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By Tara Stevens,

who, incidentally, will be cooking some of this food for those of you doing the Disappearing Morocco Tour with us, 13-21 October 2024.

Contact us now, if you are interested in the last two spots!

A baker wearing his bread motif hat, engaged in his rituals with his bread as Koran.

In the labyrinthine streets of Morocco’s mysterious medinas, where the scent of spices hangs heavy in the air and the call to prayer reverberates through ancient alleyways, a culinary heritage as rich and diverse as the country itself, awaits. As a cook and food writer, it was part of what first captivated me about living here.

Recognized on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, traditional Moroccan cuisine is a direct reflection of the rich tapestry of influences that shaped its culinary identity. Combining Arab, Amazigh and Jewish cultures, as well as Andaluz, Mediterranean and French influences, it boasts a heady blend of dishes, each with their own complexities and stories.


Enjoying BBQ fish just off the fishing boats in a BBQ smoke-filled alleyway in Essaouira

And yet, amid the frenetic souks where street food stalls sizzle with lamb kebabs and terracotta tagines bubble over hot charcoal, there’s a worrying trend: many of Morocco’s traditional culinary practices are fading into obscurity, threatened by modernization, globalization and changing tastes. And I’m not just talking about old-fashioned, nose-to-tail dishes of calf’s feet and chickpeas, or aubergines stuffed with brains, but the simpler staples of daily life too.

When I first came to Fez in 2006 for instance, it was common place to see mothers sending their kids scampering through the medina’s shadowy lanes with a wooden board piled high with freshly made khobz (Morocco’s round, flat loaf), and ghriba (meaning ‘silly’ in darija, these small, crinkled cookies are much beloved in every home), to bake in the local ferran (communal oven). Or the dada (home cook) of a hotel carrying a huge tray of stuffed sardines on potatoes, tomatoes and capsicums to the same oven, to serve for staff meal. Young men would stop at butchers’ stalls to pay for a tangia – a terracotta urn stuffed with meat, spices and oil – which the butcher would then deposit at the local hammam to cook in its embers until the young man returned from work some eight or nine hours later.  I’d drive to the women’s co-operatives of the Middle Atlas to watch them hand-roll couscous, and then take several sacks home with me, because industrial brands like Trias, were already everywhere in the souks and the supermarkets.

Being served meat from a Tangia on a food tour in Marrakech.


Nowadays, ferrans sell as much bread as they bake. Hospitality teams would welcome a McDonalds as much as they would a tray of sardines. And industrial couscous is the norm. Of course, it’s easy to romanticize a life that while supremely attractive to me as a Westerner, is desperately hard for those barely scraping a living. Industrialization has brought with it easy access to cheaper food, and relieved the pressure on busy homemakers who now go out to work too.

Nevertheless, if the culinary heritage of a country is to survive, we have to participate in the preservation of those traditions.  And that’s where slow, mindful travel comes in. Here are 5 of the culinary traditions that once defined Morocco’s gastronomic landscape that are most at risk, with some simple tips on how best to support them.


1.    Courtly Cuisine

The dishes that came out of the palaces of Morocco’s great imperial cities were often referred to as ‘Fassi Cuisine’, because Fez was considered the greatest gastronomic capital of them all. The cradle of Moroccan gastronomy if you will. You have to dig deep these days to get to the country’s most remarkable dishes, many of which are only found in people’s homes, but it’s well worth the effort of doing so.

In her book, Moroccan Cuisine, Paula Wolfert, writes about a Fassi dish called Shton Makalli, which involves stuffing shad (a river fish similar to whitebait) with a mixture of almonds, dates, ginger and cinnamon. I’ve never been able to find it.  And an extraordinary dish that hailed from Tetouan of lamb, quince, together with two aphrodisiacs: ambergris (a substance secreted by sperm whales) and aga wood. It was considered to be so luxurious that it was befitting only of kings. In my 15 years spent exploring Morocco I have so far been unable to find it, but the wonderful lamb mrouzia, a celebratory feast dish of Aid el Kebir, which features ras al hanout, saffron and honey among its myriad ingredients, feels like a worthy alternative and is regularly cooked and served at the Courtyard Kitchen.

Where to try it: specialist restaurants like Palais Faraj in Fez, or Sahbi Sahbi in Marrakech, serve some of Morocco’s most time-honoured dishes. Both focus on preserving dishes that are in danger of being lost.


2.    Bread Baking

In Moroccan households, bread making was once a revered tradition, passed down from mother to daughter through generations. Kneading dough by hand, shaping it into perfect rounds, and baking it in a communal wood-fired oven was not just a daily chore but a labour of love – a ritual that bound families together.

These days sadly, it is fast being replaced by a quick trip to the supermarket to pick up pre-packaged bread, pastries and cakes. While khobz – the nation’s daily loaf – and still be seen in every hanout (small shops peppered throughout the medinas), specialty breads like the Saharan tafarnoute, which is baked on hot stones – are becoming less and less commonplace. And locally milled grains such as millet, and traditional sourdough starters typical to the bled (countryside), which contained intriguing ingredients like dates, tomatoes and chickpeas, have all but disappeared.

