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The Top Flavors Of Morocco

Updated on December 31, 2009

Thanks to the constant stream of conquerors and tradesmen through North Africa, many herbs and spices have found a comfortable home in the Moroccan kitchen. The country also draws on Arab, Spanish and African influences.

The meats of North African cooking are primarily lamb, mutton and poultry, with fish along the coastline and some beef; often these foods are stretched with beans, lentils or chickpeas. The produce, as one might expect from the region's California-like climate, is abundant and the markets spill over with artichokes, citrus, melons, zucchini, carrots, beans, peppers and eggplant. The vegetables are thrown into stews called tagines, or eaten fresh in deceptively simple salads, like carrot salad dressed with cinnamon. However, there is another very different region which was once known as Western Sahara (and not universally acknowledged to be within Morocco due to some... er... unfortunate excesses utilized by the government during annexation) where the foods available are strictly of the desert!

The best-known spice mix is ras-el-hanout, or "top of the shop": the cook takes the best spices in the cupboard, up to 25 or more, and throws them together to flavor anything from tagines to couscous. The second best known spice mix is actually a chili paste, harissa, which is appropriate in any Tunisian dish (and not necessarily in moderation!).

Salt touches the North African palate in the form of olives and lemons. Olives may be dry-cured or brine-cured, then seasoned with herbs, chiles and lemon, and sold in heaps at the market. Preserved lemons, on the other hand, are usually homemade. The lemons are buried raw in crocks of salt for weeks until they give up their juices, becoming salty-tart and almost jam-like in texture. Both olives and preserved lemons are added to tagines or salads, or simply served on the side as a condiment.

One traditional Moroccan dish is the b'steeya; immigrating Spanish Moors and Sephardic Jews allegedly brought the technique for the pie's layers during the Inquisition. In between the flaky layers lie poultry (pigeon or chicken) and scrambled eggs, coated in a sauce of ginger, cinnamon, pulverized nuts and sugar. The savory and sweet combination is a trademark of the Arabs and Persians who conquered North Africa in the seventh century. It's well established in even the simple dishes of the region, tagines with prunes or dates simmered in with the meat and onions.

These stews are a perfect match for couscous, the starchy pellets of rolled semolina flour that cook quickly and do such an excellent job of absorbing the juices of stews and cooked meats. Couscous may be plain, or cooked with fruit, vegetables or nuts; it is traditionally cooked above stews in a couscousiere, or special steamer basket.

The end of a Moroccan meal may be signalled by a course of fruit or achingly sweet confections. But thoroughly sugared atay b'nahna (mint tea) is always served. British traders in the mid-1800s brought with them the tea-drinking habit and the taste for Chinese green tea. The teapot is crammed with mint and often flavored with other spices: cinnamon, orange blossoms, even saffron, depending on the region.

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