January 15, 2012

A culinary look at Morocco...

"Of all the gin joints in all the world, she hadda walk into mine." Who can forget Bogey rasping out those immortal words? "Casablanca." Just one of the exotic cities in a country filled with mystery and intrigue. Morocco's three top cities to visit are Marrakesh, Casablanca, and Tangier. Morocco's reigning monarch, King Hassan II, likens his country to a desert palm: "rooted in Africa, watered by Islam and rustled by the winds of Europe." A poetic description for a place which can appear mystical, magical and foreboding all at once.

Situated on the northwest coast of Africa, Morocco is one of three countries which make up the Maghreb ("furthest west"), the other two being Algeria and Tunisia. The Atlantic Ocean is to the west, while the calm waters of the Mediterranean are due north and the harsher sands of the Sahara are to the south. Snaking through the center of the country are a series of mountain ranges, beginning with the Rif mountains in the north and continuing with the Middle Atlas, High Atlas and Anti-Atlas ranges, which nearly split the country in half along a vertical axis. It is these mountainous areas which are heavily populated by the Berbers, the indigenous people of Morocco who still comprise 80% of the population. The Berbers are not ethnically Arabs, but they are Islamic.

Two languages are indigenous to Morocco: Arabic and Berber. French is also widely spoken. The Haouz, like most of the plains and cities of Morocco, is Arabic-speaking. The highlands areas of the country are largely Berber-speaking. Classical Arabic is Morocco's official language, but the country's distinctive Arabic dialect is the most widely spoken language in Morocco. French, which remains Morocco's unofficial third language, is taught universally and still serves as Morocco's primary language of commerce and economics; it also is widely used in education and government. Many Moroccans in the northern part of the country speak Spanish. English, while still far behind French and Spanish in terms of number of speakers, is rapidly becoming the foreign language of choice among educated youth. English is taught in all public schools from the fourth year on.

Once you have adapted to their way of life, there is a universe of intriguing travel opportunities and many hands to shake less then 50 miles from Europe. Veiled women occasionally may give you a seductive look, but don't go there!
Three mountain ranges present diverse landscapes and three different ways of life: the Rif in the north, the High Atlas and the Anti-Atlas, that remains mostly undiscovered. Azrou is a quiet Berber town only 2 hours drive from Rabat, worth visiting for its forest and calm atmosphere. Three different Berber groups inhabit these mountains and, on the whole, these areas are more relaxing than the large cities. You should consider trekking, even if you are a beginner, so you'll catch a glimpse of one of the many aspects of authentic Moroccan life. Adventurous skiers can find good slopes in the Atlas Mountains.

If you only have one week and you would like to see amazing geological landscapes, palm oasis, painted rocks, and the Berber way of life, Tafraoute is not to be missed. Only two hours drive from Agadir, the drive is almost as stunning as the destination. The roads are good quality throughout the north and west; there are even freeways near the bigger cities like Casablanca.
The oasis of the pre-Sahara present yet another timeless image of the Arab world with immense palm groves in the desert. Not to be missed are the fabulous mud Kasbahs and ksours (palaces and family houses) which you can find near Zagora.

Morocco produces a large range of Mediterranean fruits and vegetables and even some tropical ones. The country produces large quantities of sheep, cattle, poultry, and seafood which serve as a base for the cuisine.

The Moroccan Kitchen
The Moroccans are quick to point out that the best meals are found not in the restaurants but in the homes. In this land of good and abundant food, the emphasis is clearly on preparing your own. It is worth mentioning that women do virtually all of the cooking in this very traditional country. Being at the crossroads of many civilizations, the cuisine of Morocco has been influenced by the native Berber cuisine, the Arabic Andalusian cuisine; brought by the Moriscos when they left Spain, the Turkish cuisine from the Turkish and the Middle Eastern cuisines brought by the Arabs as well as the Jewish cuisine.

The history of Morocco is reflected in its cuisine. Political refugees left Baghdad in the middle Ages and settled in Morocco, bringing with them traditional recipes that are now common in Morocco, but forgotten in the Middle East. We know this because there are striking similarities between a 12th century (Christian reckoning) collection of recipes by Al-Baghdadi, and contemporary Moroccan dishes. A signature characteristic is cooking fruit with meat, such as quince with lamb, or apricots with chicken. Further influences upon Moroccan cuisine came from the Morisco (Muslim refugees), who were expelled from Spain during the Spanish inquisition.

The strong Arab influence found in two of the royal cities, Fez and Marrakech, contributed greatly to Moroccan cuisine, as did the Andalusian sensibilities of Tetuan and the Jewish traditions from the coastal city of Essaouira. Aspects of all of these cultures can be found in four of the best-loved Moroccan dishes: couscous, plumped semolina grains which are served with a variety of toppings; bisteeya, a delectable three-layer pie which is both savory and sweet and wrapped in the thinnest of pastry; mechoui, tender roasted lamb; and djej emshmel, succulent roasted chicken cooked with olives and lemon.

The midday meal is the main meal, with the exception of the holy month of Ramadan. The typical formal meal begins with a series of hot and cold salads, followed by a tagine. Bread is eaten with every meal. Often a lamb or chicken dish is next, followed by couscous topped with meats and vegetables. A cup of sweet mint tea is commonly used to end the meal.

The main Moroccan dish most people are familiar with is couscous, which is very old and is probably of Berber origin.

Beef is the most commonly eaten red meat in Morocco. Lamb is preferred, but is not as common due to its higher cost. Poultry was historically used and the importance of seafood is increasing in Moroccan food. The breed of sheep in North Africa has much of its fat concentrated in its tail, which means that Moroccan lamb does not have the pungent flavor that Western lamb and mutton can have.

