Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

Moroccan Food and Culture


Morocco nestles on the northwest coast of Africa bordering the shores of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean with a finger of land pointing north-ward to Spain. This is also part of the region known as the Mahgrib, where great extremes of climate occur between the coastal regions, the tips of the Atlas Mountains where snow is not uncommon year-round, and on the parched expanses of the Sahara Desert.

Despite only 20 percent arable land and the historic concern of drought in Morocco, modern farming and irrigation produce prodigious crops of grains – wheat, barley, corn, and oats as well as fruit and vegetables for export and domestic use. Ancient orchards still burst forth with the rich scents of blossoming trees that ripen into almonds, figs, olives, and many varieties of dates. Gnarled grapevines yield fine grapes that are pressed into a distinguished variety of wines. Herds of goats, sheep and some cattle are watched over in pastures and carefully guided along roadsides. As in most of North Africa and the Middle East, meat is usually in short supply and fish is consumed mainly where it is caught because of limited storage facilities.

Long referred to as Moors, the people of Morocco are actually a mix of Berber, Arab, and Black peoples. The 800-year occupation of Spain by Arabs and Moors (from the seventh to the fifteenth centuries C.E.) probably established the term “Moors” because most Christians at that time referred to all Muslims as Moors.

The Berbers were the first known inhabitants of Morocco and even today make up more than 75 percent of its population. These non-Arabic tribes inhabiting many parts of North Africa are a lean, hardy people, white to dark brown in coloring. Belonging to more than 200 separate groups each with distinctive customs and dialects, they live by herding sheep, goats, and cattle and increasingly work as crop-raising farmers.

Two facts illustrated their individualism and fierce independence: adoption of both Islam and Judaism did not replace but enhanced their former beliefs and traditions; and the continued agitation of the Berber tribes against the French occupation of Morocco actually led to the Moroccan independence of 1956.

The fact that almost 80 percent of the Moroccan population is illiterate can be misleading. For it must be understood that most of the Berber dialects do not have a written form, knowledge having been carefully transmitted verbally to succeeding generations. However, these peoples have a great appetite for education. French and at least one Arab or Berber dialect is spoken by educated Moroccans, but today Arabic and French are commonly taught in the increasing number of schools springing up even in rural and mountain areas.

Despite successive foreign conquest by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, and Byzantines, the Berbers stoutly maintained their own lifestyles. It was the sweeping Arab conquest in 682 C.E. that left the deepest mark. The entire population, with the exception of the few Christians (from Roman times) and the Jewish settlers in the larger cities. intermarried and adopted Islam but never really replaced their own ancient Berber traditions. Even now, of all the many sects of Islam, the Berber brand is one of the loosest and varies from tribe to tribe.

In fact, the Berbers had a profound effect on the Arabs. The rituals of serving and eating foods as well as many classic dishes are definitely of Berber origin. These include the eating of foods with only three fingers of the right hand. However, the ceremonial hand washing that precedes the meal seems to be of Jewish rather than Arabic or Berber origin.

The classic dish of couscous – national dish of the entire Maghreb which includes Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Algeria – is also enjoyed in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries. Mechoui (succulent roast lamb), with its many variations, is found all around the Mediterranean. Bisteeya or pastilla, the whisper-thin pastry layers shaped in an 18 inch to 20 inch pie enclosing scrambled eggs and pigeon meat, closely resembles the spring roll pastries of China. The tagine, prepared and served in an earthenware dome-shaped dish, is the classic of all stews.

Berber traditions are deeply steeped in the supernatural. Arabs, Berbers, and even many Jews profoundly believe in the power of the color of blue to ward off evil spirits; it would be impossible to count the doorways and even the windows that are painted blue in Morocco and in many other areas of North Africa and the Middle East. And it is attributed to a mysterious supernatural power called kimia that lowly but faithful peasants are able to survive despite only subsistent levels of food – often only scant quantities of bread dipped in oil. Satiety is said to be attained more by faith than by food.

“What isn’t known can’t be stolen….” Who can say whether this ancient saying was born out of folklore or the reality of prevalent thieves? Nonetheless, in Morocco perhaps more than any other area of North Africa, the cloak of secrecy and the characteristic of self-debasing modesty exist side by side with scenes of secluded walled courtyards, hidden door-ways painted a luminous blue, women clad in burkas (head-to-toe enveloping cloth “veils”), and djellabaclad men together with vendors of amulets, potions, and formulas all guaranteed to ward off the evil eye.

Great wealth and lovely women, like other treasured Moroccan possessions, are never displayed openly. Even the great cuisine of Morocco is seldom tasted in public places but is reserved for the hospitality of the home. Such is the Moroccan world: a curious blend of faith and superstition, lore and leg-end, Arab, Berber, Black, and Jew all touched by history and ancient customs, yet secretive.

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