Moroccan cuisine is a lot more than just couscous and tajines. From cooked vegetable salads and slow-cooked meats to fresh fruits and flaky pastries with orange-flower water, the flavours on offer are mouth-watering. B’saha – here’s to your health.
The food you find in Morocco is likely to be fresh, locally grown and homemade, rather than shipped in, microwaved and served semi-thawed. Most Moroccan ingredients are cultivated in small quantities the old-fashioned way, without GMOs (genetically modified organisms), chemical fertilisers, pesticides or even mechanisation. These technologies are far too costly an investment for the average small-scale Moroccan farmer, as is organic certification and labelling – so though you may not see a label on it to this effect, much of the Moroccan produce you’ll find in food markets is chemical- and GMO-free.
Even if your days back home begin with just coffee, it would be a culinary crime to skip breakfast in Morocco. Whether you grab yours on the go in the souq or sit down to a leisurely repast, you are in for a treat. Breakfasts are rarely served before 9am in guesthouses and hotels, so early risers in immediate need of coffee will probably have to head to a cafe or hit the souqs.
Breakfast of Champions
As a guest in a Moroccan home, you’d be treated to the best of everything, and the best guesthouses scrupulously uphold this Moroccan tradition each morning. You’ll carb-load like a Moroccan marathoner, with some combination of the following to jumpstart your day:
- Ahwa (Coffee) Ahwa is one option, but also café au lait, thé b’na na (tea with mint) or thé wa hleb (tea with milk), wa (with) or bla (without) sukur (sugar).
- Aseer limoon Orange juice.
- Bayd (Eggs) Cooked in omelettes, with a dash of kamun (freshly ground cumin) or zataar (cumin with toasted sesame seeds).
- Beghrir Moroccan pancakes with an airy, spongy texture like crumpets, with honey or jam.
- French pastries Croissants, pain au chocolat and others.
- Khoobz Moroccan bread, usually served with butter and jam or olive oil and zataar.
- Rghaif Flat, buttery Moroccan pastries.
- Sfenj Moroccan doughnuts (sometimes with an egg deep-fried in the hole).
Sidewalk cafes and kiosks put a local twist on the Continental breakfast, with Moroccan pancakes and doughnuts, French pastries, coffee and mint tea. Follow your nose and rumbling stomach into the souqs, where you’ll find tangy olives and local jiben (fresh goat’s or cow’s milk cheese) to be devoured with fresh khoobz (Moroccan-style pita bread baked in a wood-fire oven until it’s crusty on the outside, yet fluffy and light on the inside). Khoobz can be found wrapped in paper at any hanout (cupboard-sized corner shops found in every neighbourhood).
In the souqs, you can’t miss vendors with their carts piled high with fresh fruit. You’ll never know how high oranges can be stacked or how delicious freshly squeezed aseer limoon (orange juice) can be until you pay a visit to a Moroccan juice-vendor’s cart.
One savoury southern breakfast just right for chilly mornings is bessara (a steaming-hot fava-bean and garlic soup with cumin, olive oil and a dash of paprika), best when mopped up with khoobz still warm from the communal oven right down the street. For a twist on the usual French breakfast pastries, try rghaif (flaky, dense Moroccan pastries like flattened croissants), typically served with warm honey, apricot jam or, if you’re lucky, nutty tahalout (date syrup). The truly adventurous can start their day with a rich stew of lamb’s head or calves’ feet, generously ladled into an enamel bowl from a huge vat precariously balanced on a makeshift gas burner.
Top Tips for Enjoying Street Food & Staying Healthy
- Make a beeline for busy stalls Moroccans are sticklers for freshness, and know which places consistently deliver. Snak stalls have better turnover of fresh ingredients than most fancy restaurants, where you can’t typically check the meat and cooking oil before you sit down to dinner.
- Check out the cooking oil Is it extremely smoky, pungent or murky? Hold out for fresher, cleaner cooking oil.
- Always look over the ingredients Check the food on display, especially if you’ll be ordering meat or seafood. This is no time to get squeamish. Are the fish eyes still bright, the hearts bloody and the snails alive? That’s a good sign for adventurous foodies who want to try fried fish, skewered, grilled lamb hearts, and steaming snail soups.
