Your complete guide to Moroccan cuisine and Moroccan table manners – What are the most common herbs and spices? – What is acceptable Moroccan food etiquette?

A Brief Introduction to Moroccan Cuisine – what does Moroccan food taste like?

First, let us explain the basis of Moroccan food.  Moroccan cuisine is characterized by a harmonic blend of spices and herbs, all working beautifully together but never competing, to delight your palate, without actually being spicy hot.  In fact, most Moroccan food is not “hot” spicy, maybe as an exception is some cooked salads with a bit of heat.  Instead, if a bit of heat might complement the flavor of the dish, then stewed hot peppers or “harissa” (hot pepper paste) would be served on the side.

What herbs and spices are used in traditional Moroccan cuisine?

By far, fresh mint is one of the most commonly used herbs in Morocco, as perhaps the most popular drink in Moroccan cuisine is mint tea! It’s a non-alcoholic yet deliciously intoxicating beverage made with fresh mint and green tea, usually served very sweet.  In Morocco, another fresh herb commonly used when steeping green tea in the winter is “sheeba” (also written as “chiba”) or wormwood.  Less common though no less delicious alternative herb options for tea or infusions include verbena, lemon balm, oregano and rose geranium.

For cooking, parsley and cilantro are the most commonly used herbs to flavor traditional Moroccan cuisine.  They are always added fresh, never dried, and the amount of either herb added to dishes is meant to round out and complement the other flavors.  In traditional Moroccan cuisine, the herbs always simmer in the broth or sauce, so if you’re someone who isn’t a big fan of either parsley or cilantro, the resulting taste shouldn’t make you shy away from trying Moroccan food!

Common spices in Moroccan cuisine dishes include ginger, turmeric, saffron, cinnamon, paprika and cumin, and of course, salt and pepper.  These spices are not all used together in the same dish!  Instead, Moroccan cuisine will most pair ginger with turmeric and saffron, while paprika and cumin are often used together.  Cinnamon is delicious in Moroccan sweet-savory combinations.

What are the most popular oils when cooking Morocco cuisine?

Olive oil is the cornerstone of Moroccan cuisine!  It is used extensively and copiously!  Moroccan olive oil is some of the most delicious olive oil in the world, and it’s a shame it’s not more readily exported to more countries.  Olive oil gives much flavor to Moroccan cuisine in sauces or salads, and it’s excellent when used as a dipping oil.  Many families will buy bulk olives in season and then have them pressed, versus buying olive oil from a grocery. 

Argan oil may have gained world-wide popularity as a great cosmetic oil for hair and skin, but in Morocco, this “liquid gold” is also comestible.  As a culinary oil, argan oil’s nutty flavor is most popular in Moroccan cuisine as “raw” in conjunction with almonds and honey in “amlou”, Moroccan cuisine’s answer to peanut butter.  Argan oil makes a wonderful alternative oil to any recipe listing walnut oil.  It can also be used in sauces because of argan oil’s higher smoke point.  Argan oil, however, should not be used for deep frying.

In Moroccan cuisine, freshness is paramount!

Moroccan cuisine is based on the seasons, and fresh fruits and vegetables are bought frequently from market stands.  Meat and fish are bought respectively from the butcher and fishmonger; chicken is so fresh, that the chicken is actually chosen by weight when alive (!) and then slaughtered and plucked while one waits.

There may be some pantry staples such as couscous grains or tomato paste, but overall, very little processed food is used in traditional Moroccan cuisine.

Bread is often baked daily at home.

Is there anything Moroccans don’t eat or drink?

Morocco is a vastly predominate Muslim country, so alcohol or pork are never used in traditional Moroccan cuisine.  Moroccans instead choose beef, lamb or poultry for “meat” dishes.  As we mentioned, Moroccan mint tea is the beverage of choice and is jokingly referred to as “Moroccan whiskey”.

Do Moroccans follow recipes?

In contrast to many other cultures where the top chef was/is most often male, Moroccan women reign supreme when it comes to traditional Moroccan cuisine!  Moroccan women are the masters of the kitchen at home, in riads and restaurants – such is the background of a traditional “dada”. 

If you were to ask a Moroccan woman for a recipe, you might get a puzzled look, as it’s rare for them to follow an actual recipe!  Instead, there is a Moroccan saying that they measure or weigh “with their eyes”.  This is true to a certain extent.  When measurements are given in traditional Moroccan cuisine, it is often in the context of the quantity of a bowl for soup or a glass for tea.

However, when it comes to traditional Moroccan cuisine, the desired result is just that – traditional.  In the purest sense, Moroccans appreciate well-cooked Moroccan foods with typical and expected taste profiles.  This is not to say that there isn’t variety, since of course, each cook puts her own personal touch to a dish, but innovation is unexpected and not typical when it comes to the most traditional Moroccan food dishes.

Presentation of Moroccan food

Moroccans not only weigh or measure with their eyes, they also eat with their eyes!  Presentation of prepared Moroccan cuisine is very important, so prep is key! 

