- Beth Ellis & Bryan Santos
Dinner in Marrakech
K’sra (Moroccan Semolina Bread)
Bread is sacred in Morocco - it is the most basic and essential food, and it is prepared daily and eaten with every meal. Moroccan k’sra is traditionally a dense, round, thin loaf. Moroccan kitchens typically do not have ovens (though they are increasingly common today), so the bread is baked in communal ovens. Women make the dough early in the morning, form the loaves and give them a signature marking, and then take them to the bakery to be picked up before the midday meal. Most preparations use semolina flour, which gives the bread its distinctive golden color and chewy texture. Anise and sesame seeds lend subtle flavor, but not so much as to overwhelm the food in the main dishes. The sturdy crust makes the bread a perfect tool to use for mopping up sauces and soups, and picking up pieces of meats and vegetables. (Contains gluten; vegan).
Shlada bil Khizou wa Litchine (Carrot and Orange Salad)
A Moroccan meal typically starts with a spread of dips and salads before moving on to heartier meat and vegetable dishes. This salad is a very typical dish, and it originated in the kitchens of Fés, northeast of Marrakech and home to much of the country’s citrus production. The shredded carrots provide a little crunch, while the oranges provide a juicy sweetness. Orange blossom water is a common ingredient in Moroccan cooking, and it lends a light floral note. Though bitter orange trees were first cultivated in China over 2,000 years ago, orange trees spread throughout the Mediterranean region with the Arab conquest in the 7th century. Citrus is a part of almost every Moroccan recipe, and oranges, lemons, and limes have been grown in Morocco for centuries. In springtime, the night air of Marrakech is redolent with the smell of orange blossoms. Cinnamon adds a perfect finishing touch to the salad. (Vegan, no gluten).
Za’luk (Eggplant and Tomato Salad)
This is another classic salad - perhaps the most well-known of the incredible array of salads that might grace the Moroccan table. Tender eggplant is mixed with stewed tomatoes and garlic, and finished with extra virgin olive oil, lemon and paprika. It makes for a hearty but summer-y salad that is delicious with a bite of k’sra. While eggplant likely originated in India, where it still grows wild, it traveled across the Mediterranean with the Arabs, much like the citrus, spices, and nuts in many of these recipes. (Vegan, no gluten).
Bakkoula (Spinach and Olive Salad)
While spinach and olives may seem like a relatively straightforward salad, it is anything but. Chermoula is a foundational spice blend / marinade from North Africa that is absolutely integral to Moroccan cuisine (it’s the basis for the za’luk, harira and chicken tagine as well). Typically it is made of cilantro, parsley, garlic, paprika, cumin, cayenne pepper and olive oil and can be used as a dipping sauce, a meat marinade, or simply the base of a vegetable dish, as is the case here. The other key component (besides the spinach itself) is the olives. Morocco is the second largest producer of olives in the world and the sixth largest producer of olive oil in the world - the next time you go grocery shopping for olive oil, read the label and you’ll see Moroccan-grown olives are the base for many European bottled brands! The areas around Marrakech mainly specialize in the cultivation of table olives and they are used with abandon in the cuisine. Have this dish with the k’sra bread and don’t forget to garnish with preserved lemon peels. (Vegan, no gluten).
Kefta (Lamb and Beef Kebabs with Herb Yogurt Sauce)
Kefta is a favorite street food in Marrakech, but equally at home on the family table. A mixture of heavily spiced beef and lamb is shaped around a skewer, and grilled over hot coals (though we’ve broiled them in the oven tonight). The spices include cumin, paprika, allspice, and cayenne; the fresh herbs include cilantro, parsley, mint, and marjoram. Perhaps most noteworthy, though, is ras el-hanout, a uniquely Moroccan spice blend made with 30 to 40 different spices. “Ras el-hanout” means “top of the shop”, as spice merchants would take a pinch from the top of the jars of their freshest spices and mix them together. Many variations exist, but all contain cardamom, cloves, coriander, cumin, ginger, mace, nutmeg, rose petals, cinnamon, and black pepper. The yogurt sauce is a herbaceous complement to the flavorful meat. (Contains dairy (yogurt sauce only); no gluten).
Harira (Chickpea and Tomato Soup)
Harira is a much-loved Moroccan stew of chickpeas and tomatoes. It is almost always eaten to break the fast during the holy month of Ramadan - often with a small bowl of dates - but is also enjoyed all year round, no special occasion necessary. Leftovers might be eaten for breakfast with some bread and tea, or as a light snack during the day. Lamb adds depth of flavor, and broken vermicelli noodles thicken the stew to a velvety texture (“hareer” means “silk” in Arabic). There are regional and seasonal variations, and many families have their own treasured recipes. This is a dish that makes cookbook authors and Marrakshi bloggers wax poetic about their childhoods and their families, as it is so tightly linked to the Ramadan holiday period - it is truly Moroccan comfort food! (Contains gluten, dairy).
