*“While there are exotic qualities in Moroccan cuisine, they are not overly strange. Fruits mixed into entrees, aromatic stews or tagines, couscous and unique North African pastries have an easy appeal to people looking for new food items.” – Jean AbiNader, MATIC*
Specialty Food Magazine, by Joanna Pruess (January 2013) — A trip to Morocco last April included a stop in Meknès, one of the four imperial cities; a motorbike ride across Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakech’s bustling main square, to cook a tangia (stew) in the embers of a hammam; and a camel ride into the Sahara where I ate and slept under the stars in a Berber camp. Along with countless memories, this adventure left me craving Moroccan food.
Crisscrossing the country for ten days allowed me to sample regional dishes in outdoor stalls, homes and modest and lofty restaurants from Fès to Merzouga, Ouarzazate to Marrakech, as well as a grillstop cafe along a winding road through the High Atlas Mountains. Admittedly, at around 11,000 feet, after numerous hairpin turns in cold rain, it took several cups of steaming mint tea and bites of flatbread to reignite my enthusiasm for the juicy charcoal-scented lamb chops. Undeniably, this eclectic cuisine—with its unique African, Andalusian, Arab, Berber, Muslim and Saharan influences—was remarkable.
A Colorful Cornucopia
The film Casablanca—likely Westerners’ most familiar view of this nation—was filmed in black and white, so viewers couldn’t appreciate the wide spectrum of hues that permeate Moroccan life. Open-air souks (markets), both free-standing and within medinas (ancient walled shopping centers), are piled with fresh ingredients in tones from deepest purple eggplants to palest celadon herbs. Tubs of creamy yellow, green, red and black olives stand alongside baskets of dried fruits, legumes and nuts. Stalls for fresh meat, live poultry and fish vendors are located in a separate area.
Morocco’s largest medina, Fès el-Bali, dating from the 9th century, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The maze of narrow streets is said to house 13,380 historic buildings and more than 10,500 retail businesses. It is accessible only by foot or mule.
Along with food vendors, medersas (religious schools), ancient mosques and tanneries, the jumbled shops are crammed with shiny bright bobbins of “silk” from agave cactus that would make Joseph’s Technicolor dream coat a reality, copper pots, fanciful Bedouin garments, art objects and naturally dyed Berber rugs and weavings. Stores range from barely two yards wide to three-story mansions of cedar.
To navigate the labyrinth, I hired an official guide, Tariq Cheb, who discussed the history and culture of medina life with me. Our four hours together included a lunch of Moroccan salad (comprising several small cold salads including roasted peppers, sauteed zucchini with tomatoes, lentils, carrots and olives in a vinaigrette) and succulent chicken tagine over tender onions, made with salt-preserved lemons (an important ingredient in many dishes) and topped with prunes, toasted almonds and sesame seeds. Following Tariq’s lead, I began eating as most Moroccans do, with the thumb and two fingers of my right hand, using pieces of flatbread to scoop up bites of food.
Moroccans have a reputation for friendliness and hospitality. I was thrilled when Tariq and his wife, Soumiya, formerly the chef of a local restaurant, invited me to dinner, because the best Moroccan food is said to be served in homes. As a chance to sample some authentic dishes, this meal did not disappoint.
Along with harira, a fragrant tomato, lentil and chickpea soup redolent of fresh herbs and ginger (and a Ramadan staple), Soumiya prepared pastilla (or b’stilla), a labor-intensive Berber specialty of Fès. It is traditionally made with squab or chicken first simmered in garlic-, ginger- and saffron-flavored broth. When cooled, the meat is shredded and seasoned, then combined with eggs, coriander, parsley and a little honey and layered inside flaky brik pastry (a cross between spring-roll wrappers and phyllo) and baked until golden. Soumiya used honey along with toasted almonds and cinnamon, but many pastillas are decorated with confectioners’ sugar and cinnamon.
The combination of textures and flavors made a complex yet comforting dish that I longed to keep eating. Given the amount of eggs and butter used to saute and brush the pastry, I asked Tariq if Moroccans were concerned about health. He noted there are some fish and even vegetarian pastillas that are popular.
