As a child of Moroccan immigrants in Toronto, I sort of believed my family invented the foods we ate at home, like couscous, lamb tagine and fried donuts with mint tea. Yes, couscous has since gotten its glory, but there are many other Moroccan dishes with Amazigh, Arab, Andalusian and French influences that don’t receive enough street cred. I finally had the chance to experience Morocco’s vibrant food culture up close on a National Geographic Journey with G Adventures, my first visit to my parents’ homeland. From Casablanca, Fez and Marrakech to the remote Sahara Desert, here are some underappreciated dishes you need to try.
Sfenj are basically the most indulgent and delicious Moroccan breakfast food you can get — deep-fried donuts, made from a sticky and unsweetened leavened dough, like these beauties from La Sqala in Casablanca. When freshly made, they should be crispy on the outside, fluffy yet moist on the inside and burning hot. You can dust them with sugar, soak them in honey, or eat them plain with a glass of sweet mint tea. Breakfast life in Morocco just doesn’t get any better than this.
Another breakfast staple is bissara, a comforting and hearty fava bean (aka broad bean) soup. Again, served in the morning with mint tea on the side and absolutely no cutlery required as it’s meant to be tucked into with bread (called khobz in Arabic). Hot tip: If you want to make bissara at home, it would also work well as a party dip or appetizer.
So many different cultures around the world have their own version of brochettes (also known as kebab or qotban in Arabic) and Morocco is no exception. Lamb, beef and chicken skewers seasoned with staple ingredients such as olive oil, onions, parsley, cumin and cayenne make for a simple and fresh dish, especially when paired with a traditional Moroccan salad of tomato and onion. We had these elegantly plated chicken brochettes at the Auberge Kasbah Amridil in Ouarzazate, on the Road of 1,000 Kasbahs.
A proper Moroccan lunch or dinner always starts with a table full of colourful salads served with bread before the main dishes are served, and this certainly was the case growing up in our home too. Some popular ones are cooked carrots and harissa, roasted peppers or orange slices with red onion and black olives. There are too many to list, but one of my favourites is this Zaalouk salad of smoked eggplant, tomatoes, garlic and spices that we made during a cooking class in Marrakech — which is similar to Middle Eastern baba ghanoush.
Bastilla (also known as b’stillah, basteeya, or in French, pastilla) is a flaky pastry filled with shredded or minced meat, and can be found all over Morocco, but it should definitely be tried in Fez, where it’s a regional specialty. A classic filling is squab and almond, but you’ll also find chicken, beef, fish or duck versions. Typically, bastilla is both sweet and savoury, dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon, and it’s often served as a first course at festive occasions, so families will make extra-large ones at home and take them to the communal ovens to bake.
Amazigh (Berber) Omelette
First things first: The Indigenous and nomadic nations of North Africa have historically been known as “Berbers,” but the term carries negative connotations as it’s derived from the Latin word “barbari,” or barbarians, which is what the Romans called the people on the outskirts of their empire. The correct term in Morocco is “Amazigh” (or Imazighen for plural), which means “free people” in the Tamazight language. A “Berber omelette” is cooked in a tagine, with eggs, tomatoes, peppers, onions and spices. It’s similar to the Middle Eastern version of Shakshuka, which my twin sister makes for special-occasion brunches.
Madfouna (Berber Pizza)
The most surprising and underrated dish of our Moroccan adventure was prepared for us by a family at a welcoming lunch stop through the oasis town of Rissani, on the edge of the Sahara desert, where “Berber pizza” was said to be invented. Madfouna is an Amazigh flatbread stuffed with a combination of staples such as beef, eggs, tomatoes, nuts, onions and garlic, and spiced with cumin, turmeric, paprika, ginger and parsley. In Moroccan Arabic, “madfouna” means buried, as this dish was traditionally cooked right in the sand over hot stones.
Mint Tea and Cookies
Tea is deeply rooted in North African culture, and no trip to Morocco would be complete without Maghrebi mint tea (at least three times a day) and a sampling of some of hundreds of types of cookies, pastries and biscuits filled with almonds, dates, sesame seeds and honey. Moroccans like their tea sweet, and when it comes to serving guests, custom dictates that the higher the pour the greater the welcome.
Tagine is both the name of this slowly simmered, fragrant dish and the clay vessel it’s cooked in — a round and shallow base and a conical lid that traps the steam as the meat and vegetables cook. Luckily, you can still make tagine in any ol’ pot, too. The iterations are endless, but classic variations include chicken with olives and preserved lemons, and sweet and savoury lamb or beef with prunes, like this lovely pictured dish from Restaurant Nejjarine in Fez.
Not to be confused with tagine, tangia is the specialty dish of Marrakech, but also gets its name from the earthen pot that it cooks in, in this case an urn-shaped one that was originally used to transport olive oil. Tangia is said to have evolved as a dish associated with artisan men working in markets. Traditionally (and to this day), the pots are taken to the communal furnace ovens inside the medina, or old city, which heat water for the local hammams and cook at a low temperature, often overnight. We enjoyed this feast of beef and bone marrow tangia on the road from the Sahara to Marrakech at the welcoming home of our guide’s friend.
Drooling yet? Here are the 10 Best Middle Eastern Restaurants in Toronto
Boulettes de Poisson
A Sephardic Jewish favourite, my mom always makes these “fish balls” with ground white fish (such as cod) in a spicy tomato sauce for Shabbat dinners on Friday nights, and it was a delightful surprise to find them at one of the oldest seafood restaurants in Casablanca called Port de Peche, right beside the port. They’re also often made with ground sardine filets, which complement the tangy sauce seasoned with lots of cumin, garlic, paprika and parsley.
Marrakech’s main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa, is famous for its street food, particularly the food stalls selling steaming vats of snail soup, called babbouche or ghlal. Here you’ll find locals and tourists alike slurping up the earthy spiced broth and plucking the cooked snails out of their shells with toothpicks.
Dip your toes into Middle Eastern cuisine with these 20+ Healthy Dishes You Can Make at Home