Traditional Moroccan dishes

Bistteeya, Basteela, or Pastilla (Layered Pigeon or Chicken Pie)
This rich sweet pie is built with many layers of the thin pancakes called Warka. Filo may be substituted, as it is nearly impossible to replicate those slim, griddle wonders. The meat is mixed with eggs, herbs, spices and almonds, and is cooked on the stove top, then topped with a sugar icing and cinnamon.

Chakchouka (Tunisian Eggs)
This is a lunch or light meal made in one pan. Peppers, garlic, cumin and tomatoes are cooked with harissa and olive oil, then eggs are fried gently among the cooked vegetables.

Ferakh Maamer (Spring Chicken with Couscous Stuffing)
Young chickens are stuffed with a sweet couscous stuffing, enhanced with almonds, raisins, orange water, and sugar. The birds are then simmered slowly in a large casserole in a sauce of honey, onion, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, and saffron.

Tagine Barrogog bis Basela (Lamb Tagine with Prunes)

Lamb is simmered slowly with onion, garlic, ginger, saffron and parsley, to which are added prunes, cinnamon, honey, and orange blossom water.

Dessert
Sweets are not usually served at the end of a Moroccan meal. Seasonal fruits are typically served. A common dessert is kaab el ghzal ("gazelle's horns"), which is a pastry stuffed with almond paste and topped with sugar.

Halwa Shebakia
A honey cake, which is essentially pretzel-shaped pieces of dough deep-fried and dipped into a hot pot of honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds. Halwa Shebakia are cookies eaten during the month of Ramadan. Zucre Coco are coconut fudge cakes. Halva may also be made from a variety of other ingredients, including sunflower seeds, various nuts, beans, lentils, and vegetables—such as carrots, pumpkins, yams, and squashes.

Most of the commonly used raw ingredients for cooking are homegrown; the mint and olives comes from Meknes; oranges and lemons are from Fez and prickly pear comes from Casablanca.

They also grow almonds, dates, chestnuts, walnuts, cherries, melons and pomegranates. The Atlantic coast of Morocco provides some world class seafood and they raise lamb and poultry on the higher grounds. In the market places you can find homegrown produce that’s all organic all the time.
Though all year long you can find great produce in Morocco such as eggplant, peppers, onions, squash, almonds, pumpkins, fava beans, lentils and lemons, there are crops for every season. In spring they have the best; apricots, strawberries, cherries and kiwis and even peaches. In summer you will find the best; watermelon, wild artichokes and tomatoes. Fall brings; figs, pomegranates and grapes. In the winter; oranges, mandarins, onions, beets, potatoes, and carrots.

Morrocan Tea
The most popular drink is green tea with mint. Traditionally, making good mint tea in Morocco is considered an art form and the drinking of it with friends and family members is one of the important rituals of the day. The technique of pouring the tea is as crucial as the quality of the tea. The tea is accompanied with hard sugar cones or lumps. Tea is one of the most endearing parts of the Moroccan culture that one can experience on a visit to this mysterious country. It is part of everyday life, several times a day and is a large part of the hospitality that Moroccans pride themselves on.
Moroccan mint tea consists of Chinese green gunpowder tea, fresh mint leaves, usually spearmint, and many cubes of sugar. Teapots are metal with strainer holes at the base of the spout. Moroccan tea pots have long, curved pouring spouts and this allows the tea to be poured evenly into tiny glasses from a height. The green tea is put in the pot with fresh mint and some sugar.
To acquire the optimum taste, glasses are filled in two stages.When serving, it's traditional to pour a glass of tea and then pour that tea back into the pot so that the sugar is properly mixed into the entire pot. As the tea is poured, the server raises the pot to make a long stream of tea flowing into the small glass, adding flair to the ceremony. The Moroccans traditionally like tea with bubbles, so while pouring they hold the teapot high above the glasses. Sugar is often offered to further sweeten your half glass of tea. A half glass is normally served so that you can hold it in your hand without it burning. Since the teapots are metal, ranging from aluminum, to stainless steel, to silver, to brass, they get quite hot. Hot pot holders in the shape of a little man with a red fez are used to hold the hot handle. Many foreigners don't like the sweetness of the tea as it is considered extremely sweet. It does have a much sweeter taste to those who would usually add milk or sugar however none is needed for this flavorful beverage at all. You can also buy it as loose tea from all kinds of markets around the country for various prices. Another wonderful part of the tea culture in Morocco is the range of decorative tea glasses. There are mass produced glasses and there are also delicately hand-painted glasses by artisans. You can enjoy seeing the different designs inspired by the Arabic culture, architecture and also surroundings.

Dining Etiquette
If you are invited to a Moroccan's house:
~You should remove your shoes.
~Dress smartly. Doing so demonstrates respect towards your hosts.
~Check to see if your spouse is included in the invitation. Conservative Moroccans may not entertain mixed-sex groups.
~Shake everyone's hand individually.
~Watch your table manners!
~Food is generally served at a knee-high round table.
~The guest of honor generally sits next to the host.
~A washing basin will be brought to the table before the meal is served. Hold your hands over the basin while water is poured over them. Dry your hands on the towel provided.
~Do not begin eating until the host blesses the food or begins to eat.
~Food is served from a communal bowl.
~Eat from the section of the bowl that is in front of you. Never reach across the bowl to get something from the other side. As an honored guest, choice cuts will be put in front of you.
Scoop the food with a piece of bread or the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand.
~Eat and drink only with the right hand.
~Do not wipe your hands on your napkin.
~Water is often served from a communal glass. If you want your own glass, ask for a soft drink.
The washing basin will be brought around the table again at the end of the meal.
~Expect to be urged to take more food off the communal plate. Providing an abundance of food is a sign of hospitality.

Well that's about all I've got for ya so, 'here's looking at you kid.....'

Bon Appetit!

Lou

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