A trip to Morocco is not complete without tempting your taste buds, and expanding your palate, with the tastes and treats of the region. Moroccan cooking is synonymous with a large variety of unique spices and flavorings. From bountiful sauces to zesty salads and side dishes, the region offers a unique variety of culinary opportunities for the adventurous explorer.
Moroccan food is usually a mix of flavorings, spiced by Andalusian, Berber and Mediterranean influence. While some spices have been imported for centuries to the region, others are uniquely Moroccan. These include mint from Meknes and saffron from Taliouine.
Most traditional Moroccan dishes contain spices, but not just the run-of-the-mill spices you might find in your normal grocery store. In Morocco, fresh spices are the norm. The most traditional options you will find are coarse salt for cooking, as well as pepper, turmeric and ginger.
Other common spices traditionally used in Moroccan dishes include cinnamon, cumin, saffron, paprika and white pepper. For a mix of ground spices, choose Ras El Hanout. Translated from Arabic, this means “head of the shop”. This expression really means “the best of the shop”, and may include spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, mace, anise and cardamom, among a variety of peppers.
Taking a closer look at the common spices used in Moroccan cooking:
White pepper is ground from only the inside kernel of the same berries used to make black pepper. Because it’s milder in taste, white pepper is a good addition for sweet Moroccan sauces.
Cumin is slightly bitter, but extremely aromatic. It is often used in Moroccan stews and tagines, as well as salads, roasted meats, and even to season eggs.
Ginger is spicy and fragrant, making it a great addition to Moroccan tagines, stews and soups. If you buy it, look for a pale yellow hue. When ginger ages, it darkens, and becomes more bitter.
Saffron threads come from the saffron crocus flower. Because they’re so fragrant, you only need a few to offer a distinctive and aromatic Moroccan dish. They also offer a yellowish hue. In Morocco, you will find that saffron is more inexpensive than in grocery stores in the U.S.
Tumeric offers Moroccan food its yellowish coloring. It’s more difficult to find outside of Morocco, and doesn’t offer any taste or aroma to a dish. It is very messy to work with while cooking.
Nutmeg, as stated earlier, is a common addition to Ras El Hanout. It is aromatic, spicy and sweet, and is also sometimes used for seasoning.
You may find whole bay leaves in Moroccan dishes including tagines, stews and even tomato sauces. They come from a type of evergreen tree, and have a mild, yet spicy taste, as well as offering a fragrant addition to traditional dishes.
Bargaining & best quality
When traveling to Morocco, use the opportunity to stock up on spices found at one of the local souks, including saffron, paprika, cumin and sea salt. Remember to bargain, though. You may find prices look a little high, and the reason is that it’s traditional to bargain. You may even find you’re able to buy the spices for a third of the asking price.
One exception in the high price rule is saffron. Because of the way saffron is cultivated, it is really expensive to buy. It has to be picked by hand. Beware, though, because sometimes saffron is counterfeit. If you want to go where saffron is grown, head to Taliouine. You’re able to buy possibly the most potent saffron available in this region from one of the local coops. You can also see for yourself where the spice comes from. The best quality is not powdered. Rather, it is long and thin, and colored a bright red.
Other uses for spices
Although it seems that spices are most readily available for cooking, they can also be used for therapeutic and medicinal reasons.In some Moroccan villages, saffron is used to help with digestion and circulation, garlic is revered for its healing and detoxifying powers, and ginger is said to make people happier. Sea salt is known for its regenerative purposes and aniseed and dill are said to also help with digestive issues.
Whether you are shopping in Morocco for cooking spices, or other reasons, you will no doubt be in for a rewarding adventure. Just remember to bargain for the best prices, and look for the freshest ingredients, no matter where you go.