Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Guide to Moroccan Cuisine

It is not very often that The View from Fez takes issue with Lonely Planet. Our survey of tourists showed that the LP Morocco Guide and city guides such as Fez Encounter are the favoured guide books of most travellers. However, a recent online article featured on Lonely Planet’s website did raise some eyebrows and generated several emails asking about the odd tone, inaccurate information and glaring omissions. The article was headed “Top 10 tips for devouring Moroccan cuisine”. Ibn Warraq delves deeper:

Some people just love to make lists; “ten of this”, “the best twenty of that”. However, this list is rather confused and desperately in need of a revamp. The article suggested it was offering “the top ten things that foodies should know to get the most out of culinary Morocco.” At first glance the focus appeared to be on Marrakech – “ Even atheists find foodie religion in Marrakesh, where the dishes keep coming until you protest ’Alhamdulillah‘, or ‘Praise be to God’. “

But then the article talked about b’stilla which is not a Marrakech specialty, but probably the most famous dish from Fez. The Marrakech specialty using the special b'stilla pastry is trid (layers of soft waraka pastry with lamb and spices ) which has its origins in an ancient Amazigh (Berber) recipe found in many remote villages. You can get some of the best trid at Dar Zellij but it is wise to order it in advance when you make your booking.


The article carries a bold claim that Moroccans have “hand-picked Spain’s favourite ingredients”. This is a myth that is far from the truth. Many people think that due to the fact Morocco was in French and Spanish possession for periods in the 19th and 20th centuries, Moroccan cuisine has been heavily influenced by the French and the Spanish. While some ideas have been shared, its culinary culture traces its roots firmly to the indigenous Berbers and Arabs, who invaded the land in the 7th century CE.

Fruits and vegetables have always been grown and fish and seafood are plentiful due to the long coastline, while Morocco's inland environment has always been perfect for the raising of large flocks of sheep and goats. Many spices such as cumin, paprika and turmeric were introduced by the Arabs as was their tradition of cooking meat with fruit such as dates, raisins and figs.

This is a region marked by geographic, political, social, economic and cultural diversity, and the cuisine and the culinary style and art of North Africa are also as diverse as the land, its people and its history. The roots to North African cuisine can be traced back over 2000 years, with that of ancient Egypt covering a span of over three thousand years.

Over several centuries traders, travellers, invaders, slaves, migrants and immigrants all have influenced the cuisine of North Africa. The Phoenicians of the 1st century brought sausages, the Carthaginians introduced wheat and its by product, semolina. The Berbers adapted this into couscous, one of the main staples. Olives and olive oil were introduced before the arrival of the Romans. From the 7th century onwards, the Arabs introduced a variety of spices like saffron, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and cloves, which contributed to and influenced the culinary culture of North Africa. The Ottoman Turks brought sweet pastries and other bakery products, and from the New World, North Africa got potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini and chili peppers.

The cuisine of the Maghreb is primarily a mixture of Berber and Arab culinary traditions, with some European and Jewish influences and, contrary to the Lonely Planet article, I would say there is a good case that Moroccan cuisine made its way to Spain rather than the other way around.


Vegetarians, as the article notes, are well catered for, but far more than is suggested. Think, loubia (spiced beans) fuul (spiced broadbeans), lentils, fried aubergines/peppers, all of which add to vegetarian options. And for dessert, the traditional sliced oranges with cinnamon is a good choice. A walk through the souq will amaze the visitor with the fabulous array of vegetables, fruit, dried fruit and nuts and soft white cheese for self-caterers or for snacking vegetarians. Because the produce is so fresh and seasonal, the varieties on offer can and do change week by week.


There is no mention at all in the article of another important Moroccan traditional food group – fish. Not only is Morocco the world’s major producer of sardines, the fresh seafood is superb and varied (I suggest you try some rolled in chermoula and fried). And of course there are the famous oysters from Oualidia. Essaouira is renowned for its portside fish barbeques and in its restaurants (I suggest you check out Taros in Place Moulay Hassan), cold seafood salads drizzled with argan oil.


Then there are the Moroccan wines. While the article mentions some of the better labels, it omits the more recent labels such as Volubilis, Eclipse and Halana. The famous Moroccan gris wines are not even mentioned! Other favourites include Médaillon, Les Coteaux de L’Atlas and the sometimes hard to find Mogador wines. If you are in Marrakech or Essaouira I suggest you visit the producers of Gazelle de Mogador, the Domaines Du Val D’Argan. This winery is just 30k from Essaouira and produces some of the best wines in Morocco. It was established in 1994 by the current owner, Charles Mélia. He and his employees only speak French. They have over 900 hectolitres of wine, which is equal to about 120,000 bottles.


One word of caution about the street food: yes, it is safer and better than almost any of the tourist “palace restaurants”, but with the svenge (fried doughnuts) and mekouda (potato fritters), it is wise to check out that the oil used for cooking is fresh.


The article mentions my friend Lahcen Beqqi, but do take note, Lahcen is in Fez, not Marrakech. Also in Fez there is now a fierce competition in culinary tours and cooking lessons. Fez Foods has become very popular with their gastronomic tours to olive and wine producers, their hands-on couscous rolling, as well a remarkable experience where you get to make a tangia at the butcher's on the street, take it to the ferran (bakery) to slow-cook for 6 hours and then eat!

Of course, if you get invited to eat with a family, you can be in for anything from superb to woeful because, as is true in all parts of the world, not all cooks are equal! That said, I am not a great couscous fan (you can get too much of a good thing), but one of the best meals I ever had was a couscous with chilli and a little bit of meat, with fresh (unpasteurised) buttermilk poured over it, in a family gite high in the Valley of the Roses.

B’saha – Ibn Warraq

PS If you are looking for fine food in Fez, take a look at our updated guide here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Moors dominated southern Spain while much of Europe was dying with Bubonic Plague in the Dark Ages. The Moors brought with them to Andalusia irrigation systems, architecture and most likely a few recipes. Anyone who has traveled much in Morocco and Spain will see resemblances in many dishes.
On couscous:
Before Moroccans adopted some European tastes such as baguettes, baguettes, the staple cereal in Morocco was mainly barley.