On the northwest coast of Africa, only 14km from Spain at its closest point (the Strait of Gibraltar), Morocco is the gateway between Europe and Africa. With the Sahara Desert to the south, Atlantic Ocean to the west, Mediterranean Sea to the north and a long history of trade and conquest, its cooking reflects its diverse history and geography.
Phoenician and Greek traders are said to have planted the first olive trees nearly 3,000 years ago. Next came the Romans, followed by Arabs, Turks, Jews, French and Spanish, all of whom left their influences on the cuisine of the native Berbers. A long stretch of Atlantic coastline means seafood is abundant, and inland rivers provide freshwater fish. Typically, seafood is prepared in a tagine (the name for both the earthenware cooking vessel and the resulting dish, a type of braise or stew), it’s often marinated in chermoula (a spicy herb paste) and sometimes fried or stuffed.
Common Moroccan ingredients include:
- Spices introduced via the spice trade from the Arabic world, including coriander, turmeric, paprika, cumin, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, black pepper, saffron, aniseed and cayenne (more popular in the south); ras el hanout (literally ‘top of the shop’) is a blend of these and other spices (often 10-20 spices and infamously sometimes including hashish and Spanish fly);
- Herbs such as mint, parsley, coriander, marjoram and basil; chermoula is a paste made from some or all of these herbs with onion, spices (typically cumin, coriander, paprika, cayenne), garlic, lemon juice and olive oil, it’s used to marinate fish and also as a sauce;
- Couscous is the staple of Moroccan cuisine - made from semolina, it resembles very small pasta balls and is traditionally steamed above a stew in a double-decker cooking vessel called a couscoussier - a classic Berber dish;
- Olives and olive oil;
- Nuts such as almonds, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts;
- Vegetables such as tomato, capsicum, eggplant and sweet onions, often served in salads at the beginning of a meal;
- Dried fruits like apricots, dates, figs, prunes, quinces and raisins;
- Fresh fruits such as pomegranates, cherries and melons;
- Citrus, especially lemons which are preserved in salt and lemon juice, and oranges which appear in salads and sweets;
- Orange flower water, rosewater and honey are popular in desserts.
Food is always served in abundant quantities as the tradition of hospitality and extended family life guarantees large numbers at the table. It is typically eaten with three fingers of the right hand or scooped up with bread. Being a Muslim country, alcohol is not consumed, instead mint tea often accompanies meals.