The Tantalizing Taste of Morocco

The Tantalizing Taste of Morocco

The Kingdom of Morocco, on the northwestern edge of Africa, has been a crossroads of cultures for centuries, an inevitable result of its geography.
Morocco's cuisine, among the most diverse and flavorful in the world, expresses all of its historic influences gleaned from the Romans, Arabs, Moriscos of Spain, Sephardic Jews— and, of course, its native Berbers and the fertile land itself.

The foods of Morocco are as robust and colorful as a Moroccan tile, with flavors shaped by more than two dozen spices, herbs and aromatics; orange flower water and rose water; olives and olive oil; couscous and chickpeas; eggs, fish, chicken and lamb; butter, buttermilk and yogurt; and a vast array of fruits and vegetables.

Americans were first exposed to the world of Moroccan cooking in the mainstream by Paula Wolfert, one of today’s most respected food writers. Wolfert’s first book about Morocco, Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco (Harper & Row), was first published in 1973. Her extraordinary talent is in her ability to communicate, despite language barriers, with the native women who do the cooking, emerging from their homes with a deep understanding of the nuances of the cuisine. Her recipes are as authentic as possible, given the differences in ingredients and equipment, and chefs nationwide are adapting them.

“Whenever a customer asks what to drink with harissa, I tell them Yarden Gewürztraminer from Galilee, Israel,” says Hoss Zaré, chef and owner of Zaré at Fly Trap in San Francisco. Zaré’s Persian roots are reflected in his cooking style, which mirrors the breadth and complexity of flavors also found in Moroccan cuisine. To expand wine pairing options, Zaré also uses roasted sweet peppers to tone down harissa’s trademark heat. “For chermoula, I prefer a Sancerre or a French Chenin Blanc. California Chardonnay does not work with these flavors.”

Although Morocco’s wine industry is enjoying a renaissance of sorts, wines from Morocco, neighboring Tunisia and other North African countries can be hard to find in the United States. For more widely available wines to pair with Moroccan dishes, look to whites, such as an herbal and aromatic Roussanne from the Rhône or an off-dry Riesling from Austria. For a red, opt for a spicy, young Zinfandel, which works well with the cuisine by cutting through the fats and complementing the spices.

For specific pairings with the recipes created for this story, we enlisted Fabiano Ramaci, a chef and winemaker for Mora Estate based in Sonoma County, California. Ramaci was born in Sicily, another crossroads of culinary influences, and offers great culinary expertise in matching complex traditional fare with wine.
When preparing Moroccan cuisine at home, you can be completely traditional, with handmade couscous and tagine, prepared in a distinctive pot also known as a tagine. Or you can combine classic Moroccan flavors with American techniques and ingredients as demonstrated by the wine-friendly recipes that follow.

To create an authentic atmosphere, drape the table with beautiful brocade in vibrant colors and conclude your feast with green tea steeped with fresh mint and sweetened with honey or sugar. Traditionally served in glass vessels, it’s as important to Moroccan cuisine and culture as its extraordinary palette of spices.

Merguez with Yogurt-Tahini Sauce

Lamb is as essential to Moroccan cuisine as, say, olives or lemons. There are countless tagines—slow-cooked stews—of lamb, redolent of spices and rich with fruits and vegetables. But Morocco also has what may be the best sausage in the world, merguez, made of lamb, spices and herbs. Merguez—often served sliced as an appetizer throughout France—is so delicious that it needs nothing more than to be cooked. But add a little thick yogurt or yogurt sauce and you have a sensational appetizer with little effort.

1 pound merguez (see note below)
1 cup whole milk yogurt
1 tablespoon raw sesame tahini Kosher salt
1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro, mint or parsley, or a combination of all three

Grill or fry the merguez until cooked through, then drain and cut it into bite-sized pieces. Put the yogurt into a small bowl, add the tahini, season with salt and stir until very smooth.

Transfer the yogurt mixture to a small serving bowl, and sprinkle with the fresh herbs. Set on a plate and surround with the merguez. Serve immediately. Serves 4–6.

Note: Merguez is lamb sausage seasoned with coriander, cumin, cinnamon, cayenne, paprika, garlic and, frequently, fresh cilantro. It’s widely available at gourmet markets and butcher counters. Sautéed eggplant can be served in the same way and is an excellent alternative for vegetarians.

Wine Recommendation

Ramaci recommends one of his own wines to pair with merguez. The 2010 Mora Estate Rosato of Barbera is light and crisp with bright acidity and notes of watermelon, cranberry and white pepper, all of which complement the mildly spicy lamb. Alternatively, look to a classic Bandol Rosé, like the Domaines Bunan 2010 Mas de la Rouvière, for a reliably delicious match.