- Clean your hands right before eating Much ‘food poisoning’ is actually illness caused by bacteria transferred from hand to mouth while eating. Antibacterial hand gel is a useful item to pack.
- Use your bread to scoop up food This is how Moroccans eat, and it makes sense. If you’re using utensils briefly rinsed in cold water, hygiene-wise, you’re sharing a rather intimate moment with the stranger who used them before you.
- Stick to your own purified or bottled water It takes time adjusting to local water, so it’s better to drink purified or bottled stuff – and never drink out of rinsed-and-reused stall glasses.
- Don't rush yourself If your stomach is skittish, hold out for that street food adventure. If dinner goes down a treat – as it should – you’ll be back tomorrow.
Been There, Eaten That
Eat your way across Morocco, north to south, with these outstanding regional dishes:
Casablanca Seksu bedawi (couscous with seven vegetables)
Chefchaouen Djaj bil berquq (chicken with prunes)
Demnate Seksu Demnati (couscous made with corn or barley instead of semolina)
Essaouira Hut mqalli (fish tajine with saffron, ginger and preserved lemons); djej kadra toumiya (chicken with almonds, onions and chickpeas in buttery saffron sauce)
Fez Kennaria (stew with wild thistle or artichoke, with or without meat); hut bu’etob (baked shad filled with almond-stuffed dates)
High Atlas Mechoui (slow-roasted stuffed lamb or beef)
Marrakesh Bessara (fava beans with cumin, paprika, olive oil and salt); tanjia (crock-pot stew of seasoned lamb cooked for eight to 12 hours in the fire of a hammam)
Meknès Kamama (lamb stewed with ginger, smen, saffron, cinnamon and sweet onions)
Southern Coast Amlou (argan-nut paste with honey and argan oil)
Tangier Local variations on tapas and paella
Eating During Ramadan
During Ramadan, most Moroccans observe the fast during the day, eating only before sunrise and after sunset. Dinner is eaten later than usual and many wake up early for a filling breakfast before dawn. Another popular strategy is to stay up most of the night, sleep as late as possible, and stretch the afternoon nap into early evening. Adapt to the local schedule, and you may thoroughly enjoy the leisurely pace, late-night festivities and manic feasts of Ramadan.
Although you will not be expected to observe the fast, eating in public view is still frowned upon. Hence many restaurants are closed during the day until lftour, the evening meal when the fast is broken – though if you call ahead to restaurants in tourist areas, you may have luck. With a little planning, there are plenty of other workarounds: load up on snacks in the market to eat indoors, make arrangements for breakfast or lunch in the privacy of your guesthouse, and ask locals about a good place to enjoy lftour.
Lftour comes with all the traditional Ramadan fixings: harira (a hearty soup), dates, milk, shebbakia (a sweet, coiled pastry that’s guaranteed to shift your glucose levels into high gear) and harsha (buttery bread made of semolina and fried for maximum density). You may find that harira is offered free; even Moroccan McDonald’s offers it as part of their special Ramadan Happy Meal.
Lunch is traditionally the biggest meal of the day in Morocco, followed by a nice nap through the heat of the day. The lunch hour here is really a three- to four-hour stretch from noon to 3pm or 4pm, when most shops and facilities are closed, apart from a few stores catering to tourists.
For speed eaters this may seem inconvenient, but especially in summer it’s best to do as the locals do, and treat lunchtime as precious downtime. Tuck into a tajine, served à la carte with crusty bread, or upgrade to a prix fixe, three-course restaurant lunch. Afterwards, you’ll have a whole new appreciation for mint tea and afternoon naps.
Berbers call it seksu, New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne called it one of the dozen best dishes in the world, and when you’re in Morocco, you can call couscous lunch. You know that yellowish stuff that comes in a box, with directions on the side instructing you to add boiling water and let stand for three minutes? That doesn’t count. What Moroccans call couscous is a fine, pale, grain-sized, hand-rolled pasta lightly steamed with aromatic broth until toothsome and fluffy, served with a selection of vegetables and/or meat or fish in a delicately flavoured reduction of stock and spices.
