Fresh milk consumption is considered to be low, but for good reasons. As in other areas of North Africa and the Middle East, transportation and storage facilities make it difficult to distribute perishables such as fresh milk.
Whether out of taste or out of necessity, leben is a favored beverage. It is similar to buttermilk except that the natural milk from which the butter is churned is first allowed to ferment in an earthen jug. The low-fat leben is widely used especially by lower-income groups; cream and natural whole milk is used sparingly by upper classes. Served cool or slightly chilled, raipe is a type of thickened milk dish eaten as a refreshment. The milk is warmed then thickened with the addition of the pulverized powder from dried wild Moroccan artichoke hearts.
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
It was the Moors who introduced the fragrant almond, peach, and apricot trees and the bittersweet “Seville” oranges to Spain. They merely introduced luscious fruits with which they were already familiar. In season, grapes, figs, dates, and many varieties of melon are readily available even to the poor. Many varieties of olives are used in cooked dishes and salads. Green cracked olives are usually brine-cured and may be flavored with lemon, spices or garlic, the seasonings depending on the bitterness. Ripe olives, which may be any color from green to tan or purple, are usually preserved in a mix of olive oil, a little salt and lemon juice. Shriveled ripe black olives are either salt-cured or packed with the hot sauce called hrisa or harissa.
Dates are a staple everywhere in North Africa, but in one Moroccan oasis alone – Erfoud – more than 30 varieties are grown. Dates may be nibbled as a dried fruit but they are also used to stuff fish, in combination with lamb, and also in vegetable dishes as well as desserts and sweets.
Main meals are concluded with platters of fresh fruits and assorted nuts. When fresh fruits are out of season, dried fruits take their place. Dishes of assorted nuts and dried fruits are common snacks at any time.
There are times in Moroccan cuisine when the line between fruit and vegetable is not as clearly delineated as in the western world. For example, jams and sweet preserves are frequently prepared from vegetables such as types of squash or tomatoes. Fruits as well as vegetables lend their aroma and taste to many a tagine. The smooth texture and tangy pickled flavor of preserved lemons are indispensable to Moroccan cuisine. Most are preserved in salt and lemon juice; Moroccan Jews preserve their lemons with the addition of olive oil. It is not uncommon to present a whole fish stuffed with one or more dried fruits, for instance a shad stuffed with dates. Fruits and vegetables are happy mates in salads too.
Basic vegetables and staples in almost every household include onions, tomatoes, turnips (widely used in cooking, salads and also as a preserve), carrots and many varieties of squash and pumpkin. Quinces may also be used fresh or preserved. Other basics are okra, zucchini, artichokes, green peppers, eggplants, string beans, sweet potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, and many other common vegetables. Wild white truffles, wild cardoons, and wild artichokes also add their special flavors when picked in season.
MEATS AND ALTERNATES
Even though the consumption of meat is low by western standards, small amounts of meats are used so artfully in cookery that their taste permeates many dishes. The tagine, the classic Moroccan stew, can be made from any combination of meat, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and even grains. In fact, it seems if a mixture is cooked in the tagine cone-shaped casserole it is therefore a tagine, ingredients notwithstanding.
Lamb and kid head the list of preferred meats and are the most plentiful. Mutton and beef are also used and it goes without saying that no part of the animal is ever wasted; heads and innards are regarded as special treats. For festive occasions, lamb is most sought after, kid second in favor, and the poor may have to be satisfied with chicken or pigeon meat.
Moroccans cook their meats as part of a tagine (with endless combinations of fruits, vegetables, and spices), grilled as mechoui, or sometimes made into sausages (usually from innards). Any odd bits and pieces are usually finely ground and richly spiced to form kefta, which refers to any ground meat mixture. Kefta may have many variations; it may be shaped like finger sausages and skewer-grilled, formed into meatballs as part of a tagine, or stuffed into vegetables or fruits.
In coastal areas where fish is more often used, imaginative cookery adds ginger, cinnamon, sugar, sweet butter as well as incredible combinations of fresh or dried fruits and nuts. There are tagines of fish and seafood, baked fish dishes, poached fish dishes, and a great variety of tiny fluffy fish balls served with many accompaniments of seasoned sauces, fruits, or vegetables. The only combination that is wrong is the one that doesn’t taste good!