D’Jaj M’chermel (Tagine of Chicken, Olive, and Lemon)
Tagine is perhaps the most iconic dish of Moroccan cuisine, and it is often prepared in an earthenware pot of the same name. The conical lid of a tagine (the pot) allows the food to steam and simmer slowly, giving the flavors plenty of opportunity to meld together in a way that is characteristic of a tagine (the food). A tagine typically includes both meat and vegetables, and the result is a saucy dish perfect for eating with couscous or bread. The combination of chicken, olives, and lemon is quintessentially Moroccan; Paula Wolfert describes the combination as “a theme with countless variations,” and an entire section of her seminal cookbook, The Food of Morocco, is dedicated to “Chicken with Lemon and Olives.” The spice combinations change, the cooking techniques vary, but the basic combination is stellar. M’chermel is a preparation that uses an intricate combination of spices (ginger, paprika, cumin, black pepper, cinnamon, and saffron), along with preserved lemons. Preserved lemons have been used in Arabic cooking since the 11th century, and contribute a characteristic mellow lemon sweetness (as opposed to the bright acidity of fresh lemons) to the dish. They (along with olives and sardines) are the umami of Moroccan cuisine. (Contains dairy; no gluten).
Ghriba (Almond, Lemon, and Orange Blossom Cookie)
A large Moroccan meal typically ends with a plate of fresh fruit and nuts, but that is not to say that Moroccan food culture does not include sweets! Moroccan pastries and sweets are eaten any time of the day, often with a cup of mint tea or milky coffee. Sweet baked goods often feature almond paste, citrus, rose and/or orange blossom water, honey, or dried fruits. These cookies are made with house-made almond paste, lemon, egg yolks, and orange blossom water. The mixture is shaped into balls, and rolled in powdered sugar before baking, which gives ghriba their signature crackly crust. (Contains nuts, dairy, egg; no gluten, vegetarian).
Kahina Vin du Maroc
Available at Arbor Farms Market - $20
It should be noted that wine is not a traditional accompaniment to most Moroccan meals. Morocco is a Muslim majority nation, and while not illegal, it is mainly tourists and foreigners who imbibe in Morocco. While there was a tradition of wine making in North Africa during the times of the Phoenicians and Romans, it fell out of favor during the 7th century with the Arab Islamic conquest. The tradition was revived in the 19th century during the period of French colonization, and in the mid 1900s Morocco was one of the world's leading wine exporters. The country does produce some exceptional wines given its warm, Mediterranean climate so we’d be remiss if we didn’t recommend this wine from the Guerrouane region in Northern Morocco, as it pairs wonderfully with this menu.
While you’re not likely to see bottles of wine on most Moroccan dinner tables, you are guaranteed to see glasses of steaming mint tea. The importance of this beverage cannot be overstated (in fact Morocco is one of the top tea importers in the world) - it is not only synonymous with Moroccan cuisine, but also with Moroccan hospitality and culture. Mint tea follows nearly every meal in Morocco, and we’d encourage you to brew a small pot to round out Dinner in Marrakech, as there really is no better way to end a Moroccan meal.
The Maghreb is the western Mediterranean region of North Africa, including Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Maghreb translates to “furthest west” in Arabic, denoting the westernmost territories that came under Islamic rule in the 7th century. The native Berber people of the Maghreb largely resisted Phoenician, Roman, and Christian invasions prior to Islamic conquest, though there is evidence of all of these cultures scattered throughout Morocco. The culture and heritage of Morocco today though, is predominantly that of the indigenous Berber tribes and Arab Islam. Morocco is the Land of the Setting Sun, and Marrakech is known as the Red City, because the high walls surrounding the old city center (the medina) were built with iron-rich desert clay. Taken together, a sunset in Marrakech is truly a sight to behold, as the setting sun paints the walls, and seemingly even the light of the city, an astonishing ochre.
Marrakech was founded in 1062, and it is a city practically bursting with art, food, flowers, and history. It sits at the foot of the snow-capped Atlas Mountain range, and is simultaneously a gateway to the Sahara Desert. The days are hot and dry, and the evenings typically cool off quickly after sunset. It is best explored with a great sense of adventure (or with a guide) as the winding streets of the medina seem to circle back on themselves before leading somewhere entirely unintended. No trip to Marrakech would be complete without a visit to the souks - the vibrant labyrinth of shaded alleys that make up the heart of the medina. Vendors sell everything from traditional to modern goods - pottery, leather goods, spices, clothing, furniture, rugs, and lamps (and much, much more), while motorbikes, carts, and donkeys weave in and out of the crowd. The nearby Bahia Palace or the Majorelle Gardens (outside of the medina) both make for a quiet respite from the sensory overload of the souks. Bahia means “beautiful” in Arabic, and the palace is indeed that. It covers two acres of the medina, and is a showcase of Islamic architecture. (We’ve included photos, along with some of other Marrakech attractions - in the resources below.) Djemaa el-fna is the main square of Marrakech - it is adjacent to the souks, and it is the busiest market square in all of Africa! As sunset approaches, you might head up to one of the many rooftop cafés surrounding Djemaa el-fna, because while the square is busy during the day, it really comes alive at night, and a rooftop terrace will give you a view of the sunset and of the square. There will be snake charmers, dancers, musicians, henna tattoo artists, storytellers and astrologers; food vendors will be selling fried fish, merguez sausages, stewed snails, and couscous. Just after sunset, you’ll hear the cry of the muezzin from the iconic Koutoubia Mosque, calling the faithful to prayer. While there is a great tradition of street food in Marrakech, that isn’t what’s on the menu tonight; we’ve put together a meal for you that is more like what you’d eat in a Marrakshi home. Moroccan hospitality is legendary, and if you’re lucky enough to be invited to someone’s home for dinner, you won’t leave hungry!
