You don’t need to be Bogart or Bergman to find something magical in Morocco. It’s a country primed to amaze the senses—each sight, smell, sound, and taste you encounter is more awe-inspiring than the last. But if a trip to the northern tip of Africa is still sitting on your proverbial bucket list, no need to fret. Let your taste buds start the exploring by cooking and sampling the utterly unique cuisine of Morocco.
“Moroccan food is an adventure on your table,” says Paula Wolfert, author of The Food of Morocco ($45, amazon.com). “It’s a different way of eating with different flavor combinations, including sweet and savory spices. It’s so different than any other food you’ll experience [in the Mediterranean].” And food is not something taken lightly by the people of Morocco. “Traditionally, everything is shared from the same pot, and there are no individual plates,” says Mourad Lahlou, author of Mourad: New Moroccan ($40, amazon.com) and chef/owner of Aziza in San Francisco. “To Moroccans, food means a lot more than just something you put into your body to get you through the day. It’s a huge part of life, and it brings people together.”
That reverence for all things edible is evident in the distinctive methods Moroccans have developed over the past thousand years for maximizing their available ingredients and infusing as much flavor as possible into every single bite. Vegetables, starches, and meats aren’t cooked separately—everything is cooked together to extract as much flavor as possible. “It’s all about layered flavors,” Lahlou says. “Moroccans build layer after layer of flavor, and their biggest arsenal is spices. The way you use them and the portions you use determine the flavor profile you’ll get.”
Morocco was well-situated along ancient spice routes, which is why its cuisine is so spice-centric today. There are 10 go-to spices for Moroccan chefs—cinnamon, cumin, saffron, turmeric, ground ginger, black and/or white pepper, hot red peppers, sweet paprika, aniseed, and sesame seed—but there are many more spices that come into play. And there is an art to using them. “Sometimes I feel like a painter, where a little extra yellow or green will change the dish,” says Lahlou.
The most important spice-related rule to live by: Buy spices whole and grind them yourself. If not buying them whole, be sure to change spices out every year because they lose their freshness and flavor. The difference between fresh spices and old spices? “It tastes like Technicolor versus black and white,” Wolfert says.
That Technicolor flavor bursts through in a tremendous variety of Moroccan dishes—from chicken with preserved lemon and olives to couscous with vegetables to bastilla, an intricate savory and sweet pie (traditionally made with pigeon, but also doable with chicken or quail) that Wolfert and other food experts declare is “one of the great dishes of the world.” But the dish most synonymous with Moroccan cuisine is the humble-yet-mighty tagine. The word “tagine” is used to describe both the cooking tool (a shallow clay pot with a large conical top that basically functions as a portable oven) and the slow-cooked, stew-like dish that’s prepared inside.
“People eat from the tagine because it’s magic. There’s no other kitchen implement like it,” says Wolfert. The meat goes on the bottom of the tagine because it requires the most heat, the vegetables are layered on top, and the spices are distributed throughout. No stirring allowed—just sit back and let the tagine do its thing. “It all cooks at the same time but nothing gets tremendously overcooked due to the circular motion of the steam, which is really unique,” Lahlou explains. When it’s done, the result is meat and vegetables that are soft but still hold their body. Then it’s time to dig right into the tagine pan with a good piece of grilled bread.
As far as what specifically goes in the tagine, the possibilities are vast. Moroccans love to use lamb or chicken mixed with ingredients like apricots, raisins, olives, prunes, apples, dates, nuts, and honey. If you’re feeling inspired to tackle a tagine in your own kitchen, an easy one to start with is kefta, which is meatballs in a tomato sauce with poached eggs. You can find true tagine vessels online or in specialty cooking stores, but if you don’t have one, Wolfert suggests placing brown paper folded into a conical shape over your food and then putting a cover on top of your pan for the first half of your cooking time.
Another good place to start incorporating the flavors of Morocco into your home cooking is with salads. The Moroccans love a variety of fresh, vibrant salads with their meals; you can make a number of delicious salads from just carrots and different spices alone. Or try a salad with steamed greens, dates, and preserved lemons. “Choose a few salads and everyone will find one they enjoy,” says Wolfert, noting that Moroccans often serve several types of salad as their main meal.
But a foray into Moroccan cooking can’t begin without making your own preserved lemons, according to our experts. Used to add tart, fruity notes to stews, braises, tagines, and salads and to wake up the flavor of sauces, preserved lemons take 30 days to make but will keep for a year or two. To prepare them, make quarter cuts into fresh lemons and pack them with kosher salt. Pack the lemons tightly in a jar and fill it with enough fresh-squeezed lemon juice to cover the fruit completely. Then store in a dark cupboard for a month, turning the jar upside down from time to time to distribute the salt evenly. “After 30 days, you’ll have a completely different ingredient—the most beautiful, tastiest lemons that no longer taste like lemons,” says Lahlou, who considers the powerful preserved citrus to be Morocco’s greatest contribution to the world—culinary or otherwise.
“Preserved lemons will make the food taste like nothing else in the world,” says Wolfert. “It will make it about the adventure.” And that’s what Moroccan food is about, after all.