Special mention must be made of the preserved meat called chele or khelea. This sun-dried, salted and spice-preserved beef is similar to the Romanian pastrama (which is also smoked) and the Greek or Turkish bastourma. The sun-dried beef is cooked in boiling olive oil and water, then stored in the fat until used.
Eggs are widely used but often prepared differently than in the western world. Street vendors hawk hard-boiled eggs and serve them with cumin-flavored salt for dipping. The Tunisian brik – a triangle of crisp thin pastry enfolding a raw egg, which is quickly fried and eaten immediately, is also a favorite, whether as a street snack or part of a home meal. Saffron-tinted hard eggs may garnish tagines or other platters. Eggs beaten with lemon juice and cooked into soft curds are a part of the famed bisteeya. Eggs may be poached in a zesty tomato sauce with tiny kefta or set into a sefirna, a casserole of meat and legumes baked overnight.
The sefirna is related to the Spanish olla podrida or adafina, a dish based on long-cooked beef, vegetables, legumes, and whole eggs in the shell. Adafina (Spanish), sefirna (Moroccan), and the central European cholent are all believed to be derived from ancient Jewish dishes. This meal-in-a-dish set to bake in banked ovens before the Sabbath could be eaten as a hot meal on the Sabbath without violating the commandment against work. The long slow cooking of the eggs in the casserole leaves them with tanned whites and mellow creamy yolks (these eggs are called huevos haminados).
Nuts are so widely used in Moroccan cookery that they must be viewed as a source of valuable protein. Almonds are most frequently used in whole blanched form, chopped, and often as almond paste. Nuts are also used in desserts and pastries and not uncommonly in many meat and fish dishes.
BREADS AND GRAINS
Bread is the essential of every meal. For the very poor the whole meal may be only bread, sometimes dipped into olive oil. The classic Moroccan bread is shaped into absorbent, chewy oval discs, made from a mixture of wholewheat and unbleached white flour and gently fragrant with aniseed.
Bread is much more than a meal accompaniment. Bread is viewed respectfully in deep recognition of its ability to satisfy hunger and as a gift from God. A piece of bread inadvertently dropped may be kissed and blessed as it is carefully retrieved. Broken pieces of bread become eating utensils as they scoop up moist foods and soak up tasty juices and sauces. Community bakers pride themselves on recognizing each family’s special symbol stamped on their breads, for breads are made with loving attention in private homes then toted on trays to be baked in the communal ovens.
Moroccan diets can be described as “classic antique Mediterranean” because grains and oil form the basis. Wheat and barley are the principal grains and are used to make a great variety of breads. European-type white bread is increasing in popularity.
After weaning, the child’s principal food is sweet tea and grains in the form of rice, corn, semolina, breads, and pasta.
Despite the importance of bread, no other food can compare in variety of preparation and importance to the legendary couscous. Of undisputed Berber origin, this incomparable dish may be called by various names, contain infinite varieties of ingredients and seasonings, and may be made from wheat, corn, barley, millet, green wheat, green barley shoots, or sprouts and even rice, tapioca, or bread crumbs. Named seksu by Moroccans, it may also be called sikuk, sksu, utsu, ta’am, and even kouski as in Tunisia. The principle is the same. Dry floury grains are dribbled with water and rubbed to form tiny pellets. These are carefully steamed with no cover over a perforated pot set upon a bubbling stew. The small pellets swell with moisture and absorb some of the flavors of the broth. Often two steaming are required to get the proper consistency of separate fluffy and tender granules. Frequently a light sprinkling of oil or smen (like clarified butter) is added. Today pre-cooked couscous speeds up meal preparation.
Couscous may be served upon one large platter, with meat, fruits, vegetables, and well-seasoned sauce heaped over the grain base. Or, as in the French or Algerian version, each part of the couscous may be served on separate plates. Couscous may be savory or sweet, and is usually served as a luncheon meal or at the very end of a diffa (banquet) solely for the purpose of achieving shaban, total satisfaction.
Many Moroccans use large amounts of oil in cooking and often a swirl of oil is added as a garnish to complete a dish. Oily sauces are frequent. Because it does not cloud and retains a shiny appearance, olive oil is used in many salads and cold dishes while vegetable oils or peanut oil is saved for cooking. Oil extracted from the nuts of the argan tree is used in the south-west region. A mix of honey crushed almonds, and oil is called amalou and is popularly used on breads. When amalou is mixed with more honey and wheat germ it makes a kind of breakfast gruel called zematur.
