The Mediterranean countries include France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal along the north; Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel on the east; the African countries of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco on the south and the Mediterranean Island Countries of Cyprus and Malta. The Mediterranean countries utilize many of the same healthy ingredients but each country has a unique way of creating recipes with those same ingredients. So far in this series, I have written about Mediterranean cuisine in general and about the cuisine in the countries of Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria. This series continues with the country of Morocco.
Morocco is located in the northwestern corner of Africa and is slightly larger in area than California. The country has three different regions: the northern coast along the Mediterranean Sea is made up of fertile land that rises to elevations of about 8,000 feet (2,400 meters), the Atlas Mountains run between the Atlantic coast in the southwest to the Mediterranean Sea in the northeast and the semiarid area in the south and east known as the Western Sahara .
Morocco has to deal with desertification. Desertification is the process where fertile land becomes barren and desert-like over time. It may be caused by a lack of rainfall or drought, the clearing away of trees for farming or allowing livestock to graze too long in an area. These practices leave no plants to hold the soil in place so wind and rain can carry away the fertile topsoil. Morocco also has a problem with water pollution from oil spills, poor sewage treatment practices, and the use of strong pesticides.
Nomads called Berbers were the first inhabitants of Morocco over two thousand years ago. They used local ingredients to prepare lamb and poultry stews. Over time, traders and conquering nations introduced new food customs. Among them were the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans. However, the strongest influence on native cooking was the Arab invasion in the seventh century A.D.
They introduced spices including cinnamon, ginger, saffron, cumin, and caraway. They also introduced sweet-and-sour cooking, which they had learned from the Persians. Moors from Andalusia in southern Spain also influenced Moroccan cooking. The pastilla, or bisteeya, a popular pigeon pie in Morocco, was originally a Moorish dish. In modern times, the French and the British made contributions to Moroccan cuisine.
Morocco, unlike most other African countries, produces all the food it needs to feed its people. Its many home-grown fruits and vegetables include oranges, melons, tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, and potatoes. Five more native products that are especially important in Moroccan cooking are lemons, olives, figs, dates, and almonds. Due to its location on the Mediterranean Sea, the country is rich in fish and seafood. Beef is not plentiful, so meals are usually built around seafood, lamb or poultry. The Moroccan national dish is the tagine or stew. Common ingredients may include chicken or lamb, almonds, hard-boiled eggs, prunes, lemons, tomatoes, and other vegetables. The tagine, like other Moroccan dishes, is known for its distinctive flavoring, which comes from spices including saffron, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, ginger, and ground red pepper. The tagine’s name is taken from the earthenware dish with a cone-shaped top in which it is cooked and served. Another Moroccan dietary staple is couscous, made from fine grains of a wheat product called semolina. It is served in many different ways, with vegetables, meat, or seafood.
Flat, round Moroccan bread is eaten at every meal. Moroccans eat their meals at low round tables, sitting on cushions on the floor. They eat with their hands instead of silverware, using the thumb and first two fingers of their right hands. They also use pieces of bread to soak up sauces and carry food to the mouth. Small warmed, damp towels are passed around before the meal to make sure everyone’s hands are clean.
Most meals consist of a single main dish, often a stew, a couscous dish, or a hearty soup. It is served with bread, salad, cold vegetables, and couscous or rice on the side. A typical breakfast might include bessara (dried fava beans stewed with cumin and paprika), baghrir (pancakes), and bread. Two breakfast favorites that may sound exotic to Westerners are lambs’ heads and calves’ feet. Although Moroccans love sweets, they are usually saved for special occasions. With everyday meals, the most common dessert is fresh fruit.
The sweetened mint tea that comes with every meal is served a special way. It is brewed in a silver teapot and served in small glasses. When the tea is poured, the pot is held high above the glasses to let air mix with the tea. Tea is served not only at home but also in public places. In stores, merchants often offer tea to their customers.
Morocco is famous for its street food that includes shish kebab, roasted chickpeas, and salads. Both full meals and light snacks are sold.
A favorite purchase is sugared doughnuts tied together on a string to carry home.
Moroccan Mint Tea
1½ Tablespoons green tea (or 2 teabags of green tea)
3 Tablespoons sugar (or to taste)
2 Tablespoons of fresh or dried spearmint leaves
Put the tea in a 2-pint teapot and fill it with boiling water.
Let the tea steep (soak) for 2 minutes.
Add mint leaves and sugar to taste.
Chicken Tagine with Almonds and Prunes
6 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon powdered cinnamon
¼ teaspoon powdered ginger
½ teaspoon powdered saffron
3 short cinnamon sticks
4 ounces butter
2 large onions
½ cup sugar
1 strip lemon peel
1 pound dried prunes
Combine the oil and ground spices in a large bowl.
Cut the chicken into cubes and chop the onion finely. Put the chicken and onion into the bowl with the oil and spices. Combine well and let stand for 30 minutes.
Melt the butter in a large skillet. Add the chicken, searing (browning) them lightly on all sides.
Add any remaining marinade and enough water to cover. Simmer until chicken is tender (about 30 minutes).
While the chicken is cooking, put the prunes in a small saucepan, cover with water and bring the water to a bowl. Remove the pan from the heat and let them stand for 20 minutes.
Drain the prunes, return them to the pan, and ladle a little liquid from the meat pan over the prunes. Simmer the prunes for 5 minutes.
Add the lemon peel, cinnamon sticks, saffron and half the sugar to the prunes.
Stir the remaining sugar into the meat.
Arrange the meat on a serving platter. Add the prunes to the meat, and pour the sauce from the prunes over the meat and prunes.
Boil the remaining liquid from the meat rapidly to reduce it by half and pour over the meat and prunes.
Melt a small amount of butter in a saucepan and brown the almonds lightly. Garnish the tajine with the almonds and mint.
Serve with rice or couscous.
Fried Baby Carrots
1 pound baby carrots
3 Tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon sugar
Grated rind of 1 lemon
Juice of ½ lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Tablespoons fresh mint, roughly chopped
Sprigs of mint, to garnish
Heat the oil in a skillet large enough to hold the carrots in a single layer.
Add the carrots and cook gently 15 minutes, shaking frequently.
Add the garlic and cook 10 minutes more until the carrots are tender and spotted with brown.
Add the sugar and cook 2 minutes.
Stir in the lemon rind and juice and season with salt and pepper.
Stir in the chopped mint and transfer to a serving dish.
Garnish with sprigs of mint.
Ingredients for salad
2 cans (15-ounces each) chickpeas, drained and rinsed
5 ounces feta cheese, cut into cubes
8 ounces cherry or grape tomatoes
2 ounces pitted black olives
4 Tablespoons flat leaf parsley
Lettuce or other salad greens
Ingredients for dressing
5 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
1 clove garlic, crushed
Salt, to taste
Place the chickpeas in a bowl and add the feta cheese cubes.
Cut the tomatoes in half if necessary, to make them bite-sized.
Add tomatoes to the chickpeas and feta cheese mixture. Add the black olives, parsley, and lettuce.
Combine dressing ingredients in a small bowl.
Pour over chickpea mixture, toss gently, and chill. Serve chilled or at room temperature.