Coming from an Asian background, initially when I hear the word spice I immediately think of heat or chillies. I think this is pretty much across the board with Asians when we think of the word ‘spice’.
Moroccan herbs and spices although have a lot of similarities or even the same spices that also originate from India. The actual way it is cooked, preserved and used is completely different.
Although Moroccan spices are used very subtly whereby the natural flavours alongside the textures are enhanced of the vegetables and fruits used.
What are the most common spices?
Some of the most common spices are cumin, ginger, nigella seeds, saffron, mace, cloves, fennel, anise, paprika nutmeg, turmeric, cayenne pepper, fenugreek, caraway, black pepper sesame seeds. cinnamon coriander and fennel. Although there are a lot more spices, these are the ones that I thought to be the most common ones.
Is Moroccan food spicy?
It all depends on your perception, if you mean whether the food has heat and chillies, then for me, it was no way near our Asian foods. There was no heat or spiciness in the dishes whatsoever for me. Again, this is merely my opinion, and nothing is stated as facts. One thing to also bear in mind is that spice and heat all boil down to one’s own taste buds and pallets.
However, if you’re from a background where you have not experimented any herbs or spices, and the most you utilise is just salt and pepper, then your pallet would almost be certainly bursting with the new flavours and aromas!
The colours of the spices are amazingly soft scented dust. With its fine texture and the aroma tickling the end of your nose. The colours of the spices consist of dry sandy colours, to the vibrant ruby reds boastfully displaying the paprika and chillies.
Some Moroccan foods and dishes
When one thinks of Morocco one tends to only think of the obvious touristic foods such as the couscous or Tagines. Although yes, these dishes are a huge part of Moroccan culture but there are so many more foods to be explored.
Knowing and having someone local is a huge advantage to get to know the real ordinary foods that one consumes every day.
I know if I had a guest coming to my home, I would go out of my way to get the best fish and meats cuts. I will ensure that I cook much more than I usually do, exaggerating on the oils and masala spices I will use. However, the dish may be cooked again, but it does not really reflect on how I eat every day. This is just for guests that will be served for the temporary period. I will go back to my day to day routines and cook the way I normally do. The same way, whether we visit a Moroccan Berber village, or a restaurant, there is a fine line what the tourists and local people eat on a day to day basis.
It starts with hot beverages, either creamy coffee or milky tea. Moroccans unashamedly use milk generously on their hot drinks. Some of the other drinks are, hot mint tea, or even organic freshly squeezed orange juice. Which something that is very norm and part of Moroccan culture.
For breakfast, a savoury one to have is the Loubia, which is a bean-like saucy dish that is served with flatbread. For the more common breakfasts, Morocco’s indulge in a sweeter like carbohydrates. Some of which consists of croissants, crumpets that are served with either local honey or jam, pancakes, or ring-like doughnuts. Moroccans are not shy about having a sweet tooth and tend to have these throughout their days when they have their teas/coffees.
Lunch is typically tagines or couscous. The not so common ones that most westerners don’t know about are dishes such as; zaalouk; a popular dish made from aubergines, blended with garlic, olive tomatoes and spices. Normally served with crust bread.
For those fish lovers, there’s Fish Chermoula which is a baked fish mix with other kinds of seafood. Blended with onions, corianders chillies and saffron. Some tend to serve with chilli sauce, always a great treat for those who like a little more heat in their foods.
One to try is for sure is the stuffed camel spleen. This is a form of a sausage-like appearance stuffed with spices, lamb, beef followed with a creamy soft texture inside.
Some of the other foods are, aubergine fritters, crumbled liver (for those that hate liver or kidney texture stay away, it’s not a dish for you), Makouda- fried potato balls, steamed sheepshead, this is pretty much self-explanatory- not for the squeamish or the lighthearted! There are a whole lot more foods to explore, some of these dishes are only just touching the surface.