For example, when it comes to salads, the vegetables will be cut small and in uniform sizes.  Moroccan meatball tagine is comprised of tiny meatballs, unlike the size of the typical large American meatball. Moroccan mint tea is served high above tea glasses which creates a thick foam which is said to show the quality of the tea.  For main dishes such as couscous, the stewed vegetables are laid out carefully and distributed evenly across the platter. 

The amount of sauce on the serving dish is also very important!  Just the right amount of sauce for a tagine means bread won’t get soggy, or the right amount of sauce to moisten couscous grains means you won’t be eating a puddle of semolina!

Are Moroccan desserts sweet?

Traditional Moroccan cuisine does include some sweet pastries and cookies, but these are rarely served a dessert in Morocco.  Instead, Moroccans may offer pastries and cookies during tea time, and at the end of a traditional Moroccan meal, a variety of seasonal fruit will be proposed.

Do Moroccans eat with their hands? Or do Moroccans use forks or spoons to eat their meals?

Now that you are familiar with Moroccan cuisine, you may be wondering: how should you actually eat it?

For couscous, it was traditional to eat couscous in Morocco by rolling small balls of smashed vegetables with semolina by hand and then popping it into your mouth!  It is more common these days that large spoons, such as table spoons or soup spoons, are provided to eat Moroccan couscous.

For tagines, it is 100% perfectly culturally acceptable to eat tagines by using your hands!  But when we say “hands”, we actually mean to use small pieces of freshly baked bread to scoop up the delicious tagine and to mop up the sauce.  In fact, it’s the most preferred way by Moroccans to eat tagines! Moroccan children are taught to use bread instead of using their fingers to pick up pieces of stew. 

For fresh salads, most often a fork or small spoon is provided to eat them, while bread is again the winner to eat cooked salads such as taktouka or zaalouk.

When eating by hand in Morocco, it is preferred to use the right hand and then, typically just the tips of the thumb, index and middle finger.  This leaves you with cleaner hands at the end!

What is acceptable Moroccan food etiquette at the table?

If you’re a foreigner eating at restaurants in Morocco, there are very few rules, if any, to follow!

But, if you’re invited to someone’s home or to celebration such as a wedding in Morocco, here is some important Moroccan food etiquette you should know:

Before sitting down to eat, you may be offered the opportunity to wash your hands.  In most traditional Moroccan hospitality, this is a ceremony which involves a pitcher and a 2-pieced vessel with a drain on top and a basin to catch the water.  These are often copper or silver-plated copper. Soap and a hand towel may also be presented.  When the meal is over, you will likely once again be offered the opportunity to wash your hands, and as a special finishing touch, orange blossom or rose scented water might be sprinkled on your hands to lightly refresh and perfume them.

Traditional Moroccan cuisine, whether at home or at celebrations, will be served family-style on large communal platters rather than individual dinner plates.  The trick then is to eat in the area directly in front of you – never reach across the platter into someone else’s designated area!

This following tip is especially important to follow at someone’s house: never dive directly into the meat or chicken!  Instead, start with whatever may be on top, such as French fries or prunes and almonds, or even just sauce.  Then, there are the two followings options: When the host starts into the meat or chicken, then that is your sign that it is OK to do so as well OR the host may actually present pieces of meat or chicken to you by placing them in front of you on the platter.

It should probably go without saying that if you are using your hand to eat, you shouldn’t lick your fingers!

Moroccans pay careful attention to what their guests may be drinking and eating and will anticipate their guests’ needs, making sure to refill glasses without prompts, to ply favorite morsels and more Moroccan cuisine on their guests, or to provide a napkin if hands get soiled.  Sometimes Moroccan hosts may even drape their guests’ laps with a napkin, if they think that the dish could be messy.

Moroccan show their love and hospitality through food and drink!  If you ever thought that your grandmother liked to “force” food on you, then you’ll soon realize that she may have met her match with a Moroccan host!  While most hosts in the Western world will match serving sizes with the number of people at the table, Moroccans will set the table with more food than likely could be consumed!  As long as you keep eating, they will keep serving! 

And be careful if you are invited to a wedding – there are always two main dishes served, always part of traditional Moroccan cuisine – so don’t fill up on the first, or you won’t have any room for the second or dessert!

It is not customary for Moroccans to ooh and aah over a meal, no matter how delicious the Moroccan cuisine is bound to be; Moroccans are NOT expressive eaters.  In fact, many guests may not even outright compliment the host.  Instead, there are a few phrases in Moroccan Arabic (Darija) which can be used to show satisfaction and appreciation.

Alhamdulillah! = Thanks to God!

Tbarakallah!  = Blessings from God! (This same expression can be used in a number of situations where you might say “Nice! Pretty! Delicious! etc”

Allah ykhlef = May God reward you / replenish you (This is used after the meal, to thank the host or cook)

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