Like many other aspects of Moroccan culture, the food is mostly a mixture of Berber ingredients and techniques, and spices brought by Arab traders (with a smattering of European influence). The Berber people have raised sheep, goats, and cattle for centuries, and the coastal plains are fertile ground for cereal, citrus, and vegetable crops. Morocco, and Marrakech in particular, was a strategic hub on the ancient spice trading routes, so it stands to reason that Moroccan cuisine would involve a multitude of spices. The most commonly used spices are cumin, ginger, saffron, coriander, turmeric, paprika, cinnamon, and cardamom. Moroccan cooks have mastered the interplay of sweet and savory, and this juxtaposition is a part of every traditional meal. The “sweet” is often subtle, and comes from ingredients such as oranges, honey, figs, and prunes. Citrus is an important contributor to most dishes, and preserved lemons are a particularly signature ingredient used to add both fragrance and flavor to Moroccan dishes. The lemons are pickled to last through the winter, but there is an alchemy that happens - the fermentation mellows the flavor of the fruit and the rind becomes soft and edible (and delicious!). Unlike European cooking and its meat-searing ways, Moroccan cooking relies on the traditional Berber technique of slow-braising meats and vegetables in clay pots, with the end results being lots of saucy stews. Bread is a crucial component of every meal, and it’s the perfect way to mop up the delicious sauces! Bread is also used as a utensil, as Moroccans traditionally eat with their hands - we’ve got a video for you in the resources below so you can try it at home! Handwashing at the table is a customary way to begin the meal. Then, the host will break the bread and offer it to all at the table, proclaiming, “Bismallah” (in the name of Allah). A Moroccan meal is truly a feast for the senses - deeply aromatic, vividly colored, texturally complex, and incredibly flavorful. (Pop on that Spotify playlist and get your ears involved!) We hope you love this meal as much as we do!
Featured Recipe: Chicken M’chermel
Serves 6-8 people
Adapted from: Feast: Food of the Islamic World
2 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp paprika
Pinch of saffron threads steeped in 1 cup of boiling water
¼ tsp black pepper
~4 lbs of chicken (it can be a whole chicken, thighs, legs - whatever cut is your favorite!)
300 g onions, grated (about 1 medium onion)
Half a bunch of flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
Half a bunch of cilantro, finely chopped
1 cinnamon stick
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp lemon juice, plus more to taste
1 large preserved lemon, peels cut into thin julienne, pulp chopped
200g unpitted green or kalamata olives
Lemon to garnish
Mix the garlic, ginger, cumin, paprika, 1 tsp saffron water, pepper, preserved lemon pulp, and salt in a large pot. Add the chicken and rub well. Let marinade for at least 1 hour or overnight
Add the onions, herbs, cinnamon, and 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil over medium high heat. Add the oil and butter. Cover the pan and cook for 45 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through and the broth has become very concentrated and reduced down to about a quarter.
Add the lemon juice, preserved lemon peel, and olives. Simmer for 10 more minutes. Taste the sauce and adjust seasoning with more salt and lemon
Featured Recipe: Mint Tea
2 tsp green tea leaves
3 tbsp raw cane sugar
50 g mint
Add 3 cups boiling water to the tea and stir in the sugar. Crush the mint a little with your hands then add to the pot. Push the mind down into the liquid with a spoon. Let infuse for a few minutes before serving
Recipes Inspired By:
I was lucky enough to see Anissa Helou debut her cookbook Feast: Food of the Islamic World at the 2019 Islamabad Literary Festival. She’s a culinary powerhouse and this book is a spectacular resource for anyone cooking food from the Muslim diaspora, from Morocco to Indonesia!
Nargisse Benkabbou is the Executive Chef at L'Mida Marrakech and has a great blog of traditional and modern Moroccan cuisine.
Perhaps the greatest new find is Alia al Kasimi and her blog / Youtube channel Cooking with Alia.
Taste of Maroc is a great resource for all things Moroccan, from recipes to travel tips.
Couscous and The Food of Morocco by Paula Wolfert. Wolfert is largely responsible for bringing Moroccan cooking into America’s home kitchens with these two authoritative books, and for introducing chefs to the flavors of Morocco.
We included the recipe above, but this short video shows the ritual involved in brewing and pouring Moroccan mint tea.
This article has a good slideshow featuring photographs from Marrakech.
This funny and frank blog post explains eating as the Moroccans do - with your hands! Here is a video that really delves into the communality and spirit of it all!