Soumiya’s dessert of sliced oranges was laid out in a pinwheel pattern and sprinkled with orange water and cinnamon. In Morocco, care is taken with the presentation and aesthetics of even simple foods. There was also a plate of cookies, including the tender shortbread ghryba that were irresistible.
Moroccan seasoning is generous but not particularly spicy. The hottest food I tasted was harissa, a North African red paste made with piri piri chiles. The condiment originally came from Tunisia, says Paula Wolfert—whose cookbook, Foods of Morocco, was a 2012 James Beard Award winner—but is used in Morocco, as well. The flavors in Moroccan cuisine are also not overwhelming: Seasonings are more about a purposeful blend of sweet and savory herbs, spices and pantry ingredients.
Along with fresh herbs, frequently used spices include ginger, turmeric, saffron, cinnamon, cumin and different peppers, including hot and sweet paprika. One of the most distinctive seasonings is ras el hanout, a mixture of ground spices that often includes chile peppers, coriander, cardamom, cumin, clove, nutmeg and turmeric. The name means “head of the shop” and it suggests the blend is the best the spice seller has to offer.
Most kitchens I visited were modest. Essential tools include a couscoussier, a two-piece pot in which to steam couscous—the national dish—until light and fluffy, at least one conical terra-cotta pot, or tagine, with a flame diffuser to protect the dish from the direct heat of charcoal, and a grill basket. (Editor’s note: See Prepared Food Focus on p. 94 for three tagine recipes.)
As I was leaving, Soumiya gifted me with a lovely scarf that a few days later the Berber nomads in Merzouga wrapped around my head Tuareg-style before my camel, Bendidi, and I trekked into the Sahara. As the easterly Chergui winds blew across the desert, my headdress afforded invaluable protection against the microdermabrasion-like blowing sand and rain.
Exploring the Countryside
While in Fès, I hired Hassan Chahyd to drive me to other regions. Soon after leaving town, we came to a Berber village where Hassan bought a couple of breads, including a round, flat variety called khobz dyal smida, made of white and semolina flours and cooked on a griddle. Most bread is baked in communal ovens, and it is not uncommon to see young boys carrying trays of dough on their head on the way to the bakery. For breakfast I spread it with the most delicious mixture of ground almond, argan oil and honey.
At one cafe, Hassan showed me how to made kofte, forming meat in cigar shapes on skewers before grilling. I was struck by the care with which he chose the ingredients and seasonings, refusing to use pre-ground meat. Driving through the Atlas Mountains, he pointed out the abundant sheep. For weddings and important ceremonies in Berber villages, a meshwi, or barbecue, is prepared in which a lamb or goat is roasted whole in a pit or underground.
Once back in Marrakech, Hassan introduced me to a tangia, a stew and also the name of the urn-shaped terra-cotta pot it in which it is cooked. The stew is typical of this city and is usually prepared by men. The pot is cooked in the basement of a hammam (or Turkish bath) where there is a wood-burning stove that heats the water for the baths, a centuries-old tradition. The tangia is cooked collectively for four hours and each person is given a number to return to claim their stew when it’s done.
The kindness and hospitality of the Moroccan people, their delicious foods and distinctive ingredients are among my most lasting memories. Returning home with me were packets of ras el hanout, a jar of harissa and a bottle of argan oil. Happily, these ingredients are readily available in the U.S., so a chance to experience these flavors again doesn’t seem so far away. |SFM|
For PDF of article including great recipes, click on:
Morocco’s Increasing Imports and Flavor Trends
Americans first fell in love with Casablanca in the Bogart-Bergman film. But even people too young to recall Rick’s Cafe are becoming more interested in Morocco. Not only is the North African country generally considered a safe and friendly destination in the region, its complex, fragrant and satisfying cuisine is becoming more readily available in U.S. food stores and restaurants.
“This is a result of three converging factors,” says Jean AbiNader, executive director of the Moroccan American Trade & Investment Center in Washington, D.C. “First, there are more Moroccan-Americans in the U.S., and opening a restaurant is an easy, though labor-intensive, entry into the business world. Next, over the past 20 years, Americans have been exposed to Mediterranean cuisines, like Lebanese, and appreciate the taste, variety and use of healthy ingredients. Finally, while there are exotic qualities in Moroccan cuisine, they are not overly strange. Fruits mixed into entrees, aromatic stews or tagines, couscous and unique North African pastries have an easy appeal to people looking for new food items.”
