The cuisine of a land is a fusion of history and cultures… of flavours brought in by marauding invaders, maritime tradesmen, refugees crossing the borders and camel-borne merchants traversing the deserts.
One such oriental, inter-continental cuisine that’s left its mark on the world food map is that of Morocco, the mountainous country of western North Africa, that lies directly across the Strait of Gibraltar, off Spain.
Morocco’s hoary heritage of food in its purest form is what’s handed down by its indigenous people, the Berbers, who 2000 years ago, knew the art of cooking traditionally-rich food. They had cuisine-specific utensils in which food was allowed to simmer for long hours. The Berbers were past masters in the art of drying and preserving meat which they called “khlea” or “khlii”.
Most of Morocco’s main centres of trade and commerce like Fez, Rabat, Marrakesh and Meknes have separate cuisine styles which mark their identities. The Moroccans have five square meals a day with two full ones in the morning.
An invasion of flavours
The Arabs invaded Morocco in the 7th century and merged their customs and food fetishes with that of the vanquished. And from India, China and Malaysia came cinnamon, ginger, paprika, cumin, turmeric and various other spices. The Persian influence manifested in the wide use of nuts, dry fruits and saffron. Later on, the Muslim Moors from neighbouring Spain brought olives and olive oil to Morocco in the 8th century. The Moors taught the Berbers how to grow fruit and lemon gardens. The Jewish Moors who came in later taught the local folks how to pickle food, fruits, especially.
The Ottoman Turks who came in later brought kebabs to Morocco and taught the people how to roast and bake meat wrapped in masalas, over spits and embers.
Then followed Morocco’s long innings of affluence under various dynasties… of the Almoravids in the 11th century, the Almohades in the 12th century, the Merinides from the 13th to the 15th centuries and the Saadians from the 15th and 16th centuries. The power and pelf of these ruling houses saw Moroccan cuisine reach heights of oriental flavours.
With the French invasion of Morocco in 1912, the café culture also became a part of the country’s culture. Bakery food, wine and ice cream became modern Morocco’s signature style. With food flavours from across Sub Saharan Africa wafting in, Moroccan cuisine became an amalgam of Arabic, Andalusian, Mediterranean and Sub Saharan flavours with a dash of Europe thrown in.
Morocco has its identity stamped on its earthen cookware which has a conical lid called Tajine.
A confluence of flavours
With a coastline of 3000 km, Morocco has the Atlantic Ocean for its border on the west and the Mediterranean Sea to its north. This is reason enough for the country to have bountiful catches of fish like mackerel, sardine, tuna, prawn, lobster, spider crab, giant shark, pilchard and anchovy with which the Moroccans dress up their dining tables. Morocco is also one of the world’s leading sardine exporters. In addition to its huge wealth of fruit farms, the country also grows saffron, mint, olive, orange, lemon and grapes and also exports them.
Moroccan dishes are high on spices. The country’s special dish, Ras el hanout, is a mix of 27 different spices. Cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, ginger, paprika, coriander, saffron, nutmeg, cloves, aniseed, mace, red chilly, pepper, fenugreek and sesame are some of the main ingredients with which the dish is cooked.
Mint, parsley, coriander leaves, oregano, peppermint, marjoram, verbena, sage and bay laurel are used lavishly. For a more exotic aroma and flavour, pickled lime, Argan oil, unrefined olive oil and dry fruits are added to mutton, lamb, chicken and seafood.
Call couscous the national food of Morocco. The dry ingredient is placed in a steamer which is kept atop a heap of boiled vegetables. The couscous expands when in contact with the steam. The dish takes over an hour to get cooked. The couscous in the steamer needs to be given a prod from time to time. When the whole stuff is ready, the fully expanded couscous is spread on a plate over which the vegetables are laid out. The dish, not an easy one to manoeuvrer, is therefore, made only on special occasions.
Bread and mint tea
There are breads plenty. A bread called Bobs is had with either cheese or honey. Breads come in wheat, soft, round or flat, white or brown forms. They are baked in specially made chulhas. The Spongia, the buttery Harcha and the layered Rghaif are some of the special breads.
Green tea with a mix of Moroccan mint is an exotic drink and its usual for families to sit around, socialize and sip the delicious tea. What’s special about the tea is the traditional way it’s made. The liquid being poured out into the glasses from long-spouted Moroccan tea pots is a sight to behold.
The Bessera is a beans soup. Most workers have a bowl or two of the soup along with their bread before setting off for the day. Olive oil and lime are added to the soup for lunch. There’s usually a topping of chillies and cumin in the soup. What defines its taste is the lavish use of garlic.
Another super speciality is the snail soup. Made with 15 varieties of spices, the medicinal soup is touted to be an ideal cure for fevers and gastric ailments. The snails are skinned with toothpicks and their flesh eaten. The soup is had only after the snails are downed. Harira, made with tomatoes is another traditional soup.
Salads with different mixes, desserts with seasonal fruits, shawarma, steamed goat’s head, stuffed camel spleen, batter-fried, masala-stuffed sardines, orange juices, potato makowday, broasted chicken and desserts like Gazelle and Halwa Chebakia are some of Morocco's celebrated dishes.