Since preparing and digesting a proper couscous takes a while, Moroccans usually enjoy it on Fridays, when many have the day or the afternoon off after Friday prayers. Couscous isn’t a simple side dish but rather the main event of a Moroccan Friday lunch, whether tricked out Casablanca-style with seven vegetables, heaped with lamb and vegetables in Fez, or served with tomatoes, fish and fresh herbs in Essaouira. Many delicious couscous dishes come without meat, including the pumpkin couscous of Marrakesh and a simple yet savoury High Atlas version with stewed onions. But scrupulous vegetarians will want to enquire in advance as to whether that hearty stock is indeed vegetarian. Sometimes a couscous dish can be ordered à la carte, but usually it’s the centrepiece of a multicourse lunch or celebratory diffa – and when you get a mouthful of the stuff done properly, you’ll see why.
If you’re still digesting your lavish guesthouse breakfast come lunchtime, try one of the many snaks (kiosks) and small restaurants offering lighter fare – just look for people clustered around sidewalk kiosks, or a sign or awning with the word snak. Many hard-working locals do not take afternoon siestas, and instead eat sandwiches on the go. At the risk of stating the obvious, always join the queue at the one thronged with locals: Moroccans are picky about their snaks, preferring the cleanest establishments that use the freshest ingredients.
Here’s what you’ll find on offer at a snak:
- Brochettes Kebabs rubbed with salt and spices, grilled on a skewer and served with khoobz and harissa (capsicum-pepper sauce), cumin and salt. Among the most popular varieties are lamb, chicken, kefta (spiced meatballs of ground lamb and/or beef) and the aggressively flavourful ‘mixed meat’ (usually lamb or beef plus heart, kidney and liver).
- Merguez Hot, spicy, delicious homemade lamb sausage, not to be confused with teyhan (stuffed spleen; like liver, only less bitter and more tender) – merguez is usually reddish in colour, while teyhan is pale.
- Pizza Now found at upscale snaks catering to the worldly Moroccan middle class. Look for snaks boasting wood-fired ovens, and try tasty local versions with olives, onions, tomatoes, Atlantic anchovies and wild thyme.
- Shwarma Spiced lamb or chicken roasted on a spit and served with tahina (sesame sauce) or yoghurt, with optional onions, salad, harissa and a dash of sumac (a tart, pickle-flavoured purple spice; highly recommended).
- Tajines The famous Moroccan stews cooked in conical earthenware pots that keep the meat unusually moist and tender. The basic tajines served at a roadside snak are usually made with just a few ingredients, pulled right off a camping stove or kanun (earthenware brazier), and plonked down on a ramshackle folding table. Often you can pick your tajine; point to one that’s been bubbling for an hour or two, with nicely caramelised onions and well-reduced sauce. Don’t let appearances fool you: this could be one of the best tajines you’ll eat in Morocco. Pull up a stool and dig in, using your khoobz as your utensil.
The Moroccan Power Lunch
Some upscale Moroccan restaurants that serve an evening diffa (feast) to tourist hordes serve a scaled-down menu at lunch, when waitstaff are more relaxed and the meal is sometimes a fraction of the price you’d pay for dinner. You might miss the live music and inevitable belly dancing that would accompany a fancy supper – but then again, you might not. Three courses may seem a bit much for lunch, but don’t be daunted: what this usually means is a delightful array of diminutive vegetable dishes, followed by a fluffy couscous and/or a small meat or chicken tajine, capped with the obligatory mint tea and biscuits or fruit.
- Mezze (Salad course) This could be a meal in itself. Fresh bread and three to five small, usually cooked vegetable dishes that might include lemony beet salad with chives, herbed potatoes, cumin-spiked chickpeas, a relish of roasted tomatoes and caramelised onions, pumpkin purée with cinnamon and honey, and roasted, spiced eggplant dip so rich it’s often called ‘aubergine caviar’.
- Main The main course is usually a tajine and/or couscous – a quasi-religious experience in Morocco not to be missed, especially on Fridays. The most common tajine choices are dujaj mqalli bil hamd markd wa zeetoun (chicken with preserved lemon and olives, zesty in flavour and velvety in texture); kefta bil matisha wa bayd (meatballs in a rich tomato sauce with a hint of heat from spices and topped with a sizzling egg); and lehem bil berquq wa luz (lamb with prunes and almonds served sliding off the bone into a saffron-onion sauce). If you’re in Morocco for a while, you may tire of these classic tajine options – until you come across one regional variation that makes all your sampling of chicken tajine with lemon and olives worthwhile. That’s when you cross over from casual diner to true tajine connoisseur, and fully appreciate the passionate debates among Moroccans about such minutiae as the appropriate thickness of the lemon rind and brininess of the olives. Variations on the classics are expected, but no self-respecting Moroccan restaurant should ever serve you a tajine that’s stringy, tasteless, watery or overcooked.