Smen is a type of clarified butter widely used in soups and couscous. Sometimes it is flavored with herbs and often it is fermented and stored. The strong smell and pungent taste of smen is not too widely appreciated except by Moroccans.
SWEETS AND SNACKS
Many sweet pastries, chewy nougat-type candies, sugared dried fruits, and spicy sweet couscous as well as sugared fried pastries are readily available. But probably more sugar is consumed in the endless cups of heavily sweetened green tea scented with mint than in any other form.
The traditional dessert to end a meal is inevitably an array of available fresh fruits and nuts. Dried fruits may replace the fresh. Moroccans will likely enjoy their sweetly rich pastries at the start of a special occasion meal such as at a wedding or circumcision and especially during the month of Ramadan where the meal after sundown is often begun with sweet cakes called shebbakia or mahalkra hungrily downed together with bowls of spicy harira soup.
Basically, Moroccan food has humble beginnings; it is the artistry of careful preparation and complex seasoning that set it apart. Spices are used not only in foods but also in perfumes, medicines, and even in magical potions with mysterious powers.
Spices are not used to mask flavors; they are used with discretion and knowledge to enhance, to tantalize, and to blend. Each cook measures with her nose, her fingers, and her eye but never by actual measurement. These are the skills that are passed from generation to generation. So is the knowledge of exactly which souk (marketplaces) and which merchant has the best seasonings.
Salt and pepper are basic, but to the Moroccan cook ten basic seasonings are always at hand: black pepper and cayenne, cumin (subtler than caraway) and saffron, ginger and turmeric, paprika and cinnamon as well as sesame seeds and aniseeds. This is by no means the end to the list, for allspice, cloves, and gum arabic (mksa) as well as cardamom, coriander seeds, and many others too exotic for most western tastes subtly season many foods.
Much like the many varied blends of curries (kari) in India, Morocco too has its prized blends of seasonings called ras el hanout. These blends may contain almost anything including alleged aphrodisiacs such as ash berries, Spanish fly, and monk’s pepper; they are purchased in prepared amounts or created in special blends by individual experts.
Chermoula is one example of a highly seasoned sauce made with a blend of herbs and strongly flavored with crushed fresh garlic, cayenne, and lemon juice. It is used mainly as a marinade for fish but other blends of seasonings may be specially prepared for soups and sauces. Not surprisingly, these seasoning blends are cherished family secrets.
Fresh mint or spearmint is used with steeped green tea while other fresh or dried herbs take their place with spices to enliven foods: green parsley, green coriander leaves, oregano, basil, grey verbena, and za’atar, a much-used herb similar in aroma and flavor to thyme and oregano.
Rosewater and orange flower water are used often in sweets and pastries and sometimes in the water used for ceremonial hand washing. Many dried herbs and even dried flowers and buds are used in mixing special medicinal potions and herbal teas.
A truly hot spiced relish made from crushed fresh garlic, chili peppers, salt, and olive oil is similar to the Indonesian sambal oelek and is called harissa. This hot condiment may be used as a dip or added judiciously to soups and sauces. It always accompanies harira, the staple legume soup.
Tiny decorated glasses of green tea served hot, sweet, and scented with fresh spearmint are the classic Moroccan beverage. Countless glasses are enjoyed every day at any time. But coffee is enjoyed too and helps many a Moroccan to begin the day. Coffee may be served black and sweet – it may also carry the surprise of a blend of sweet and peppery spices. Carbonated beverages are gaining in popularity but sweetened fruit drinks made from local produce and sometimes from crushed nuts are enjoyed as refreshers: these are called sharbat. Cool leben, similar to buttermilk, is also a frequent thirst-quencher.
Street vendors sell plain water, fruit juices, and even sharbat. Water is also the usual mealtime beverage accompanied by the main dishes with green tea following the meal. In rich homes, it is not unusual for the mealtime beverage of water to be lightly perfumed with the subtle addition of orange flower water, rose petal syrup, or other aromatic concentrates.
The prohibitions against alcoholic beverages that stern from Islamic traditions are kept to varying degrees. No such prohibitions exist in Jewish homes and many Jewish kitchens are known for their home-made wines and fruit brandies prepared from ancient recipes and distilled from a great variety of fresh fruits. Wine is a part of Sabbath and festival tradition in Jewish homes.