Braised Chicken with Moroccan-style Vegetables, Green Olives, Couscous, Harissa and Preserved Lemons

Tagine of chicken with preserved lemons and green olives is a signature Moroccan dish, with four traditional variations. This contemporary recipe is inspired by those traditional dishes, yet lightened with seasonal vegetables cooked less than they would be in a tagine. It is entirely flexible, too, and you can vary ingredients based on the season. In the summer, add Blue Lake or Romano green beans, poblano chilies and peeled, minced tomatoes in place of the sweet potato and kale. In the spring, use fresh fava beans, roasted asparagus and fresh artichoke hearts.

4 tablespoons clarified butter
1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
8 bone-in chicken thighs
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
1 yellow onion, peeled and grated on the large blade of a box grater, excess juices pressed out and discarded
8 large garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, peeled and grated
½ teaspoon saffron, dissolved in
1 tablespoon warm water
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
2 tablespoons harissa (see recipe, page 98)
6 cups hearty homemade chicken, duck or meat stock
3 carrots, preferably a mix of yellow, orange and purple, peeled and cut into thin diagonal slices
1 small sweet potato, peeled, cut into quarters lengthwise and then into thin diagonal slices
1 bunch lacinato kale, large stems removed, leaves cut into 1-inch-wide crosswise slices
1 cup cooked chickpeas
¾ cup cracked green olives, pitted and cut in half lengthwise Steamed couscous (see recipe, page 98)
3 tablespoons minced preserved lemons (see note to the right)
3 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro

Put the clarified butter into a small pan set over medium-low heat, add the oregano and simmer very gently for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let steep for up to 30 minutes.

Pre-heat oven to 175°F. Strain the butter into a wide, deep sauté pan and set over medium-high heat. Season the chicken thighs all over with salt and pepper and set in the pan skin side down. Cook until the skin turns golden brown and begins to crisp, about 7 minutes. Turn the chicken over and cook for about 7 minutes more. At this point, the chicken should be about half done. Use tongs to transfer the chicken to a plate and keep warm in the pre-heated oven.

Return the pan to medium heat, add the grated onion and sauté until it loses its raw color, about 6 minutes. Season lightly with salt, add the garlic and ginger and sauté for 2 minutes more. Stir in the saffron, cumin, turmeric, paprika and harissa. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Skim off any foam that forms and simmer very gently for about 15 minutes.

Add the carrots, sweet potato, kale and chickpeas and simmer for 10 minutes, until the carrots and sweet potato are almost, but not quite, tender. Add the chicken, along with any juices that have collected on the plate, and the green olives. Cover and simmer very gently for 10 minutes more. Remove from heat and keep covered.

Steam the couscous (see recipe below).

To serve, divide the couscous among large individual bowls and use tongs to top the couscous with the chicken. Use a slotted spoon to add the vegetables to each bowl, placing them around the edge of the couscous. Spoon some of the cooking liquid over each portion and pour what remains into a sauceboat or gravy boat.

Toss the minced preserved lemons and minced cilantro together. Top each portion with a generous spoonful and serve immediately, with additional sauce alongside. Serves 4–6.

Note: Lemons preserved in salt and lemon juice are readily available from a number of retail sources. They are also easy to make at home. To do so, cut 5 or 6 lemons into wedges, put them in a bowl and toss with 4 tablespoons of kosher salt. Sprinkle another tablespoon of salt over the bottom of a 1-quart Mason jar and add the lemons, pressing them down so that they all fit. Sprinkle another tablespoon of salt on top and fill the jar with freshly squeezed lemon juice. Top the jar with a piece of parchment, add the lid and ring and let cure for at least 7 days before using. It can take up to 30 days for the lemons to fully soften. Shake the jar daily to redistribute the salt and juice. Preserved lemons will keep for up to a year.

Steamed Couscous

1½ cups couscous

Put the couscous into a large bowl, pour 1½ cups of water over it and set aside for 10 minutes, or until all the water is absorbed.

Meanwhile, pour about 3 inches of water into a large saucepan and set a strainer or a colander with very small holes over it. Dampen a clean tea towel, twist it into a loose rope and fit it in the space between the colander or strainer and the edge of the pot. Put the couscous into the strainer and set over high heat until steam rises from the couscous, about 10–15 minutes. Do not cover the pan.

Remove the couscous from the heat by lifting out the colander or strainer. Slowly drizzle a cup of water over the couscous while raking it with a fork. Return to the pan, tuck the towel around it and steam again, until the couscous has swelled to 3 times its original size. Makes about 4½ cups.

Wine Recommendation

A tagine, with its kaleidoscope of exuberant flavors and textures, presents a pairing challenge. Ramaci’s first choice is an Italian Ripasso from Masi. The wine will engage every part of the palate, he says, but without eclipsing the complexity of the tagine.


