People love top 10 lists almost as much as they love phonetic spellings. So I've spelled out some typical dishes from Morocco with an accent on the word "yum." Uh oh. I just violated my no yum policy. Now I have to go wash the cutesy off my keyboard. Might even have to chuck my whole computer. But before I do, my gift to you.
1. Salade Marocaine
The ubiquitous Moroccan salad appears in many forms, but the very first one I had in Casablanca was probably my favorite. Tomatoes, onions, peppers, roasted zucchini and parsley were plated over lettuce in a simple, yet vibrant vinaigrette. The fanciful surrounding veg, egg and olive accoutrements made for a show-stopping presentation. Light and zesty with great textural diversity, it was an equal opportunity salad. Must've been because it was so far away from the Tea Party.
Other regulars in the Moroccan salad lineup are cooked beets, green beans, potatoes, rice and even green chiles for a salsa-like sensation. How do you say olé in Arabic? Nope, that’s not it.
2. Harira Soup
This hearty lentil, chickpea and tomato soup was so full-bodied, Lane Bryant could have designed a pantsuit for it. Some had pieces of vermicelli in it, and though I never saw any traces of meat, I wasn't convinced such a rich broth was vegetarian. But I abided by a don't ask, don't smell policy and made believe it was. Though it’s a favorite for breaking the fast during Ramadan, harira soup is eaten all year long at any meal, including breakfast. Once I thought about saying to the waiter, "There's a harira in my soup," but I was afraid he’d think, “Out of the whole USA, and I have to get the one named Shecky.”
While every bowl I had was a winner (and I had many), my favorite was at this harira stall in the Fez medina for 60¢. Testament to the credo that when you specialize in one thing, it better be freaking good. Note to self: When I open a harira stall, mediocrity is not an option.
3. Sfenj and Msemen
Okay, so they're really two completely unrelated breadstuffs. But the sfenj and msemen came as a matched set for breakfast one morning at my riad in Marrakech. The Moroccan doughnut, sfenj (an Arabic word meaning "sponge"), is a regional street food also found in Algeria and Tunisia that’s deep-fried and sprinkled with sugar or soaked in honey. Like a cross between a doughnut and croissant, I heard somewhere that the cronut idea originated from a pastry chef in Morocco. But I can't prove it, so no frivolous pastry lawsuits over the Moroccronut, please.
This thick tortilla-like bread called msemen that's pan-fried was served with a traditional topping of hot syrup made from butter and honey (top photo). My riad in Fez served it in thin, layered pieces (above) sans the syrup that was greasier and tasted like a quesadilla. How do you say oilé in Arabic? Nope, still not it.
What makes this dish a tagine is the clay vessel with a conical lid that it’s cooked in called a tagine. Yep, those two nouns are effing with you the same way the word “dish” is, as in “that was one tasty dish.” I ordered this chicken tagine in the city of Meknes, and after the first bite, I discovered the "chicken" was beef short ribs. Rather than proclaim I had been violated by unwittingly eating a cow, as a flexitarian in a faraway land, I went with it since I didn't want to waste said cow. But it didn't hurt to have the waiter write me a note to PETA saying it was his bad. I just hope PETA can read Arabic on napkin.
While the beef tagine was served over couscous, most tagines come without it. Top row: two sardine tagines; bottom left: vegetable; bottom right: chicken with apricots and almonds. For a reasonably priced clay tagine, this one comes highly recommended by renowned Moroccan cookbook author, Paula Wolfert.
No, it’s not a big plate of fugly. It’s a resplendent fish tfaya couscous that taught me not to judge a couscous by its cover. Tfaya is the topping of rich, caramelized onions and raisins with a garbanzo bean garnish. Underneath all that deep flavor were thick pieces of a mild white fish called dourado, and I was in the coastal city of Essaouira—prime real estate for the catch of the day. As far as the couscous part, well, you know those boxed ones in the States? My condolences. This was the lightest, fluffiest, most pillowy couscous—the real deal—without that cardboard aftertaste.