- Dessert At lunchtime, dessert is usually sweet mint tea served with almond cookies. You may not think you have room, but one bite of a dreamy kaab el-ghazal (crescent-shaped ‘gazelle’s horns’ cookie stuffed with almond paste and laced with orange-flower water) will surely convince you otherwise. A light, refreshing option is the tart-sweet orange á canelle (orange slices with cinnamon and orange-flower water).
Dinner in Morocco doesn’t usually start until around 8pm or 9pm, after work and possibly a sunset stroll. Most Moroccans eat dinner at home, but you may notice young professionals, students and bachelors making a beeline for the local snak or pizzeria. In winter you’ll see vendors crack open steaming vats of harira – a hearty soup with a base of tomatoes, onions, saffron and coriander, often with lentils, chickpeas and/or lamb. Dinner at home may often be harira and lunch leftovers, with the notable exception of Ramadan and other celebrations.
With enough hard currency and room in your stomach, you might prefer restaurants to snak fare for dinner. Most upscale Moroccan restaurants cater to tourists, serving an elaborate prix fixe Moroccan diffa (feast) in a palatial setting. This is not a dine-and-dash meal, but an evening’s entertainment that often includes live music or belly dancing and wine or beer.
Fair warning about palace restaurants: your meal may come with a side order of kitsch. Many palace restaurants appear to have been decorated by a genie, complete with winking brass lamps, mirrors, swagged tent fabric and tasselled cushions as far as the eye can see. Often it’s the ambience you’re paying for rather than the food, which can vary from exquisitely prepared regional specialities to mass-produced glop. Here’s a rule of thumb: if the place is so cavernous that your voice echoes and there’s a stage set up for a laser show, don’t expect personalised service or authentic Moroccan fare.
Whether you’re in for a diffa at a Moroccan home (lucky you) or a restaurant, your lavish dinner will include some combination of the following:
- Mezze Up to five different small salads (though the most extravagant palace restaurants in Marrakesh and Fez boast seven to nine).
- Briouat Buttery cigar-shaped or triangular pastry stuffed with herbs and goat’s cheese, savoury meats or egg, then fried or baked.
- Pastilla The justly famed savoury-sweet pie made of warqa (sheets of pastry even thinner than filo), painstakingly layered with pigeon or chicken cooked with caramelised onions, lemon, eggs and toasted sugared almonds, then dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar.
- Couscous Made according to local custom; couscous variations may be made of barley, wheat or corn.
- Tajine Often your choice of one of a couple of varieties.
- Mechoui Or some regional speciality.
- Dessert This may be orange á canelle, a dessert bastilla (with fresh cream and toasted nuts), briouat bil luz (briouat filled with almond paste), sfaa (sweet cinnamon couscous with dried fruit and nuts, served with cream) or kaab el-ghazal.
Carnivores and sustainability-minded eaters can finally put aside their differences and enjoy dinner together in Morocco. As you may guess from watching sheep and goats scamper over mountains and valleys in Morocco, herds live a charmed existence here – at least until dinnertime. Most of the meat you’ll enjoy in Morocco is free-range, antibiotic-free, and raised on a steady diet of grass and wild herbs. If you wonder why lamb and mutton is so much more flavourful in Morocco than the stuff back home, you’ll find your answer scampering around the High Atlas foothills.
The splendid appearance, fragrance and flavour of Moroccan market produce will leave you with a permanent grudge against those wan, shrivelled items trying to pass themselves off as food at the supermarket. There’s a reason for this: Moroccan produce is usually harvested by hand when ripe, and bought directly from farmers in the souqs. Follow the crowds of Moroccan grandmothers and restaurant sous-chefs to the carts and stalls offering the freshest produce. Just be sure to peel, cook or thoroughly wash produce before you eat it, since your stomach may not yet be accustomed to local microbes.