In 2011, the U.S. imported more than $185 million of fish, shellfish, fruit, vegetables, food oils, bakery and confectionery products, tea, spices, and wine from Morocco, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. As importers continue to search global markets for high-quality provisions at favorable prices, Morocco seeks to be a willing trading partner.
The country’s efforts have been aided by promotions with U.S. retailers, including a chain-wide program in 2010 between New York Food Emporium and Maroc Export, the Casablanca-based organization that promotes Moroccan products abroad. Food Emporium highlights olives, olive oil, processed agricultural products like peppers and tomato paste, and goods such as canned anchovy, says Michael Blakeley, director of enterprise assistance for the Morocco New Business Opportunities project at Nathan Associates, an economic consulting firm that specializes in markets in transitional and developing countries. Blakeley arranged an initial meeting between the retail chain and Maroc Export at the 2009 Summer Fancy Food Show in New York.
“One of the key things I did was to help with packaging and explain the distribution channels so manufacturers knew who to promote to and how to service them. That led to an increased presence in the market,” Blakeley explains.
“Between 2010 and 2011, categories with significant U.S. sales increases included citrus fruit (up to $15.6 million from $12.2 million), olive oil (up to $51.2 million from $32.9 million) and vegetables (up to $2.7 million from $1.4 million),” says Saad Benabdallah, director general at Maroc Export.
“This is a long way from when a few bulk olive-oil importers were importing direct from Morocco,” Blakeley continues. “There are even prepared Moroccan meals available in freezers and dishes like couscous that are now thoroughly identified with Morocco as opposed to just from the Middle East.”
One example is argan oil. Known as “Moroccan gold,” the highly prized, nutty-tasting oil used for dressing salads and dipping bread was unfamiliar in the States until a few years ago. By 2012, a variety imported by Mediterranean Gourmet, Washburn, Va., became a sofi Silver Finalist in the Outstanding Oil category. Owner Mounsif Golab launched his company three years ago to meet rising consumer demand.
“People who visited my country always told me they loved the food,” he says. “I felt there was a substantial need to increase ethnic products as a cultural bridge and to offer our preservative-free foods with different tastes at good value. The response has been very enthusiastic, especially with [retailers] like Whole Foods and Garden of Eden.”
Argan oil also represents a growing dedication to social consciousness in Morocco’s food sector, as the country institutes significant initiatives to improve the quality of life for its people. Argan oil is largely produced by women’s cooperatives that allow once-disenfranchised Berber women in the countryside to earn a fair price for their kernels from argan trees, and to ensure that women and their products are part of the supply chain. The demand for argan oil is currently so great that the government plans to boost production, currently at 2,500 tons, to 4,000 tons by 2020.
Moroccans are also dedicated to organic production. “Morocco was one of the first African countries to start organic production in the early 1990s,” says Debra Klodowski, a researcher at MATIC. “It started in Marrakech and rapidly spread to other regions. No matter the social class, there is a large market for organic products in Morocco. Actually, traditional Moroccan eating habits encourage organic food production and treatment. An ancient Moroccan farming technique known as beldi yields a product extremely similar to a certified organic product.”
In the U.S., several companies are responding to the growing interest in Moroccan foods and flavors. American Halal Company, Stamford, Conn., offers Moroccan meals as part of its Saffron Road Foods brand. The company recently added Moroccan Lamb Stew with Couscous to its ethnic frozen-entree line, and its simmer sauces include Moroccan Tagine. While made in the U.S., the recipes were developed from Moroccan sources to evoke the colorful and flavorful foods in Marrakech and Fès, says Jack Acree, executive vice president.
“The trend of using ethnic spices in mainstream gourmet products has been on the rise for several years,” says Mary O’Donnell, CEO of Terrapin Ridge Farms, Clearwater, Fla., which introduced a Moroccan Date Sauce in January 2012 that pairs well with chicken or grilled eggplant. “Today’s consumers are not as intimidated to try new condiments and use them in different ways. It was a natural fit for us to experiment with Moroccan spices and sweet dates after seeing a hole in the industry [for such a sauce]. We received a lot of positive feedback on the flavor profile, so we are working on additional Moroccan-influenced products.”