Dinner normally consists of lots of various salads, followed by deep-fried samosas and kebabs. Thereafter Harira Soup, or broth like meaty stews. Followed by pastilla chicken, or pastilla seafood. Again, most of the lunch meals can also be alternated for dinner too, similarly to the west. There is no set rule to say, a certain dish can ONLY be eaten for dinner and vice versa for lunch.
Desserts are my favourite part of any meal! Similarly, the Moroccans pride themselves in their lavish desserts. Whether it be Ghoriba, baklawas, chebacco, Fekkas, M’hanncha, date cookies, almond cookies and much much more. Most of the Moroccan desserts mentioned here are either a biscuit, filo or pastry form. Although this is just a rule of thumb, other desserts are in a form of puddings or even sweet grain rice and other starches.
Moving on the spices and their distinguished flavours, I won’t discuss all of them because there will be hundreds to get through then. I’ve hand-picked a few that stood out to me.
Nutmeg is a very subtle nutty spice, that is commonly used for desserts but can be just as well used for savoury foods too. It is either used on top to garnish desserts, as a dusting powder or roughly crushed.
Ras El Hanout
The Ras El Hanout which means ‘head to the shops’ my interpretation is, it is a spice that is the ‘all in one spice.’ The Asian alternative to that will be the ‘Mix Masala’. It has everything you need all in one spice mixed.
The Ras El Hanout is a spice that has around 20 different spices all mixed, in some part of other places they have up to 30 or more spices and can even go up to a hundred!
I think with these spices it is more for convenience rather than a deep flavour, whilst including a minute dash of the more extravagant spices.
Although it is not an everyday spice, it is used to rub on the on either the fish or meats. Sometimes it is used to flavour the rice too, but ever so subtly. Since it’s a mixed spice, all the spices and aromas are entwined bursting with different scents a little is more than enough.
Cardamoms are one of my least favourite spices, especially when I bite into one. Although I tend to use it, once the flavour has been absorbed I tend to pick them out. I noticed in some Moroccan dishes, cardamom seeds were generously scattered and people do eat it very casually. I find the smell and aroma too overpowering for my liking either I will have to pick it out or I will have to eat something else.
Cinnamons tend to look like a bark type stick, which is, in fact, a strong spice. It’s very good for any flu-type symptoms one may have. The cinnamon sticks are used for both savoury and sweet dishes and then taken out. Since it’s a bark, it is not usual to eat the spice, but rather only used to flavour the dishes.
Paprika is a red hot fiery coloured spice, although it is not as hot as the chilli powder. It is mainly added to give food its luscious red royal colours.
The cumin is part of the coriander and parsley family. It is very aromatic with a slightly bitter taste. It is believed that it does wonders for the digestion in the Ayurveda methods… Cumin is used to season tagines, eggs, stews, meats, beans and even salads.
The anise seeds have a very strong distinct liquorice type flavour, it is used sparingly when in baking. However, it is also used in savoury cooking too where it tends to be used more generously then.
Nigellas seeds are jet black sesame sized seeds, that are used in Moroccan cooking. Believed to heal many different illnesses. With a bitter, salty and nutty taste, it is commonly used to garnish dishes to give off a finishing making the black seeds stand out more.
Fenugreek seeds another name is Helba. Sandy golden brown colour, again also very small, very similar to cumin. It’s one of those spices that are very bitter when chewed but when added creates a tantalising aroma in the foods. It is a unique part of their foods and added to most savoury dishes. In some parts of the world, fenugreek is classified as a natural weight loss supplement, those that are wishing to shed a few extra pounds add fenugreek into the mix and see what happens!
In conclusion, Moroccan foods will not be Moroccan if it does not include their amazing spices. It truly makes their food authentic and unique. It is not essential to have the same utensils or the traditional tagines clay pots. Though it may enhance the flavour and make it look more exotic, it is not essential. But one essential thing is the Moroccan spices, you will for sure need them as without them it will be a completely different dish. The same way a beef burger would not be a beef burger without the beef!