Nowhere is the wide variety of ingredients used in Moroccan cooking on more tempting display than at a weekly souk. At these openair markets, aromas from the spice stalls entice shoppers with mounds of cinnamon, ground ginger (Moroccans don’t use fresh ginger), nutmeg, cloves, and mace. Jars filled with sweet red paprika and golden turmeric share shelf space with burlap bags overflowing with peppercorns and cumin seeds.
The complexity of flavors that characterizes Moroccan cuisine reflects many cultural influences in the region. But even though Moroccan cooking enlists a wide variety of spices—ras el hanout, the most exotic blend, may include over 30 ingredients—you can capture the essence of Moroccan cooking without a visit to a North African souk.
Familiar ingredients combine intriguingly The handful of spices I use the most—cumin, sweet paprika, saffron, cinnamon, ground ginger, and black pepper—are probably already in your spice rack. What may seem unusual is that these spices are often used in combination to add exquisite depth to many Moroccan dishes, for example, the stews called tagines.
A penchant for mixing sweet with savory. Other familiar flavors playing unusual roles include fresh and dried fruits and honey. These sweet ingredients are often added to meat dishes, such as lamb simmered with honey and cinnamon. Such wonderfully rich dishes are often saved from being cloying by the generous addition of black pepper and a touch of cayenne. This “sweet heat” is a hallmark of Moroccan tagines.
Perhaps the most famous pairing of savory and sweet is found in the lavish, uniquely Moroccan dish called b’stila (or bastila) in which shredded pigeon, ground almonds, confectioners’ sugar, and cinnamon are layered within a phyllo-like dough called ourka. In b’stila, as in many other Moroccan dishes, saffron and turmeric give the filling flavor as well as a golden hue. To bring out the saffron’s flavor, I often toast the threads lightly before adding them to a dish.
Tangy, spicy, and pungent flavors round out the cuisine. Another distinctly North African flavor is charmoula, a potent purée of garlic, paprika, cumin, lemon juice, olive oil, and cilantro that’s used as a marinade and as a sauce.
Back at the souk, you’ll find piles of preserved lemons and plastic tubs filled with dry-cured black olives and delicious purple and green olives. Seasoned a dozen different ways, olives often serve as appetizers or as one of the main flavorings in tagines or salads.
Preserved lemons—the most important Moroccan condiment. From time spent packed in salt, the lemon’s rind turns tender enough to eat, the pulp becomes almost jam-like, and the lemon flavor is intensified. Preserved lemons add a delicious tartness to meat, poultry, or fish tagines; they’re also wonderful sliced in salads. The pulp is often puréed with the sauce of a dish and the rind added at the end of cooking. (See my recipe for preserved lemons.)
Finally, no consideration of Moroccan cooking is complete without mentioning atay b’nahna, a strong, sweet mint tea that is Morocco’s national drink (to make it, see panel).
Try the tastes of Morocco
- Rub beef or lamb with a mixture of olive oil, garlic, and cumin before roasting or grilling.
- Serve chickpeas as a side dish seasoned with a dash of cumin, some sweet paprika, and olive oil.
- Toss diced roasted peppers with a little olive oil, ground cumin, chopped garlic, and diced preserved lemon rind.
- Make charmoula by combining 1/4-cup olive oil, a minced garlic clove, a teaspoon of ground cumin, and a tablespoon each of sweet Hungarian paprika, finely chopped cilantro, and fresh lemon juice. Use as a marinade for lamb, beef, chicken, or seafood, or as a sauce for vegetables.
- Brew a teaspoon of Chinese green tea with 2-1/2 cups water. While the tea steeps, add a half dozen or so sprigs of mint. Add sugar to taste (Moroccans like it very sweet) and serve hot.