Moroccan Food: a look into innovation

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Among Middle Eastern cuisine, Moroccan food is not necessarily the most recognizable to most Americans. There’s no hummus, no fattouch, no falafel. It’s not leafy green bulghur salads you can buy at Whole Foods, and it’s not gyros, or really any kind of meat on a spit. For the most part, everyday Moroccan food is centered on tagines – stews and steamed vegetables that are cooked in their eponymous clay pot. There are hundreds and hundreds of types of tagines, usually based on a medium sized hunk of meat buried under mounds of steamed vegetables. There’s also couscous, which essentially puts a tagine on top of grains, and lots of steamed or boiled vegetable salads.

Once you get past the ubiquitous and very sweet mint tea, and the generally flavorless and repetitive tagines available at tourist restaurants and roadside stops throughout the country, the best Moroccan cooking is found in homes. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but this is the kind of regional, local, home-cooked food that adds real diversity to Moroccan cuisine.

There is khilia, which can be beef or camel meat that is dried like jerky and then preserved in layers of fat – you fry it up, add eggs to the pan, and eat it for breakfast – like sausage and eggs, all in one pan; I’ve been told the best kind comes from Fez. There is samet, a syrupy molasses made from grapes, which, as far as I can tell, is only sold by one man in the mountain city of Chefchaouen. In Oujda, near the Algerian border, bakeries sell makrout, a cookie which is like a fig newton, but stuffed with dark and gooey dates. There is saffron harvested in the southern desert city of Taliouine, and honey from the euphorbia plant which burns in the back of your throat. These food products are often referred to as beldi products, a word in Moroccan Arabic which means something locally or traditionally produced, or indigenous to a specific place.

These foods, and the many techniques for making and using them have been immortalized in the cookbooks of Paula Wolfert, Claudia Roden, and reinvented by Mourad Lahlou. However, many of these recipes change wildly from one end of the country to another and no cookbook can fully capture all of the intensely localized types of tagines, breads, herbs, and spices that exist throughout the country. As with many food related things, it’s better if you go there and taste it for yourself.

In recent years, beldi food products are being increasingly marketed towards foreigners, sold at fairs and cooperatives throughout Morocco and even abroad. Products like argan oil, traditionally produced in the southern and desert regions around Agadir and Essaouira from the nut of the argan tree, are now showing up in the aisles of CVS in shampoo and makeup bottles. Tons of ethical and interesting questions surround this shift: what does this do to the Moroccan economy? Are these products being produced by Moroccans? Are they making a fair wage? Are these products actually used in their communities, and if foreigners keep buying them, can locals still afford them? How does foreign interest in Moroccan food products and cultural heritage change what is important and valued in Moroccan cuisine?

Without trying to offer any answers for these questions here and now, it is worth noting that several individuals and groups throughout Morocco are doing interesting work that touches on a lot of these issues. One such initiative was recently profiled in the New York Times: a newly reopened restaurant in Fez that has created a short-term program for international chefs. Interested chefs can take a break from normal life to take a stab at working in Fez. In one to four month residencies, the current chef designs three-course menus daily, using local ingredients from the market and nearby farms. The mix of Moroccan ingredients and non-Moroccan dishes, prepared by an international chef and Moroccan staff encourages culinary innovation and cross-cultural exchange. The rotating chefs and the permanent staff benefit from the others’ knowledge, experience, different palates, and ways of preparing food, and end up making some phenomenally appetizing dishes. A recent concoction featured chilled pea soup with herbed crème fraiche, summer tomato salad with sardine fritters, braised spring lamb shoulder with ratatouille, and fennel vacherin with black cherries. All of these are Moroccan ingredients, but none are prepared in a traditional Moroccan way. Restaurant Numero 7 will be closed for July and August, but it will be open again in September with its second chef in residence, Analiese Gregory.

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