Quitting While You’re Ahead
One final and important Moroccan dining tip: pace yourself. Moroccan meals can be lengthy and generous, and might seem a bit excessive to an unyielding waistband. Take your time and drink plenty of water throughout your meal, especially with wine and in dry climates. There are better ways to end a meal than with dehydration and bloating – namely, a dessert bastilla (multilayered pastry) with toasted almonds, cinnamon and cream. Your Moroccan hosts may urge you on like a cheerleading squad in a pie-eating contest, but obey your instincts and quit when you’re full with a heartfelt alhamdulallah! (Thanks to God!).
If there is one food you adore or a dish you detest, you might want to plan the timing of your visit to Morocco accordingly. Morocco offers an incredible bounty of produce, meats and fish, but these vary seasonally. The country’s relative lack of infrastructure and hard currency can be advantageous to visitors – hence the picturesque mountain villages that seem untouched by time, and the jackpot of dirhams you get for your euros – but this also makes importing produce tricky. This means that if you’re visiting in autumn, you may have to enjoy fresh figs instead of kiwi fruit (not exactly a hardship).
When you consider your menu options, you’ll also want to consider geography. Oualidia oysters may not be so fresh by the time they cross mountain passes to Ouarzazate, and Sefrou cherries can be hard to come by in Tiznit. So if your vacation plans revolve around lavish seafood dinners, head for the coasts; vegetarians visiting desert regions in autumn should have a high tolerance for dates.
Tasty Beast: Mechoui
Special occasions call for Morocco’s very best beast dish: mechoui, an entire slow-roasted lamb. The whole beast is basted with butter, garlic, cumin and paprika, and slow-roasted in a special covered pit until it’s ready to melt into the fire or your mouth, whichever comes first. Local variations may include substituting a calf instead, or stuffing the lamb with some combination of almonds (or other nuts), prunes (or other dried fruit) or couscous. Sometimes mechoui is accompanied by kebabs or kwa (grilled liver kebabs with cumin, salt and paprika). Other than Moroccan weddings, the best place to have mechoui is right off Marrakesh’s Djemaa el-Fna around lunchtime, served with olives and bread in Mechoui Alley. Do not attempt to operate heavy machinery or begin a whirlwind museum tour post-mechoui; no amount of post-prandial mint tea will make such exertions feasible without a nap.
Vegetarians: Your Moroccan Menu
- Breakfast Load up on Moroccan pastries, pancakes, fresh fruit and fresh-squeezed juice. Fresh goat’s cheese and olives from the souq are solid savoury choices with fresh-baked khoobz (bread). Bessara is a delicious bean soup that’s typically meat-free, but steer clear of bubbling roadside vats if you’re squeamish – they may contain snails or sheep’s-head soup.
- Lunch Try the mezze of salads, which come with fresh bread and may range from delicate cucumbers in orange-blossom water to substantial herbed beets laced with kaffir lime. Vegetarians can sometimes, but not always, order a Berber vegetable tajine or Casablanca-style couscous with seven vegetables. Ingredients are bought fresh daily in small quantities and the chef may not have factored vegetarians into the restaurant’s purchases – so call ahead if you can. Pizza is another widely available and inexpensive menu option, best when spiked with local herbs and olives.
- Snacks Market stalls feature cascades of dried figs, dates and apricots alongside towering cones of roasted nuts with salt, honey, cinnamon, cane sugar or hot pepper. Chickpeas and other pulses are roasted, served hot in a paper cone with cumin and salt, and are not to be missed. Tea-time menus at swanky restaurants may feature briouats, cigar-shaped pastries stuffed with goat’s cheese or egg and herbs, plus finger sandwiches, pastries and cakes. If that’s not enough, there’s always ice cream, and mint tea with cookies or nuts are hardly ever more than a carpet shop away.
- Dinner For a hearty change of pace from salads and couscous, try a vegetarian pasta (anything with eggplant is especially tasty) or omelette (usually served with thick-cut fries). If you’re staying in a Moroccan guesthouse, before you leave in the morning you can usually request a vegetarian tajine made to order with market-fresh produce.
Morocco has a wide range of eating options. Booking tables is only necessary at higher-end places.
- Restaurants A lot of smaller restaurants stick to a limited roster of standard tajine dishes, with couscous served on Fridays.
- Cafes Simple breakfasts are usually available in cafes, along with pastries.
- Riads Many excellent restaurants are found inside riads, which open their doors (and tables) to nonguests. Alcohol may be served.