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Friday, 21 February 2014 12:00 AM

Food on a Morocco Holiday - Moroccan Cuisine Today

Moroccan cuisine is synonymous with tagine, but to limit your thoughts to such would be a great disservice to what is a broad and fabulous gastronomic heritage and culture - a rich mix of Berber, Moorish, Arab and French - using wonderful local fresh ingredients.

Whilst there are a huge range of tagines available in Morocco, we highly recommend searching out the other national specialities some of which we cover below, or to try a cookery lesson during your holiday.

Harira – a thick traditional Berber soup

Traditionally the food that breaks the fast during Ramadan, this is a thick and spicy soup often accompanied by dates, bread or pancakes and milk. It is a tomato-based soup containing some lamb, lentils, chick peas and small noodles. After a good bowl of this you won’t be left hungry.

Salads – hot or cold

Salads in Morocco can be raw or cooked. Raw salads have basic ingredients of tomatoes, cucumber, green pepper and onions – for those on holiday in Morocco, raw salads are a possible risk to the stomach so go carefully. Cooked salads contain a variety of vegetables, typically carrots and/ or potatoes and/ or courgettes drizzled with olive oil and a pinch of cumin.

Tagine – the ubiquitous Berber stew

A tagine (tajine) is a conical domed heavy clay pot used for slow cooking stews, traditionally on warm coals, to which the term also applies. The shape of the lid is such that steam rises and condenses continuously during the long cooking process, so that the stew is rich, aromatic, tender and moist when done.

Almost any foods can be placed in the flatter base – any meats, fish, vegetables, spices and even fruits or nuts – but the classic varieties include lamb with almonds and dates/ raisins (mrouzia), chicken with olives and preserved lemons (mquali or emshmel), meatballs (kefta) with tomatoes and eggs, and the vegetarian variety of tomatoes and eggs, all of which will have a variety of seasoning and spices (cumin, paprika, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, pepper, ras el hanout – the locally mixed spices) and vary in style regionally.

Once cooked the whole of the tagine is taken to the table and the lid taken off (the lid has a knob on top for holding) to reveal the intense aroma and rich food within.

Merchoui – slow cooked lamb on the bone

Traditionally merchoui is a whole spit-roasted lamb slow cooked over an open fire or coals, but chunks of leg or shoulder are normally cooked and have largely the same result – tender meat that can easily be pulled from the bone and is succulent and rick in flavour.

Before cooking excess fat is removed, the lamb is scored with a knife and oil, garlic, cumin, turmeric and salt and pepper (saffron can also be used if feeling extravagant) are rubbed into the meat. The meat is then cooked on a low meat for a long time (up to 9 hours for a whole lamb) with hourly basting until it can be browned at a higher temperature near the end.

Couscous – fine semolina served topped with vegetables

Forget the couscous you buy in a UK supermarket, then you poor on boiling water and leave for 5  minutes – Moroccan couscous is an art form and once you eaten it you will swear that you will do it that way at home, then you'll realise how much effort Moroccans put into its preparation and give up.

Couscous (seksu or sikuk) is of Berber origin so has been a part of cuisine in Morocco for hundreds of years. The grains of semolina are thoroughly separated by hand with water and steam, which can take up to an hour. This is so time consuming that Moroccan families now often use the instant variety for everyday use, saving the traditional method for special occasions (including Friday prayers). The couscous is then topped with a variety of steamed vegetables and eaten by rolling balls of couscous in a hand into bite-sized portions.

Pastilla – spiced crisp pasty filled with meat

Pastilla (pronounced “basteeya”) is a dish for a special occasion (a started dish at a wedding) as it takes a lot of preparation. It is a Moorish dish that traditionally used pigeon as the base ingredient, but nowadays typically is chicken (or occasionally fish).

Several layers of very thin and flaky pastry (thinner than filo  pastry) sheets are filled with a cooled pre-cooked mixture of shredded meat, onions and spices. The whole flat round “pie” is cooked in a flat pan and topped with toasted ground almonds, cinnamon and sugar.

Meshwi – barbeque meat

Barbequing (meshwi) meat is a tradition across many Arab countries and in Morocco you will see it on the street and sometimes in restaurants. Meat (chunks or minced with added herbs and spices) is put on a skewer and cooked over flames or coals, and can form a simple, tasty and cheap lunchtime snack as you explore a souk.

Although a simple dish found daily in every town, barbequing is also used as the main element of formal ceremonies (weddings or honouring special guests) - where a family may slaughter and roast one of its herd of sheep or goats as part of the evening celebration, with singing and dancing around or near the barbeque pit.