Harissa is essential to Moroccan cuisine. There are many versions, some with only garlic and chilies, and others that may be quite spicy. This version is flavorful, but not so hot that it interferes with wine.

1½ ounces dried chilies, preferably ancho
1 tablespoon cumin seed, lightly toasted
2 teaspoons coriander seed
1 teaspoon caraway seed
6 garlic cloves, crushed
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more as need
½ cup olive oil

Heat a heavy pan—cast iron is ideal—over a high flame. Add the chilies and toast, turning frequently, until they puff up with fragrant steam. Transfer to a work surface to cool. Remove the stems and seed cores.

Grind the cumin, coriander and caraway seeds in an electric spice grinder or suribachi (Japanese mortar and pestle). Put the chilies, ground seeds, garlic, salt and olive oil into the work bowl of a food processor and pulse until the ingredients form a very thick, smooth paste.

This paste can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for 10–14 days. 

A true Moroccan table offers an assorted spread of dishes. Meals may begin with several salads, meatballs or the classic bisteeya, a layered pie of chicken or pigeon, eggs, onion sauce and sweetened almond, with a flaky crust; or it may start with a light tagine before moving on to another richer, more robust tagine or couscous.

For a light start to a heavy feast, serve a simple sliced orange salad, another classic dish that may include myriad Moroccan flavors such as olives, dates, pomegranates and rose water or orange flower. This salad is a refreshing palate stimulator as it teases the appetite, making your guests eager for the next dish. And to lend a flourish of authenticity to your table, prepare homemade hummus for a delicious appetizer––it’s easy to make and always better than the countless commercial versions widely available throughout America. For a colorful garnish, bejewel the hummus with fresh pomegranate arils, as the beautiful gem-like seeds are called.

Spicy Hummus with Pomegranate Arils & Extra Virgin Olive Oil

The chickpea is treasured throughout the Mediterranean and appears in nearly countless tagines and couscous presentations in Morocco. This spicy hummus is rich and creamy with puréed chickpeas and aromatic of chipotle, cumin and sweet garlic.

1 cup dried chickpeas, soaked in water overnight and drained
4–5 garlic cloves, minced
1–1½ teaspoons chipotle powder
½ cup raw sesame tahini, available in most supermarkets
Juice of 1 lemon, plus more to taste  
2 teaspoons cumin seed, toasted and crushed
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
2 tablespoons water
5 tablespoons high-quality extra-virgin olive oil, divided
3 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley
½ cup fresh pomegranate arils
Flatbread and sliced vegetables, for dipping

In a pot of boiling, salted water, cook the chickpeas until they are very tender, about 40–50 minutes. Drain thoroughly, rinse and cool to room temperature. Set aside about 2–3 tablespoons of whole chickpeas and put the rest into the bowl of a food processor, along with the garlic, chipotle powder and tahini. Pulse several times. Add the lemon juice, cumin seed, salt and two tablespoons of water.  Pulse repeatedly, until the mixture is smooth and creamy. 

Taste the hummus and adjust the seasoning, if needed, with more salt and lemon juice. Add 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and 2 tablespoons of the parsley and pulse again. Transfer the hummus to a serving bowl and let rest, covered, for 30 minutes before serving.

To serve, drizzle the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil over the hummus, sprinkle with the remaining tablespoon of parsley and scatter the reserved whole chickpeas and the pomegranate arils on top.  Serve immediately with triangles of warm flatbread and sliced vegetables.

Store covered in the refrigerator, hummus will keep for several days. It can be served cold but is best at room temperature. Makes about 2 cups.

Wine recommendation: To best flatter hummus, Chef Fabiano Ramaci recommends a Pinot Noir, either a classic Burgundy or a California bottling that is suave, subtle and not overly extracted. For an extraordinary match, try Alysian 2008 Russian River Valley Floodgate Vineyard West Block Pinot Noir, a new release from the highly acclaimed producer Gary Farrell.

Cara Cara Orange & Red Onion Salad with Oil-Cured Black Olives

4 oranges, preferably Cara Caras, peeled, cut into ⅛-inch thick rounds, seeded
1 small red onion, peeled and cut into paper-thin slices
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon sweet paprika
2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
16 oil-cured black olives, pitted and cut into thin strips

Arrange the orange and onion slices on a platter. Season lightly with salt, pepper, cumin and paprika. Drizzle with olive oil, scatter the olives on top and let rest for 30 minutes before serving to allow the flavors to blend. Serves 4 to 6.

Wine Recommendation: To pair with a traditional Moroccan orange salad, Chef Fabiano Ramaci suggests a Spanish Albariño such as an easy-to-find and reasonably priced Paco & Lola. The refreshing acidity pairs well with the briny olives, and classic Albariño is often aromatic of orange oil, a natural match with the orange component of the dish. A dry sparkling wine, either from Europe or California, is another pleasing option.


Published on November 15, 2011