While this more typical vegetable couscous was undeniably tasty and fugly-free, I’ll take fugly over perky cheerleader any day, thank you.
6. Grilled Sardines
Americans may see him as a poor, lowly ghetto swimmer, but in Morocco, he’s the Michael Phelps of fish. Well, maybe not Phelps, but the silver-medal sardine is a popular, celebrated everyfish, eaten grilled, fried and baked in tagines. The city of Essaouira, on the Atlantic coast, is swimming in seafood, and since the sardine is so nutritious and plentiful, I chose him over sexier crustaceans.
Just look at all those bad boys. Still, I tried to be a good girl. Turns out sardines aren't as sustainable as I thought. The world’s largest exporter of sardines, Morocco sadly has overfishing issues with them too.
This famous Fassi (from Fes) delicacy, bastilla, is traditionally made with pigeon, but the birds were all busy delivering letters that day, so mine had chicken. The paper-thin pastry called warqa—similar to phyllo dough but even thinner—is filled with chicken, eggs, almonds and spices, while powdered sugar and cinnamon artfully adorn the top. Mine was apparently the victim of a BP (Bastila Powdered sugar) spill, and the sweet and meat combo left an oily residue in my belly. My bad for not giving it another go somewhere else, but I was awaiting the BP degreasing crew. The bastilla Anthony Bourdain had in this video from Tangier looks like it had more refined oil.
Memo to bastilla chef: Halt powdered-sugar production immediately or be prepared to lawyer up.
8. Rotisserie Chicken
I took a two-hour bus ride out of Fez to a small town in the Atlas mountains called Azrou and ended up in a spit rotisserie joint because some hot, twirling birds were winking at me on the sidewalk like cheap trollops. Despite their unhygienic-sounding moniker, spit-roasted chickens are popular in Morocco, and they always come with fries and rice just to mess with the paleos. One had had its way with me before, but this time I was the only female in a packed house of burly, Arabic-speaking men who were seriously gettin' their chicken on. I might've been nervous had I not been so busy gettin' mine on too.
Why did the Moroccan chicken cross the road? To get to the other spit. Their chickens aren't too bright. But then, ours aren't exactly road scholars either.
9. Snail Soup
No, they're not related to those uptown escargot who luxuriate in a rich butter and wine sauce in France. These smaller, garden-variety, everyman's snails or babouche are served in an earthy broth that cost me a whopping 70¢ on Marrakech’s main square, Djemaa el-Fna. Purported to aid in digestion and cure what snails you, the soothing broth has delicate notes of thyme, anise, mint, bitter orange and other fragrant herbs and spices. You simply pluck the snails out of their shells with a toothpick, eat the chewy little guys and then down the broth. See how snail soup is eaten on the Marrakech square here.
Poised over big vats, the snailmen really deliver with their fast-food snails (yup, it's an oxymoron). Street food was perfectly safe to eat, as last time I checked, I was still alive. I’ll check again after I finish this post, just to be sure.
After my last slurp of snail soup on the square in Marrakech, I walked through the food stalls and stood mesmerized by a dark, mysterious concoction next to a big copper kettle. The vendor reeled me in for a taste of the sellou, and I became enchanted by this spicy sweet with a strong gingerbread flavor and the consistency of a pudding-like cake. The sellou recipes I've read say it's made from flour, almonds, sesame seeds, honey, sugar, butter, cinnamon and anise, but I could taste stronger spices like clove. It was served alongside a spicy tea with the burning-hot flavors of cinnamon, ginger, clove, cardamom, galangal, nutmeg, star anise, etc. for a true sensory spice overload.
I was so taken by this tall, dark, rich, spicy stranger, I had to have one last fling with him the night before I left. But we'll always have Marrakech.
Ode to a Sardine
Animal, Vegetable, Minaret: Fez Medina, Part 1
Animal, Vegetable, Minaret: Fez Medina, Part 2
Animal, Vegetable, Minaret: Fez Medina, Part 3
Letting Go and a Moroccan Gigolo