety of spices, it's seldom "spicy"—as in hot—as we refer to it in North America.

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Traditional tagines are served with fresh-baked bread or hand-rolled couscous and accompanied by a kaleidoscope of vegetable salads made with sliced oranges, grated carrots, eggplants, tomatoes, cucumbers, and cooked beets. Another favorite meal is b’ssara, fava bean soup swirled with local olive oil and freshly ground cumin. Street-corner vendors grill fish fresh from the Atlantic with a chermoula marinade of cilantro, garlic, lemon, and spices.

Sweet and savory combinations are a hallmark of Moroccan cooking that harkens back to the Islamic conquest—the most beloved example may be b’stilla, a tender meat pie made with slivered almonds, cinnamon, sugar, and flaky, phyllo-like warqa dough that’s especially prized in the Imperial city of Fes.

From the Sea

The morning catch in Essaouira, Morocco.
The morning catch in Essaouira, Morocco. Julia Maudlin

Walk to the shore at the first call to prayer and you’ll find fisherman in colorful boats headed out to sea. The Canary Current nourishes schools of bonito, tuna, and sardines along the west coast, and the UNESCO-listed port city of Essaouira is the perfect place to try each day’s freshest catch. Visit the fishing pier to try tiny sardines roasted over coal braziers, or order rich fish tagine packed with farm-fresh vegetables. Two hours up the coast, Oualidia is the country’s bivalve capital, with a sheltered lagoon that produces large, succulent oysters. Slurp one raw with a squeeze of fresh lemon or ask one of the seaside vendors to grill them over hot coals on the beach.

Wine, Juice, and Berber Whiskey

Sweet mint tea is a staple of the Moroccan diet.
Sweet mint tea is a staple of the Moroccan diet. Thibaut Démare

While wine has been produced in Moroccan vineyards since ancient times, the country’s conservative approach to drinking alcohol has kept local vintages under the radar. In recent years, Moroccan-made bottles have been making waves; don’t miss the spicy reds from the Beni M’Tir appellation in the foothills west of Fes or bottles from the nearby Guerrouane region, whose typically full-bodied red wines are sublime with a hearty beef tagine.

Many visitors’ most memorable drink, though, is a cool glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, a specialty of Jemaa al-Fnaa, the bustling Marrakesh central square. Dozens of identical carts serve glasses of juice for a dollar each, lined up alongside snake charmers, spice merchants, and fortune tellers.

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And at every street corner, carpet shop, and public square in the country, you’ll spot Morocco’s unofficial drink—tiny glasses of gunpowder green tea (also known as Berber whiskey) are brewed with fresh mint and served highly sweetened to toast social occasions, guests, and business deals. When drinking tea with a local, grasp the top rim of the glass with your thumb and index finger, and expect endless refills until you say: “safi” and “baraka,” or “enough!”

Spice Roads

Morocco is know for the wide variety of spices used in cooking.
Morocco is know for the wide variety of spices used in cooking. laura0509

Moroccan chefs create their deeply layered dishes with a basic palette of 10 spices: saffron, turmeric, ginger, black pepper, chili pepper, paprika, aniseed, sesame seed, cumin, and cinnamon. Of these, saffron is the most luxurious, elevating any recipe to celebration status. The finest Moroccan saffron comes from the High Atlas town of Taliouine, where fields of purple crocuses blossom from mid-October to mid-November—the saffron threads are picked by hand in the early morning and dried in the sun. Since just a few red-gold threads are enough to infuse a dish with flavor and color, saffron makes the ideal gourmet souvenir, as do the the spices that are sold in medina food markets. When selecting spices to bring home, buy like a Moroccan chef: purchase whole versions of your favorite aromatics, then grind them as needed for maximum flavor.

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Another favorite gift from Morocco is a bottle of golden yellow argan oil, a rich, nutritious oil pressed from the nuts of the argan tree. The trees grow in the arid countryside around Essaouira and are often tended by cooperatives of local women, who break the hard nut shells with stones, remove each kernel by hand, and press the nuts in small mills. The oil is processed in two ways: for cooking, the kernels will have been roasted before being pressed; for cosmetic purposes, the kernels will not have been roasted.

To ensure that you’re purchasing undiluted argan, buy direct from the cooperatives. Blend the precious oil with toasted almonds and honey to make amlou beldi, a sweet, creamy spread served with freshly baked bread. Or you can buy amlou already blended to save you the trouble. It has the consistency of a runny peanut butter with a somewhat similar taste.

Originally written for Come to the Sahara.

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