Basic Moroccan meals may begin with a thick, very filling soup – most often the spicy, bean and pasta harira. Alternatively, you might start with a salad (often very finely chopped), or have this as a side dish with your main course, typically a plateful of kebabs – either brochettes (small pieces of lamb on a skewer) or kefta, (minced lamb). A few hole-in-the wall places specialize in soup, which they sell by the bowlful all day long – such places are usually indicated by a pile of soup bowls at the front. As well as harira, and especially for breakfast, some places sell a thick pea soup called bisara, topped with olive oil.
Another dish you’ll find everywhere is a tajine, essentially a stew, steam-cooked slowly in an earthenware dish with a conical earthenware lid. Like “casserole”, the term “tajine” actually refers to the dish and lid rather than the food. Classic tajines include lamb or mutton with prunes and almonds, or chicken with olives and lemon. Less often, you may get a fish or vegetable tajine, or a tajine of meatballs topped with eggs.
Kebabs and tajines usually cost little more than 30dh (£2.25/$3.50) at hole-in-the-wall places in the Medina, which typically have just two or three tables. You are not expected to bargain for cooked food, but prices may be higher in such places if you don’t ask how much things cost before you order them. There is often no menu – or just a board written in Arabic only.
If you’re looking for breakfast or a snack, you can buy a half-baguette – plus butter and jam, cheese or eggs, if you want – from many bread or grocery stores, and take it into a café to order a coffee. Many cafés, even those which serve no other food, may offer a breakfast of bread, butter and jam (which is also what you’ll get in most hotels), or maybe an omelette. Some places also offer soup, such as harira, with bread, and others have stalls outside selling by weight traditional griddle breads such as harsha (quite heavy with a gritty crust), melaoui or msammen (sprinkled with oil, rolled out thin, folded over and rolled out again several times, like an Indian paratha) and baghira (full of holes like a very thin English crumpet). If that is not sufficient, supplementary foods you could buy include dates or olives, yoghurt, or soft white cheese (ejben).
Street food includes small kebabs or spicy merguez sausages cooked at roadside stalls (make sure the sausages are well done), peanuts, sunflower seeds or roasted chickpeas sold at peanut stands, and sfenj (doughnut-shaped fritters), sold from little shops, particularly in the morning.
Restaurants usually offer fish, particularly on the coast, lamb (agneau) or mutton (mouton), usually in a tajine, and chicken (poulet), either spit-roasted (rôti) or in a tajine with lemon and olives (poulet aux olives et citron). You will sometimes find pastilla, too, a succulent pigeon or chicken pie, prepared with filo pastry dusted with sugar and cinnamon; it is a particular speciality of Fez.
And, of course, there’s couscous, the most famous Moroccan dish; Berber in origin, it’s a huge bowl of steamed semolina piled high with vegetables and mutton, chicken, or occasionally fish. Restaurant couscous can be disappointing as there is no real tradition of going out to eat in Morocco, and this is a dish that’s traditionally prepared at home, especially on Friday or for a special occasion.
At festivals, which are always good for interesting food, and at the most expensive tourist restaurants, you may also come across mechoui – roast lamb, which may even take the form of a whole sheep roasted on a spit. In Marrakesh particularly, another speciality is tanjia, which is jugged beef or lamb, cooked very slowly in the embers of a hammam furnace.
Dessert may consist of a pastry, or a crème caramel, or possibly yoghurt, which is often – even in cheap places – the restaurant’s own. Otherwise you may get fruit, either an orange, or perhaps a fruit salad.
Restaurants are typically open noon to 3pm for lunch, and 7 to 11pm for dinner, though cheaper places may be open in the morning and between times too. Places that don’t display prices are likely to overcharge you unless you check the price before ordering.
Like paella or casserole, the word tajine strictly refers to a vessel rather than to the food cooked in it. A tajine is a heavy ceramic plate covered with a conical lid of the same material. The prettiest tajines, decorated in all sorts of colours and designs, come from Safi, but the best tajines for actual use are plain reddish-brown in colour, and come from Salé. The food in a tajine is arranged with the meat in the middle and the vegetables piled up around it. Then the lid is put on, and the tajine is left to cook slowly over a low light, or better still, over a charcoal stove (kanoun), usually one made specifically for the tajine and sold with it. The classic tajines combine meat with fruit and spices. Chicken is traditionally cooked in a tajine with green olives and lemons preserved in brine. Lamb or beef are often cooked with prunes and almonds. When eating a tajine, you start on the outside with the vegetables, and work your way to the meat at the heart of the dish, scooping up the food with bread.
