Samui Wining & Dining
What Makes it Unique?

Discovering the secrets of Moroccan cuisine.

 

23Morocco. It’s got a sultry and exotic ring to it. Names like Fez and Marakesh evoke sepia images of faded glories. It brings to mind scenes of Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca. Of glaring sun and whitewashed walls, and steamy nights with deep, black shadows. Of course, it’s had a strong French influence – Spanish, too. And don’t forget the Arabs – they’ve added a lot to it, as well. It sits on the borders of Europe and Africa – a doorway between ‘The Med’ and The Sahara. And with all of this, you’d expect it to be a bit of an anonymous mix, with bits of all these cultures thrown in together.

    But it’s not. Far from it, in fact. The Moroccan people and culture have evolved to become a highly individual society, with a distinct and clearly defined identity. And when it comes to their food, then exactly the same thing is also true. The Spanish first introduced olives and olive oil to Moroccan cuisine, with some fruit, nuts and herbs, too. And it was the Arabs who were responsible for the spices and the Moroccan’s preference for bread. All resulting in a cuisine that has evolved into something quite distinctive. And, unlike the herb-based cooking of the Mediterranean, Moroccan cuisine relies almost entirely on spices.

      In every Moroccan kitchen you’ll find cumin, coriander, saffron, dried ginger, paprika, cinnamon and chilies. And you’ll also come across harissa – a paste made of garlic, chilies, olive oil, and salt. This is the base for some of the more fiery dishes, and definitely something you won’t see in countries either to the north or the south.

 

And you’ll also come across harissa
– a paste made of garlic, chilies,
olive oil, and salt.


       Which is all starting to make Moroccan food sound rather hot and spicy, which, really, it isn’t! How does lamb topped with eggs (which have been curdled in a lemon-onion sauce) and then further topped with a dusting of sweetened almonds sound to you? Or a chicken tagine – which might be cooked with butter, onions, pepper, saffron, chick-peas, almonds and lemon? Perhaps it would be the bisteeya that’d make your mouth water. This is made with a combination of spiced pigeon meat and a mixture of creamy lemon-flavoured eggs and almonds. After which, it’s baked or (fried) in a circular case of overlapping leaves of thin, crisp, pastry (like a giant spring roll) and, finally, topped-off with a sugar and cinnamon frosting.

       Now do you see what I mean when I said that Moroccan cuisine is very distinctive? And that’s without mentioning their most famous national dish – couscous. These are fine semolina grains, which are first plumped-up by steaming. They’re then piled on a large plate, with a stew heaped on top. Traditionally, it’s never a main dish – rather it’s served as the last dish, at the end of the meal. But there are variations on this, and a contemporary Moroccan menu might feature couscous as a dish in its own right, topped with lamb or other savoury items. (Lamb is the main meat, by the way – and it’s usually cooked until it’s tender enough to be pulled apart by hand and eaten using the fingers.)

       You can expect a Moroccan meal to be in the form of a series of courses. It usually begins with a series of salads – and these can be either cold or hot. One of the most commonly served is a tomato and green pepper salad, which is similar to the Spanish gazpacho. Other favourites are the eggplant salad or the salad which is made with oranges. And, after this, comes the tagine.

       The tagine is a sort of stew. This can be lamb, fish or chicken – but if you’re in Morocco, you’ll often find goat or pigeon on the menu, too. There are endless varieties of this dish, all made by varying the added ingredients. (The name, by the way, comes from the clay pot in which it is made.)

       As a rule, there are no desserts in a traditional Moroccan meal, although you might find pastries or honey cakes on the menu. These Moroccan sweets are rich and dense confections of cinnamon, almond, and fruit that are soaked in honey and stirred into puddings. No – instead of a sweet, the traditional way to end a meal is with a nice ‘cuppa’ – a cup of tea. Except that it might not be quite what you’re used to. And for some, it’s very much of an acquired taste. It’s a strong brew of green tea, which is then laced with sugar and fresh spearmint. The result is a minty, syrupy-sweet liquid – not exactly to everyone’s taste!

       Moroccan cuisine is unusual and exotic; rich, spicy and delicious. And it’s got all the mystery and romance that the names imply. You probably won’t spot Humphrey Bogart on the text table, and you won’t be eating it in a waterfront cafe in Casablanca, but never mind. The food’s the same!

 

Rob De Wet


 


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