Fortunately, baked goods still hold a beloved place in the hearts of most Moroccans, and at breakfast time, and in the late afternoon, when children are just getting out of school, you’ll find street vendors selling all manner of baked goods to top with butter and honey, scoops of Nutella and tangy triangles of vache qui rit (a highly processed French cheese). 

Where to find it: look out for hot-off-the-grill msemen and melawi (those stuffed with lamb, onions and spices are particularly good), harsha (semolina bread) and begrir (1000-hole crumpets) and, of course, khobz, for sandwiches for the road.


Tara cooked Cara this tasty dish once. It lies on a bed of torn melawi, a leftover from breakfast time.


3.    Street Food


BBQ at Midelt. Copyright A. Navakas. With thanks

For centuries, Morocco’s bustling souks fizzed with the sights, sounds and smells of street food vendors selling all manner of delectable treats. It was, and still is, an integral part of Moroccan culinary culture, and for those with a nose for something delicious, it can often be the very best food you can eat in the country.

The rise of strict health and sanitation regulations, coupled with changing consumer preferences, and the arrival of McDonalds and KFC, however has led to the decline of street food vendors across the country. During the COVID pandemic many were forced to close their stalls, taking with them centuries-old recipes and culinary traditions. So, while it’s still easy enough to find cauldrons of bissara (fava bean soup), bowls of babbouche (snails in a spicy broth) and paper cones filled with maddeningly delicious, maakouda (fried potato cakes), both in the night food market in Marrakech and the Achabine souks of Fez, many of the nation’s most delicious street food is becoming increasingly difficult to find.

What to look for: sign up for a local street food tour during your travels, and you’ll be rewarded with regional treats like caliente (a creamy, chickpea pie typical to Tangier, the Rif and Fez), zeaazeaa (a yogurt, almond butter and date shake found in the Attarine souk in Fez) and the kaak d’essaouira (a crumbly, donut shaped cookie scented with flower waters and found along the Atlantic coast).

Traditional cake cake and biscuit shop close to the famous Blue Gate to the Fez medina, including one sweet that is reputed to have aphrodisiac qualities. Moroccans seem very focused on their aphrodisiacs!

4.    Pickles, Preserves and S’men

Pickled vegetables for sale, Fez Medina. Copyright A. Navakas, with thanks

In Morocco’s rural communities, preserving and pickling were once essential techniques for stocking the pantry. Introduced by Jewish cooks, fruits, vegetables, butter and meats were meticulously prepared and preserved using ancestral methods resulting in an array of tangy condiments, flavourful pickles, funky dairy products and jerky-like meats.

Time was when barni (earthenware pickling jars) were a mainstay of every kitchen, but as access to refrigeration becomes more widespread, the art of preserving and pickling is slowly being forgotten. Few young Moroccans possess the knowledge or desire to make them.  If preserved lemons have made it onto the international stage, treats like pickled green plums and late season eggplants, are becoming a rare treat.

S’men is a fermented butter with a taste not unlike blue cheese. It is a critical ingredient in a type of chicken tagine called a kdra which gives it a particularly unctuous and tangy flavour. And khlii (salted, spiced meat that is first dried in the sun and then preserved in fat), was always included on the packing list of a long trip into the desert.

What you can do: although you probably can’t travel with these piquant treats, you can buy them at pickle stalls throughout the country’s medinas. Khlii and s’men are particularly admired and considered the best quality in Fez, where you can try the former sprinkled on fried eggs for breakfast, and the latter spread on bread at the honey souk.  

Assorted spices photographed in a hole-in-the-wall shop at Essaouira

5.    Foraging

For centuries, foraging sustained rural Moroccan communities. From gathering wild herbs and mushrooms to harvesting fruits and nuts from the forest, foraging provided a vital supplement to the diet and frequently, medical know-how. Unfortunately, encroaching agriculture, deforestation, and urbanization now threaten the extinction of many wild edibles, depleting traditional knowledge and culinary diversity. But one dish endures. Bakkoula is the hexagonal leafed, mallow plant, which Moroccan’s chop, steam and then cook into a spice-laced salad, much like a spinach dish. It’s delicious, and well worth ordering if you happen to see it on a menu.

Where you can learn: there are plenty of gardens across Morocco where it’s possible to learn about local flora and fauna, and its culinary and medicinal uses.

Community vegetable garden at the Todra Gorge. Close by is a hybrid almond and peach tree, that produces almond-flavoured peaches.

Get in touch with Cara today to find out how we can help plan a trip that’s filled with the authentic flavours of Morocco, while supporting the communities and businesses that honour them.

This is Cara, holding court at a spice stall at Rissani markets where the young man working there kindly offered her a glass of Moroccan tea

About Tara

Tara Stevens is the founder of the Courtyard Kitchen Fez, which explores traditional Moroccan dishes and puts them into a contemporary context. Her cooking classes and private dining experiences can be reserved through us here at AIMTours. Please note there is no difference in price between booking via us or directly.

Published March 2024

Copyright Tara Stevens in the main bits. Exclusive irrevocable licence in her content to Cara Ghassemian trading as Aussies In Morocco Tours


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