Vegetarianism is met with little comprehension in most of Morocco, though restaurants in some places are becoming aware that tourists may be vegetarian, and many places do now offer a meat-free tajine or couscous. In Marrakesh there is even a vegetarian restaurant (see Café Argana), and pizzas are usually available in large towns. Otherwise, aside from omelettes and sandwiches, menus don’t present very obvious choices. Bisara (pea soup), a common breakfast dish, should be meat-free, but harira (bean soup) may or may not be made with meat stock, while most foods are cooked in animal fats. It is possible to say “I’m a vegetarian” (ana nabaati in Arabic, or je suis vegetarien/vegetarienne in French), but you may not be understood; to reinforce the point, you could perhaps add la akulu lehoum (wala hout) in Arabic, or je ne mange aucune sorte de viande (ni poisson), both of which mean “I don’t eat any kind of meat (or fish)”.
If you are a very strict vegetarian or vegan, it may be worth bringing some basic provisions (such as yeast extract, peanut butter and veggie stock cubes) and a small camping gas stove and pan – canisters are cheap though quite hard to find (Carrefour hypermarkets usually have them, as do the DIY chain Mr Bricolage), and some cheap hotels allow guests to cook in their rooms.
The most difficult situations are those in which you are invited to eat at someone’s house. You may find people give you meat when you have specifically asked for vegetables because they don’t understand that you object to eating meat, and you may decide that it’s more important not to offend someone showing you kindness than to be strict about your abstinence. Picking out vegetables from a meat tajine won’t offend your hosts, but declining the dish altogether may end up with the mother/sister/wife in the kitchen getting the flak.
Morocco is surprisingly rich in seasonal fruits. In addition to the various kinds of dates – sold all year but at their best fresh from the October harvests – there are grapes, melons, strawberries, peaches and figs, all of which should be washed before eaten. Or for a real thirst-quencher (and a good cure for a bad stomach), you can have quantities of prickly pear (cactus fruit), peeled for you in the street for a couple of dirhams in season (winter).
The national drink is mint tea (atay deeyal naanaa in Arabic, thé à la menthe in French, “Whisky Marocain” as locals boast), Chinese gunpowder green tea flavoured with sprigs of mint (naanaa in Arabic: the gift of Allah) and sweetened with a large amount of sugar, often from a sugar loaf (you can ask for it with little or no sugar – shweeya soukar or ble soukar). In winter, Moroccans often add wormwood (chiba in Arabic, absinthe in French) to their tea ”to keep out the cold”. You can also get black tea (atai ahmar in Arabic, thé rouge in French, literally meaning “red tea”) – inevitably made with the ubiquitous Lipton’s tea bags, a brand fondly believed by Moroccans to be typically English. The main herbal infusion is verbena (verveine or louiza).
Also common at cafés and street stalls are a range of wonderful freshly squeezed juices: orange juice (jus d’orange in French, ‘asir burtuqal in Arabic – if you don’t want sugar in it, you’ll need to say so say so), almond milk (jus d’amande or ‘asir louze), banana “juice”, meaning milk shake (jus des bananes or ‘asir mooz) and apple milk shake (jus de pomme or ‘asir tufah). Also common is ‘asir panaché, a mixed fruit milk shake often featuring raisins. Leben – soured milk – is tastier than it sounds, and does wonders for an upset stomach.
Moroccan tap water is usually chlorinated and safe to drink, but tourists generally prefer to stick to bottled water. Mineral water is usually referred to by brand name, ubiquitously the still Sidi Harazem or Sidi Ali (some people claim to be able to tell one from the other), or the naturally sparkling Oulmès. The Coca-Cola company markets filtered, processed non-mineral water in bottles under the brand name Ciel. Coffee (café) is best in French-style cafés – either noir (black), cassé (with a drop of milk), or au lait (with a lot of milk). Instant coffee is known, like teabag tea, after its brand – in this case Nescafé.
Lastly, do not take risks with milk: buy it fresh and drink it fresh. If it smells remotely off, don’t touch it.
As an Islamic nation, Morocco gives drinking alcohol a low profile, and it is not generally possible to buy alcohol in city Medinas. Ordinary bars are very much all-male preserves, in which women may feel uneasy (bartenders may occasionally be female, but female Moroccan customers are likely to be on the game), but upmarket bars – especially in Marrakesh or Casablanca or in tourist hotels – are usually fine. On the drinks front, Moroccan wines can be palatable enough, if a little heavy for drinking without a meal. The best is the pinkish red Clairet de Meknès, made purposefully light in French claret style. Beauvallon is another good one, but usually reserved for export. Other varieties worth trying include the strong red Cabernet, and Ksar, Guerrouane and Siraoua, which are also red, the rosé Gris de Boulaoune and the dry white Spécial Coquillages.
Those Moroccans who drink in bars tend to stick to beer, usually the local Stork or Flag. Flag from Fez is held by many to be superior to the version brewed in Casablanca (the label will tell you which it is). The most popular foreign brand is Heineken, which is made under licence in Morocco.