Enigmatic, vibrant, mysterious – this is Morocco: land both ancient and modern. It’s home to the oldest university in the world (the University of Karueein, founded in 859 AD) and to a site, near Safi, which has yielded some of the most ancient human remains ever discovered. But it’s also a country reaching for the new: the world’s biggest movie set covers 322,000 square feet of desert just outside Ouarzazate, and the continent’s largest wind farm is in Tarfaya.
Bordered by Spain to the north (across the Straits of Gibraltar), Algeria to the east, and the Western Sahara to the south, Morocco is one of only three countries with both a Mediterranean and Atlantic coastline. Home to roughly 35 million people, the country is divided into distinct zones: coast, mountains and desert.
Visitors tend to remain mostly in the coastal areas (huge purpose-built luxury resorts dot the shores), venturing occasionally into the more traditional souks and bazaars in search of exotic excitement (80 per cent of the hashish consumed in Europe comes from Morocco!) and tasty traditional foods… Which brings us to what is unequivocally considered the national dish: the tagine.
With one of the most diversified cuisines in the world thanks to centuries of interaction with other cultures, Moroccan fare is heavily influenced by Berber, Arab, Andalusian, Mediterranean, European and sub-Saharan cooking. Couscous (which originated as a Maghrebi dish of small steamed balls of crushed durum wheat semolina served with a stew spooned on top) is a bit of a staple; pastilla (an elaborate meat pie originally made with pigeon meat, though shredded chicken is now the norm); and seafood abounds in the coastal regions.
But it’s the tagine that’s the culinary king here in Morocco, a Maghrebi dish named for the earthenware pot in which it is cooked. A favourite across North Africa and the Middle East, in Morocco the tagine could include any one of hundreds of recipes, depending on personal choice. Chicken with olives, lamb and prunes, beef and artichokes, fish and veg… the culinary possibilities are limitless, the dish ubiquitous. Even tourists in the most modern resorts will find the traditional tagine on every menu.