Food lovers travelling to Morocco will find the food distinct from that of neighbouring Spain or Algeria - the singular flavours and dishes here have developed over the centuries from new spices and recipes introduced by settlers from all over the world, and the great cooks in Moroccan imperial cities like Meknes, Fes and Marrakesh refined this wonderful blend of international cultures to create a truly unique local cuisine. A meal taken in the Djemaa El Fna, the huge square in the medina (the old quarter) of Marrakesh, or at one of the country's many restaurants, is not just a culinary treat - it's also a journey through the country's rich history.
Dining at the Djemaa El Fna, which Marrakshis simply call 'The Place', is said to be one of the greatest eating experiences in the world; with over 100 food stalls open for business, the cocktail of sounds, sights and smells here is almost overwhelming. This Unesco World Heritage-listed site provides street food of the best quality, especially the standard repertoire of the Moroccan kitchen: couscous, tagines and kebabs. (The more adventurous can also try delicious-smelling snail soup, or the local delicacy: boiled sheep's head.)
Couscous and tagine were both introduced by the country's original inhabitants, the Berbers. Couscous (seksu in Moroccan) is a dish of steamed fine semolina topped with a broth, meat and vegetables, and served with harissa, a hot and spicy sauce. The most typical couscous is couscous au sept legumes, made with pumpkin, chickpeas, potato, carrot, turnip, white cabbage and onion.
A tagine (also written tajine) is a stew of meats and vegetables or fruits, cooked slowly in a conical earthenware pot - the shape allows the steam to rise, condense and drip back down into the stew. If you happen to try a tagine of lamb with dried prunes or dates, or chicken with dried apricots, you'll taste the influence of 7th-century Arabs, who brought this combination of meat and dried fruit to North Africa. Dates feature in many other Moroccan dishes, and during the fasting month of Ramadan, they're served with harira, a heady lamb and tomato soup. To sample the best dates in Morocco, head southeast of Marrakesh to Drâa Valley, Zagora and Goulmima.
Other dishes you're likely to try are kebabs and grilled meats, brought over by the Ottomans. If you happen to be in Morocco on a special holiday, you may get to eat meshwi (roast meat) the way the Berbers used to cook it - either over a pit or in an underground oven. But you may also taste a Moorish influence on Moroccan cuisine in the form of bsteeya (from the Spanish word pastilla), a sophisticated pie made with thin layers of filo pastry and stuffed with pigeon meat, almonds, cinnamon and sugar. Coming from the Iberian Peninsula in Europe's southwest, the Moors also introduced olive oil and olives, as well as preserves and pickles, all of which are now essential to Moroccan dishes. Preserved lemon is the most widely used of the preserves, particularly in djaj mqalli, a chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives.
Moroccan food is also a celebration of fresh seasonal produce bought at the local souk (market): fragrant fresh herbs like mint, parsley and coriander, and handfuls of spices - Moroccan cuisine would be unimaginable without this medley of flavours. One such spice is saffron, which grows best in the south of Morocco and is used in tagines and teas, and as a herbal remedy. Ras al hanout (literally meaning 'head of the shop') is perhaps the most typical Moroccan mix and is a complex blend of around 30 different spices, including cinnamon, turmeric, black pepper, nutmeg, cardamom, clove and rose petals.
Many of your meals will also be cooked with olive oil, as Morocco now has numerous olive groves, thanks to the Moors. In recent years, however, a strong, nutty-flavoured oil called argan oil, made from the fruit of a tree that grows only in southeast Morocco, between Essaouira and Agadir, has become more fashionable. Other flavours you'll come across are rosewater and orange-flower water, both often used in salads and desserts.
When it comes to etiquette at the Moroccan table, you should understand how to treat your bread. Traditionally, Moroccans use a small piece of bread, rather than cutlery, to pick up food. But beware if a piece of your bread falls on the ground: pick it up straight away and kiss it, as bread is considered sacred. One doesn't ever throw bread away; leftovers go to the poor in the cities, or to the animals in the countryside. In the past, each neighbourhood in the medina had a communal oven, used for bread and roasting other food (the heat of which was also used to warm the water for the hammam, or bathhouse).
In most Moroccan restaurants, men do the cooking. But the tradition in wealthy Moroccan families is to have the cooking done by a dada. Originally dadas were sub-Saharan slaves who worked for the privileged families, later becoming cooks, confidantes and wet nurses. These dadas often wielded much power in the household, especially if they became the concubine of the master of the house. This tradition of female cooks is reflected in some restaurants, such as the Dar al Ghalia in Fes, and Al Fassia in Marrakech.
Many cookbooks have great Moroccan-inspired recipes, so when in Morocco, head for the spice market. The largest one is in Agadir, but every town has one. A selection of Moroccan spices makes a great souvenir, as well as a welcome gift for any food lover. The staple spices to have on your shopping list are: kamoun (cumin), karfa (cinnamon), kharkoum (tumeric), libzar (pepper), skingbir (ginger), tahmira (paprika), kasbour (coriander) and zaafrane beldi (saffron).