From succulent tagines to fiery harissa and comforting couscous, Aftab H. Kola rustles up a delicious primer to Morocco’s culinary delights and traditions.
From the spice markets of Marrakech, to the decadent bazaars of Fez, and the fragrant medinas of Casablanca, there’s no denying Morocco’s culinary splendour. It’s an influence, amid Morocco’s spice route legacy, that’s made its presence known on practically every major continent.
Situated at the confluence of the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea, wedged between Algeria and the sands of the Western Sahara, Morocco is a feast for the senses. Colourful, yet earthy, its’ incredible cuisine, folkloric souqs, historic walled cities, and warmth of Moroccan hospitality make it a hotspot on any globetrotting foodie’s bucket list.
Its rich culinary tradition stems from its equally rich history and diversity of cultural influences, from the medieval Berbers to those who have come and stayed, come and left, or just passed through – the ancient Romans, Phoenicians, and Arabs; religious exiles from Spain’s Andalucía, trans-Saharan caravans crossing its desert interiors, to the Portuguese and the English – who brought tea to Morocco in the 18th-century, and the French and the Spanish who once held sway as colonial administrators. Each culture has left its indelible mark on Morocco’s culinary profile.
Without a doubt, the two most iconic dishes that come to mind when Moroccan cuisine is mentioned are tagine and couscous – almost synonymous together. Tagine preparation creates succulence by trapping the heat within its clay-pot and is the quintessential Moroccan comfort food, and its varieties and regional variations are almost endless.
From chicken cooked with raisins, grapes, and almonds; lamb with prunes or quince; pigeon poached in its own juices with dates; quail with dried apricots; beef with apples; and duck with figs – most tagines come redolent with a variety of fragrant, sweet aromatics such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, and ginger.
Chicken tagines made with preserved lemons and olives is a more savoury variety and a sumptuously satisfying preparation that makes good use of saffron, ginger, and turmeric to anchor the dish, while the addition of olives and the preserved lemon help transform the overall flavour into something truly tangy and marvellous.
Another well-loved version is lamb or beef cooked to buttery tenderness with fragrant Moroccan seasonings and topped with luscious prunes soaked in cinnamon and honey. A more traditional tagine offering is the Berber-style variety where fork-tender lamb or and beef are hidden under a conical lid under a mountain of seasonal veggies and fluffy couscous.
A staple grain in any Moroccan pantry, for the peoples of the Maghreb (Northwest Africa), couscous has been an essential element of the daily diet and a presence in the culture of the region for more than 1,000 years. Derived from the Arabic ‘kuskus’ and the Moroccan dialect ‘k’esku’, the word ‘couscous’ as we know it, refers to both the hard-wheat semolina product, and the popular dish of which it’s the principal ingredient.
Given its status as a coastal country, both the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea supply Morocco with an abundance of fish and seafood – mainly sardines, anchovies, mackerel, and prawns. It’s a bounty that’s also left its imprint on the nation’s cultural culinary identity.
From its warming tagines and stews, to its sticky-sweet pastries and puddings, Moroccan food is synonymous with ‘comfort’. Case in point? Its popular soup, ‘harira’ – a fragrant, hearty mixture of chickpeas, lentils, lamb and celery with a depth of spices such as turmeric, cinnamon, and saffron. It’s a dish that’s traditionally served during the Holy Month of Ramadan at iftar when breaking one’s fast, as a warming bowl of harira is gentle to ingest on an empty stomach and is packed with essential vitamins.
Another hearty offering found on Moroccan menus (and which may just be at the top of the comfort food scale) is ‘b’stilla’. With its culinary origins in the city of Fez this flaky pastry pie is often stuffed with steaming hot, tender pigeon, almonds, and eggs, and delicately spiced with saffron, cinnamon, and fresh coriander. A wedding favourite, b’stilla has recently also become a street food staple in souqs and bazaars throughout the nation. Served alongside ‘zaalouk’ – a delectable smoky aubergine purée seasoned with garlic, paprika, cumin, and a dash of chili powder; and, ‘bessara’ – a purée of fava beans thinned into a soup broth, seasoned with cumin and paprika, and served with olive oil and strips of preserved meat, called ‘khlea’ – often made from beef – it’s a mighty meal indeed.
Moroccans are also known for their prolific sweet tooth – piling their plates high after celebratory meals with decadent desserts. From freshly-baked pastries and treats like ‘fekkas’ – similar to Italian biscotti; cardamom-infused ‘briouats’ – deep-fried pastry triangles stuffed with almond paste; and ‘ornes de gazelles’ (gazelle horns) – crescent-shaped pastries filled with almond paste and scented with cinnamon and orange flower, there’s no shortage of satisfying nibbles to wash down with a delicate glass of piping-hot Moroccan mint tea.
This deliciously fragrant and warmingly bowl of goodness is the perfect mid-week meal to make mid-winter – rich with veggies, meaty, and redolent with comforting spice.
• 25 g butter
• 300 g cubed lamb meat
• 100 g chopped celery
• 2 small red onions, chopped
• 1 tsp turmeric
• ½ tsp ground cinnamon
• ½ tsp ground ginger
• ½ tsp ground paprika
• ½ tsp saffron strands
• pepper to taste
• 1 can peeled tomatoes
• 1 tbsp tomato paste
• 1.5 litres beef stock
• 140 g green lentils
• 100 g dried chickpeas, soaked overnight and drained
• 2 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
• 2 Tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
• 100 g vermicelli pasta
• 2 Tbsp corn flour
• lemon quarters, to serve.
• Melt the butter into a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the lamb, celery, onions, turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, paprika, and saffron strands. Season and stir frequently for five minutes.
• Mix the peeled tomatoes and tomato paste to a sauce and pour into the mixture. Let simmer for ten minutes.
• Pour in 1.5 litres of beef stock, add in the lentils and chickpeas, and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer, covered, for two hours until the chickpeas are tender. Add, from time to time, a little more water if necessary.
• About ten minutes before serving, turn the heat to medium-high. Add the chopped fresh cilantro, parsley, and vermicelli pasta to the soup. Boil until the soup noodles are al dente. Lower the heat again.
• Bind the soup with corn flour. In order to do so, put the corn flour in a glass or small bowl. Gradually stir some cold water into the cornstarch until it becomes completely smooth. Pour it into the soup while gently stirring until it thickens slightly. Serve hot, with lemon quarters to taste.