Moroccan Food

Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
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Trip End Jan 05, 2008


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Monday, October 8, 2007

Moroccan is in my opinion one of the world's great cuisines for its exotic mix of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern ingredients, its unique combinations of sweet, sour, and salty flavors, and interesting use of mild spices.  At least that has always been my impression of it from Moroccan restaurants I've eaten at in America and the dabbling I've done in it myself from cookbooks. 
So I must admit to being somewhat disappointed at not having more opportunities to sample the food in Morocco since most of the time we were eating camp meals we prepared ourselves.  I also have to admit to sometimes being disappointed by restaurant food that was rather bland and didn't fulfill my expectations of exotic combinations of spice, sour, sweet, and salt I have come to expect from Moroccan food.  While restaurants in America usually sort of "dumb down" flavors of many ethnic cuisines for conservative American palates, perhaps the Moroccan food I've eaten in America is a bit more "sexed-up" than the real thing.  Or maybe I was just eating in tourist-oriented restaurants in Morocco where the food was intended to be bland to please tender western taste buds.  Or maybe it being Ramadan with most Moroccans fasting from dawn until duck had something to do with it.  In any event, the food in Morocco wasn't all as exciting as I thought it deserved to be. 
There are nonetheless plenty of goodies in Morocco and the markets are a feast from all the senses with conical mounds of spices, colorful fresh produce, a profusion of dried fruits and nuts, pickles and preserves, and more kinds of olives that I knew existed.  Some of the best street food is of the baked variety, and one of the classics or Moroccan cuisine is Pastilla, a pie of pigeon or chicken meat, eggs, onions, lemon and a sweet layers of almonds and cinnamon encased in a flaky phyllo-like pastry crust called Ouarqa.  Also ubiquitous are Briouat, small pastries with various fillings such as curried chicken or spinach and cheese that are deep friend and sold from both bakeries and street stalls.  The most common sweet pastries from the shops are delicious crescent-shaped "gazelle horns" filled with almond paste, date pockets, and mhencha, a flakey coiled pastry filled with almond paste that supposedly resembles its namesake - the snake.  There are of course also plenty of the sickeningly sweet syrup-soaked baklava, konafa, and other pastries common to most Middle Eastern cuisines. 
The markets in Morocco and full of beef and lamb and the delicious spicy lamb sausage called Merguez.  There are plenty of chickens, ducks, pigeons, turkeys, and rabbits in souks too, both the live and deceased versions.  Hey, I thought rabbit was "Haram" (forbidden) in the Muslin religion, in the same way as pork, but the skinned bunnies hanging in poultry markets were all very recognizable as such by a single furry foot on each.  Morocco's long coastline and big fishing industry also provide and impressive variety of very fresh looking seafood at markets in inland cities as well as along the coast. 
Moroccan cuisine tends to use subtle and mild space and flavor combinations including rosewater, cinnamon, ginger, cumin, turmeric, saffron, paprika, orange blossom water, parsley, cilantro, coriander.  However, I saw little evidence that the mountains of spices I observed in markets were actually making it into the food I was eating in restaurants.  The firey hot flavors that often appear in Tunisian and Algerian food are not typical of Morocco, but there are a few exceptions.  One is the chili and cayenne pepper laden fire sauce used for seasoning foods named harissa, while another is the large pancakes with plenty of chili powder in the batter that are ubiquitous at street stalls in the cities. 
Most meals I did eat in restaurants tended to be variations on the same theme of tagine and couscous.  Couscous is, of course, the semolina wheat grain that's probably the food most associated with Morocco and serves as the voluminous bed for whatever meats or vegetables are served along with it.  Meanwhile, the other famous dish, tagine, is a term that refers to the particular earthenware dishes Moroccans use to cook stews in rather than a particular set of ingredients.  Most tagines, though, are stews of a meat such as beef, lamb, meatballs, or chicken and vegetables or other flavorful ingredients such as almonds, prunes, tomatoes, or preserved lemons.  I though the tagines I tried in various restaurants were generally tasty but not particularly exotic in their flavors. 
Well into our time in Morocco I realized many people in the group hadn't tried any Moroccan food yet, opting for safe dishes like sandwiches, omelets, or Big Macs at McDonalds for non-camp meals.  I decided to remedy this situation by introducing the others to Moroccan flavors, or at least my interpretation of them, when my turn to cook dinner came up in Rabat.  So instead of hot dogs and hamburgers or pasta with red sauce, for one night coucous, green beans with harissa sauce, and chicken tagine flavored with honey, prunes, almonds, preserved lemon, and an array of spices would be on the menu for one night.  Of course, my "tagine" was really only tagine-style since I didn't have the correct earthenware dishes for it to be a true tagine.  The result?  Well, I thought it was a big hit and received numerous compliments on my Moroccan Food Warrenaise, but I think there were some in the culinarily-challenged group who would have preferred another dose of pasta with red sauce.
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