Our travels around Morocco took us to Marrakech, Essaouira, Casablanca, and Tangier—each city offering two different experiences divided by ancient brick walls. On one side modern hotels, restaurants, shops and city traffic. A step through the arches of the walls and you are on the other side in an ancient world that appears that time has forgotten, the Old Medinas (old towns). A maze of narrow, winding corridors shared by foot traffic, motorcycles, bikes and donkeys pulling carts led us to the amazing souks (open markets) filled with vendors hawking their wares.
The sights, sounds, aromas, and entertaining story-telling of the vendors welcomes you in. The trinkets, colourful scarves, and rugs were beautiful; what drew us in, however, were the rows upon rows of spices, teas, nuts and dried fruits, olives, fresh fruits and vegetables.
Moroccan food is incredibly diverse thanks to the country’s interaction with other cultures over the centuries, including Berber, Moorish, Arab, French and Mediterranean. With food vendors offering a large variety of local foods like tagines and couscous, shawarma, samosas, kebobs, falafel and delicate pastries; we were in food lovers paradise.
We chose to stay in Riads in the Old Medinas to get the full cultural and culinary experience. A Riad is a traditional house with ornate woodwork and decor, normally with two or more storeys around a courtyard that contains a fountain and often roof-top gardens. It was on these roof-top gardens that we were served traditional Moroccan breakfasts of beghrir, breads, pastries and fruit preserves; as well as mint tea in the afternoons.
Once home, I had to try my hand at making beghrir: tender, spongy, melt-in-your-mouth Moroccan pancakes made from semolina. Yeast in the crepe-like batter causes bubbles to form and break on the surface of each pancake as it cooks, giving beghrir its unique texture and appearance.
We could not resist bringing a number of spice blends home with us. Each spice vendor has their own special blend of spices called ras el hanout (best of the house) which can contain from 12 to 30 plus different spices. The aroma of these spices takes us right back to the bustling markets.
What better way to share these spices and our culinary experience than with a dinner party for friends preparing an authentic Moroccan dinner of some of our favourite dishes.
- Moroccan bread (Khobz) is shaped into round, flattish loaves with lots of crust perfect for soaking up sauces and broths and for using as a “fork” to scoop up stews and couscous. We often enjoyed a loaf with a bag of olives while strolling through the markets.
- Harira is a spiced, savoury vegetable soup typically eaten to break the fast during Ramadan, although it is served throughout the rest of the year as well. We could not get enough of this soup at a restaurant (coincidently where scenes of a James Bond movie were filmed) in Tangier.
- Tagine describes the meal as well as the cooking vessel (a shallow clay pot with a cone-shaped lid) in which the dish is prepared. Tagine is a slow-cooked, rich, succulent stew of meat, poultry or fish, spices and most often includes vegetables or nuts and dried fruit such as prunes, dates, or apricots. We prepared our favourite tagine made with lamb shanks and prunes.
- Couscous is a dish made from tiny granules of durum wheat (semolina). The couscous grains are prepared by steaming them until they have a light, fluffy consistency and is served piled high with stewed meat, vegetables or tfaya. We served ours with ginger roasted carrots and a sweet and savoury tfaya (like a chutney) made with spices, caramelized onions, raisins and dried apricots.
- Sweet Pastries are abundant and come in a variety of flaky pastries, rich cakes and sticky sweets that are commonly made with flavours like rose or orange blossom water, cardamom and almonds. Our dessert consisted of Baklawa with 24 layers of a semolina based dough, almond filling with cardamom and an orange blossom simple syrup; a crisp and chewy coconut macaroon with lemon zest; and a refreshing avocado, date and almond milkshake. Uncertain of what was on the menus as “Avocado Milk” took us a while to try, but once we did we certainly found out what deliciousness we were missing.
This was a fabulous trip filled with great memories to a country that has broadened our culinary repertoire and will continue to influence our personalized style of cooking.