It is morning in Morocco. As the sun rises over the Sahara and bathes the country in brilliant desert light, food vendors prepare their shops for another busy day. In remote medieval villages, eggplant, chickpeas, honey, and cuts of lamb are carted in straight from farms. In bustling city medinas, mounds of spices the color of mustard, rose, and emerald are artfully shaped into cones. Seaside, the daily catch of shrimp, sea bream, and lobster is hauled to market stalls. This is Morocco’s fresh bounty, the foundation for one of the world’s most colorful and dizzying (and spiced up!) cuisines.
You might start your day with fruits and tart yogurt. Papayas, kiwis and grapefruit are favorites. And you’ll witness the French influence firsthand with baguettes and croissants, though the French might be out-baked by a local, circular loaf of khubz or the spongy baghrir, particularly if they’re smothered in amlou, a nutty spread made of almonds and argan oil. Mint tea is also a staple in the morning – or any time of day, really. If coffee is more your (caffeinated) speed, cappuccino, espresso, or coffee with milk is on the menu at any cafe.
The beauty of so much Moroccan cuisine is its earthy simplicity. The food on your plate is intimately connected to geography and culture. Indeed, very little seems imported. Harira is one example. This universal soup starts with a stock of chickpea, tomato, bean, and pasta. But region-by-region and family-by-family, the end concoction varies. Salads, too, are a farm-to-table favorite, a celebration of the fresh vegetables grown as far out as the edge of the Sahara. Salade Marocain is most often served in restaurants – a modest relish of diced tomato, cucumber, and green pepper. An entire salad course, called meze, might be more satisfying, consisting of small dishes of zaalouk (an eggplant dip), baby potatoes, sweet carrots, pureed pumpkin warmed with spice, and tomato relish.
As in so many cultures, dinner is the main meal, except perhaps on Friday holy day when the midday meal takes center stage. It is a social occasion full of cook’s pride and family conversation.
Couscous, Morocco’s national dish dating to the 13th century, is always on the table. Lamb, beef, or chicken – skewered and spiced with a family’s ras el hanout, or secret blend of 10-30 spices – is the main course. (Vegetarianism is rare in Morocco.) The heartier tagine is a mouth-watering casserole or stew named for the conical pot in which it is cooked. Tagine recipes reflect the Moroccan taste for dishes that are at once savory and sweet: beef and prunes … chicken with lemon … lamb with dates. Another sweet and savory option is pastille, a delicacy. This pastry is wrapped around a mixture of shredded chicken or squab, egg, and crushed almonds, then sprinkled with cinnamon or sugar.
Contrary to belief, Morocco is not a dry country, but social propriety with alcohol tends to be strictly followed by locals and visitors. It might also surprise you that Morocco is home to a few well established wineries. Discovery Tours visits its southernmost vineyard, located on the Atlantic coast a short distance from Essaouira. The French winemaker here has owned the vineyard since 1994, and we think you’ll agree he has mastered the art of producing wine in a hot climate. (Hint: cool Atlantic breezes help!) Grenache, Mourvedre, and Syrah are on the “red” menu; Bourboulenc, Clairette, and Muscat are on the “white.”
But make no mistake: it’s the spices and herbs that really intoxicate in Morocco. Cayenne, saffron, chilies, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, cumin, paprika, pepper. They all add an exciting extravagance to Moroccan cuisine, brightening each dish like the rising sun.