Culinary By Dayna Engberg

Magic in Marrakech


A stroll through Marrakech's iconic Jemaa el-Fna square is an inundation of the senses. Shop owners at every corner beckon for your business. Tangled melodies of beating drums and reed flutes mingle with the scent of sizzling meat and earthy incense. And finally, there's the photographer's prize: The markets, where perfectly conical piles of colorful spices sit alongside a rainbow smorgasbord of softball-sized citrus, perfectly ripe produce and heaping baskets of nuts. The quality, diversity and volume of Morocco's food markets rivals even the fanciest Californian co-op, with a far better bang for your buck.

A merchant bringing his wares to market in Marrakech


Here, the entire philosophy of farming is unique. Less than 30% of land in Morocco is privately owned. Nearly half of the country is communal land, with the majority of farmers operating on fewer than 12 acres. Unlike the U.S. with its abundant monoculture - the modern practice of using private land to farm a single crop - Moroccan farmers lean on ancient wisdom.

Instead of rows and rows of identical crops, imagine a lush forest garden that almost supports itself, often without the intervention of modern machines or chemicals. Roaming cattle graze on the dropped shells and hulls of almond trees, which in turn, thrive on the soil fertilized naturally by the cattle. Guavas, mulberries, tamarind and no fewer than 17 varieties of citrus flourish in the shade of tall date palms. Donkeys carry bags spilling over with bananas, figs, pomegranates and other fruits and nuts. It's a style of polyculture farming that's been practiced since Biblical times.

Women farming the fields in Morocco
A farmer selling oranges at a food market in Marrakech


True epicureans know that good food starts at the farm. Often the greatest dishes aren't great by virtue of complicated cooking techniques or expensive gadgets; they simply use better quality ingredients - something Morocco offers in abundance. Like many of its Middle Eastern neighbors, Moroccan cuisine involves high quality breads and the neon remnants of spices like turmeric and saffron. Unlike Indian cuisine with its spotlight on fiery blends of five-alarm spices, Moroccans lean towards flavors that showcase savory meats and farm-fresh vegetables.

From hearty bastilla pies topped with a delicate flaky crust reminiscent of shepherd's pie to endless meat kebabs called brochettes, many Moroccan foods share familiar culinary qualities of neighboring regions, making it a relatable cuisine favored by both foodies and picky eaters alike.

Morocco mint tea


You don't need to go to a five-star restaurant to enjoy a good meal in Marrakech. In fact, within the medina (or old town) you'd be hard-pressed to even find one. For breakfast, opt for a local riad. A Moroccan staple, these villas boast private inner courtyards that are open to the elements yet removed from the bustle of the city. You most likely won't see a menu. Instead, the chef will provide a selection of fresh-baked breads and pastries with cheeses and honey, fresh fruit and some of Morocco's famous fresh-squeezed orange juice. Often ornamented with intricate tilework, fragrant flora and picture-perfect plunge pools, riads make for the perfect serene setting to start the day before braving the bustling souks.

While out shopping, make sure to snag some of Morocco's market staples to bring home, such as fresh spices, plump olives and authentic Moroccan argan oil. For lunch, take some chances and give in to the hawkers. On the surface, these persistent street food vendors may seem like pushy salespeople, but there's a wholesome purpose behind their no-strings-attached samples. One bite of these mouthwatering morsels and you'll want to buy the whole meal. For the full Moroccan tasting menu, try all the delectable samples - yes, even the snails - before settling on a full plate, washed down with a steaming cup of sweetened mint tea.

Dusk at Jemaa el-Fnaa Square market in Marrakech

For dinner, go for the country's most famous dish: Tagine. Named after the ceramic dishes in which they are cooked, the cone-shaped lids of these one-pot wonders trap steam during cooking and return the liquid to the pot, resulting in melt-in-your-mouth meats and savory, marinated vegetables. They come in infinite flavors, like tangy chicken with preserved lemons and olives, succulent lamb or beef with prunes or a sweet-meets-savory chicken and apricot, often served over couscous to soak up the delicious sauce.

In a sense, the tagine is an embodiment of Moroccan cuisine itself - flavors with that inimitable wow-factor backed by ancient cooking and farming techniques, a deep-rooted market culture and diverse culinary influences from Berber to Andalusi, Mediterranean, Sub-Saharan and beyond.

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