During May of this year, I spent two weeks traveling around Morocco with my husband, Jim. From Casablanca to Rabat, Fes, Erfoud, Skoura, Marrakech, and Essaouira, I fell in love with a culture that expresses its love for guests and family through food. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some of these rich experiences through the blog–hope you’ll enjoy the journey with me!
Bring on the spice! That’s what I wrote on a vision board almost two years ago–next to a big picture of spices in a Moroccan market. That picture of vibrant turmeric, paprika, and Ras el Hanout had captured my spirit. My synapses were firing.
I knew a culinary journey to Northern Africa would happen. I just didn’t know when. I was being pulled toward this exotic continent I needed to explore.
I’m a traveler. It’s part of my identity. My first trip to a far away land was to China and Tibet when I was only sixteen years old. Since that first taste of immersing myself completely in another culture, I’ve craved these experiences–from living in France and Brazil–to learning to cook in Greece and Italy. The further away from my own culture, the better for me.
So when I researched and read every great travel book, blog, and cookbook I could get my hands on, especially Paula Wolfert’s The Food of Morocco, I felt somewhat prepared to land in Morocco with a semblance of my bearings.
One of the very first things I do before traveling is to write down all of the foods, spices, and regional dishes I must check off the list–no matter how bizarre or scary. It helps me feel grounded when I first scan a foreign menu or walk through a market in that country. But for this trip, I wasn’t prepared for how much I’d fall in love with the mannerisms, gentleness, and joy that awaited me in every Berber friend I met, every city we visited, and in every meal I encountered. These six discoveries are just a glimpse of my culinary adventures while traveling in Morocco.
#1 Moroccans eat with their eyes first
From the overflowing souks to the way mint tea is served, shopping, eating, and drinking in Morocco is a feast for the eyes.
Colors, textures, and the heavenly smells of food being prepared–made my senses feel alive as we winded through the busy medinas (oldest part of town) and the Mellahs (Jewish quarter of town).
Whenever you arrive in a hotel, someone’s home, or even when I needed those impromptu bio breaks in a merchant’s store, Moroccans will always offer you a warm glass of mint tea and often something even sweeter to munch on with it. Lifting the pot very high to pour the tea is not just for show but to create a wonderfully aerated glass of tea; almost like the head on a well poured beer, this is a sign the tea is made well.
#2 Food in Morocco is an expression of love and welcoming
To offer your guest waaaay more food than they could possibly eat is a sign of being welcomed and loved. It’s a feast in every sense. And don’t worry–cause I checked–nothing gets wasted!
At almost every meal, there was the option to start with Moroccan salads or a nice warm pureed vegetable soup. From cumin laced carrots, to savory charred eggplant spreads, to light and fresh roasted green pepper and tomato salads, these seven to eight small dishes were presented all at once and served with warm freshly baked bread. Just the sight of these gorgeous plates made us feel loved and cared for! Can you imagine if every American meal started with such a spread of veggies?
#3 You really do need the sugar in mint tea!
Westerners often ask if they can have their tea without sugar. What I learned from our tea master, Hassan, while cooking at Atelier de Cuisine outside of Marrakech is that a little bit of sugar is absolutely necessary. It keeps the fresh mint from turning black!
Hassan is what Chef Tarik Ait Yahya calls a tea master. He knows exactly the right amount to crack off of the large cylinder of sugar to go with the fresh mint and other herbs he’s picked, and Hassan is an expert in knowing when the tea is just right to pour. Starting low and holding the pot higher and higher in the air, his cups of this sweet nectar, the Moroccans call their “whiskey”, is light and refreshing and perfectly sweet–even on the hottest of North African days. If you want to learn how to make tea like Hassan, I’m a big fan of this beautiful tutorial by Honestly Yum.
#4 These 4 spice combos are all you need to know
On one of my favorite days in Morocco, we cooked at Atelier de Cuisine outside of Marrakech. In my post next week, I’m going to share more about that day and the amazing chicken tagine recipe we learned from Chef Tarik and his assistant Joseph. But here’s what I think you MUST know right now–and not wait another minute of your life to find out…
These four spice combos are all you need to know to start cooking like a true Moroccan:
- Sweet: use with dishes like lamb tagine with prunes, or dishes where you’d add dried fruits: cinnamon, ginger, and turmeric
- Lemon: this spice combo goes with chicken: ginger and turmeric.
- Normal: use with vegetable dishes, like vegetable tagine or couscous with vegetables: ginger, turmeric, sweet paprika.
- Normal with cumin added: use this spice combo in fish tagine or roasted eggplant salads!
#5 Spices in Morocco have a hypnotic effect on me
Um, the bottom line is that I really do have a spice problem! That is, I may have purchased too many spices on my trip and will be looking for ways to use them up over the coming months. My spice consultant in Marrakech, Bushra, which means “good news” in Arabic, wasn’t concerned though. She thought I did well!
Saffron grown in Morocco, Ras el Hanout, sweet paprika, long pepper, not to mention some spice combos that have romantic effects on the user–these were all so exciting to learn about–and yes, many did come home with me. Can you blame me?!
#6 Language is culture–learn a few new words to warm your host’s heart
What my husband and I loved most about our trip was that we made two very good friends, Mustafa, our country guide, and Younis, our driver. We spent hours upon hours together over those thirteen days in Morocco–much of which was spent laughing while we learned. French is a language that was given to Moroccans by the colonials, but they are Berbers and Arabs from dynasties before, and that is the language that is their culture. When Mustafa taught us each day to speak a few words in arabic or berber, so that we could thank new friends, tell them food was delicious, and wish them well, that was when we made lasting connections. You see, when it comes to learning about a new land, you must learn a little bit of their language. It warms the hearts of your new friends and helps you understand their beautiful culture.