27 Sep The Dishes of Morocco: A Cuisine of Crossroads
“Now that’s my kind of dessert!”
I made my declaration softly, letting the conversations around me swell and fade, as I took in my honey-drizzled, almond-speckled slices of the sun.
Okay, they were orange slices. But have you tasted oranges in Morocco? They create, as writer Jeff Greenwald has described, a kind of citrus ecstasy. Their juice is bright and sweet and tangy; their colors and shapes are pure, like little celestial bodies. They are maddeningly good.
In Morocco, oranges are not the only thing funneled into perfection. At the tip of Northwest Africa, Morocco embodies a confluence of cultures — Mediterranean, Arabic, and Berber, to name a few. It’s a cultural mix distilled over millennia of trade, migration, and empire. Travel north a few miles and you’re in Europe; travel south a few more and you’re in the Sahara; travel back in time and you are in Muslim, Roman, or Berber Empires. Or, just stay in modern Morocco, and take in the legacy of these cultures: Moroccan cuisine.
If there is one dish that stands out as the most iconic of Morocco, it’s the tagine. A tagine is a dish in both senses of the word: It is both a cooking vessel, and the savory, slow-cooked stew it carries.
Tagine cookware — a serving dish below, and a cone-shaped funnel on top, both traditionally earthenware — is distinctive, and often artistic. Some say their artistry is descendent of ancient Roman pottery, while others claim that the dish’s origins are Berber.
No matter their lineage, tagines today are delicious. The tagine’s cone circulates the steam of its simmering ingredients — lamb, prunes, almonds, dates, chicken, and preserved lemons are regulars — and their sauces. Add to that the earthy flavor from the pottery, and the mix of spices like turmeric, ginger, cumin, cinnamon, and saffron, and you have the tagine’s unique flavor profile.
Tagines can come in one-serving sizes (or mini-serving sizes), but the bigger ones serve 8-10. Try one of the latter: Tagines are best when shared.
Couscous is a national dish, not only for Morocco but also for Algeria and Tunisia. A traditionally hand-rolled semolina cereal, couscous was popular among the Moors. In fact, couscous was once a national dish for Spain, as well, until it was outlawed during the Inquisition.
The quick-cook couscous popular in Western supermarkets is a far cry from Moroccan couscous dishes, which take hours to cook, usually in coucoussier pots that are designed to sit atop stews (like tagines), absorbing their flavors. The dish is versatile: It can be dressed up for a feast at the end of Ramadan, dressed down for an everyday meal, or dressed sweetly, as a dessert.
My favorite couscous dishes utilize saffron — a crimson-thread spice pulled from the gentle purple flowers that grow in the Atlas Mountains in northern Morocco.
As with tagines, couscous dishes can arrive in any size, but the ones I prefer are as big as wagon wheels and speared with multiple serving spoons, and served at parties in towns alongside the arc of the Atlas Mountain range.
Mint Tea, Poured High
Moroccan mint tea is so ubiquitous, and so celebratory, that it is often referred to as “Berber Whisky.” Both the first and the last drinks I was handed in Morocco were mint tea, and — with the exception of that sweet citrus nectar I mentioned above — so was every drink in between.
The cornerstone of the recipe is loose-leaf gunpowder green tea imported from China. The tea first made its way to Morocco in the 18th century, and its popularity has boomed ever since: By 2007, Morocco had become the world’s biggest importer of Chinese green tea, with the average Moroccan consuming a couple kilograms annually.
The tea is brewed with clumps of fresh, bright-green spearmint leaves, and generously spiked with sugar. It is then poured high from curvy, intricately-patterned silver teapots into slender glassware. In certain areas, you are expected to drink three glasses of mint tea, and it is said that “the first glass is as bitter as life, the second as strong as love, the third as soothing as death.”
And soothing it is: This sweet concoction will calm the appetite and the mind, and leave you refreshed as you prepare for (or recover from) your multi-course meals as a guest in Morocco.
Flaky, sweet, and salty, this cinnamon-dusted pastry is plump with almonds and shredded poultry — often chicken, traditionally pigeon. Its roots are Andalusian, but these days, it’s a popular specialty of the Moroccan city of Fes.
The first time I had pastilla, I was at my wit’s end. I was at a lunch outing with fellow writers, and we had already eaten mountains of food: piles of couscous and heaps of tagine, not to mention hunks of bread with harissa and butter. Our stomachs were bursting. When the waiter brought two more plates, we laughed at the brazenness of such quantities of food.
At that moment, one of my eating companions declared Moroccan cuisine “a feat of endurance eating.”
But the sweet, gamey, cinnamon aroma of the pastilla overtook me. This was my kind of endurance.
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