The expected, nevertheless, is a good place to begin. Mint tea, offered at every formal and informal occasion, is also what you long for dur ing a hot day in the narrow streets of a Moroccan city. And the longing is intensified when a donkey, dwarfed by its towering load of mint, brushes past, the green herb breathing its aromatic invitation as it is crushed against the crowd.
That longing is easily satisfied: The simplest cafes serve mint tea. Boys run through the medina with cleverly balanced trays of glasses, delivering them full to shops and collecting them again once they've been emptied; you will be offered a glass - or even the formal three glasses - if you linger any length of time over your purchases. Mint tea (see box) is standard at every meeting, and the equipment for brewing it is an essential part of every Moroccan household and of every bride's dowry: gaily painted wooden tables in the countryside - or brass stands in more sophisticated homes - with teapots, sometimes with a long, curved spout, sometimes made of tin or enamel, and the small glasses, which often have gold rims and brightly painted flowers.
You don't have to spend much time at all in a Moroccan suq to realize that a great variety of good food can be found. It is often best, in fact, at street stalls or in homes, and less good in restaurants. With some distinguished exceptions - often in the hotels that cater to well-to-do Moroccans - most restaurants are intended for working men in a hurry, or are heavily French-influenced - often good, but not very Moroccan - or are for tourists, with picturesque decors and, inauthentic food.
But the delights of the markets easily tempt you away from fancy establishments, inviting you to sample every offering. In Tetouan, for example, the Berber women in their splendid red-and-white draped dresses and wide straw hats carry their baskets up to the old town and settle down to sell, looking out at the beautiful mountains of the Rif. They meticulously arrange their wares. One vendor displays eggs in patterns of dark brown, pale brown and white, their smooth shells set off by the occasional fragrant damask rose, "for the pleasure of it."
Next to the egg vendor sits an elderly woman with a pile of lemons at her side. She sells soup, pale yellow in darker-yellow glazed bowls. This is harira, the classic soup of Morocco. Considered strengthening and invigorating, it is often drunk at dusk to break the Ramadan fast, especially when Ramadan falls in the winter months. There are almost as many recipes for harira as there are families, but essentially it is a chicken soup, thickened with flour and eggs and flavored with saffron, pepper and much cinnamon. A lemon or so is squeezed into each bowl before serving, and it may be eaten with dates or dried figs. It should be "as smooth as silk," says a proverb from Fez, but the rustic version is often made more filling by adding noodles, rice or leftover bread.
Another vendor is flanked by baskets of radishes and cress, freshly dewed with water, their colors echoing her clothes and the pompoms on her hat. The cress may be used for the peppery cress-and-turnip couscous spiced with ginger, a favorite dish from the high Atlas Mountain region. Some of the radishes will certainly end up accompanying kebabs, like the ones sending up an irresistible smell from a charcoal fire a little way down the street. This small-scale version of a larger dish - the famous whole lamb stuffed with couscous, almonds and raisins, or flavored with garlic and cumin - is a favorite throughout North Africa and even across the Straits of Gibraltar in Andalusia.
Indeed, during the major fairs of Andalusia - that part of Spain held by the Muslims from the ninth through the 15th centuries - visiting Moroccan cooks deftly turn out their specialities: kebabs, tender roast chickens with lemon and, sometimes, bastela. Lamb or mutton are the preferred meats in Morocco, and, with charcoal cooking and marinades, the cooks make even the less expensive meats -hearts, lungs, tripes - taste delicious.
Marinades vary from town to town. In Fez, mint is used with oil and a mixture of orange and lemon juice, but farther north there is a preference for coriander and garlic, while the far south, perhaps influenced by trans-Saharan Africa, uses ground peanuts and hot pepper.
In Tetouan, near the kebab stall or qatban, there is a pickle shop displaying simple earthenware bowls filled with olives - large and small, plain and spiced, purple, green and black - and glass jars filled with pickled vegetables. Tetouan has a relatively hard winter, and everything that it's possible to pickle is pickled. These are light pickles, intended to be eaten relatively soon, so lemons, bell peppers, red beets, carrots, eggplants (aubergines) and onions have retained their colors and lend touches of yellow, green, red, orange, purple and white.
Pickled treats are often lovingly arranged into patterns of color. In the medina of Tunis, there used to be an old man who not only specialized in preserving miniature lemons, but made the most intricate compositions on the inside of his pickle jars - vegetable mosaics laid against the glass that showed bunches of tulips, the Tunisian flag and even the words of the Bismillah, "In the name of God." Moroccan effects are usually simpler, but no less appetizing. Among the most irresistible are the great demijohns filled with whole pickled lemons (see box), a perfect accompaniment to kebabs or any plain dish of meat or fish.
A few steps away from the market is the women's suq. It is a small arcaded square, guarded by an elderly woman muhtasib, or market inspector. Her function is not to stop men from entering, but to check weights and measures, settle arguments, and convince swarms of little boys that stray apples and oranges are not theirs for the taking.
The color in the square is breathtaking, for many of the stallkeepers are dressed in the scarlet and white handwoven cloth they sell. There are also baskets and, in one corner shaded by a large old vine, pots. Mostly unglazed cooking pots of every shape and size, they're reminiscent of the Roman cookware of some 2,000 years ago. Among the most striking to the Western eye are the large pierced couscous steamers and the tajines with their conical lids.
Tajines, in fact, have given their name to some of Morocco's most classic dishes. With their mixtures of sweet with sour, honey with vinegar, meat or fowl with fruit or nuts, tajines compare with dishes in medieval European cookbooks like the one written for King Richard of England at the end of the 14th century. And indeed, many of the richest and most exotic recipes in that book are attributed to outre-mer, the lands of Islam.
It is also said that North African cooking owes much to that of Andalusia, and that Muslims fleeing from the Christian reconquest of Spain, completed in 1492, carried their cuisine with them across the sea. This may well be true, but Andalusian cuisine in turn derived, at least in part, from that of Baghdad in the days of Harun al-Rashid, judging by surviving cookbooks and descriptions of food in The Thousand and One Nights.
Today, some of the most popular tajines are chicken with raisins, grapes or almonds; lamb with prunes or quinces; pigeon with dates; quail with dried apricots; beef with apples; and duck with figs - all often cooked with honey and sweet spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and ginger. But there are many others: Tajines can contain combinations of meat or fish with such complements as mint, green olives, lemon slices or fiery red-and-green chakchouka - grilled peppers and tomatoes - the same combination that, flavored with garlic, fresh cardamom and cumin and cooked with eggs, makes the popular. The finest of the tajines are said to come from Fez, that incomparably beautiful city where every aspect of life, from the architecture of the car-free medina to the sumptuous gold embroideries (See Aramco World, November-December 1987), bears the hallmark of centuries of wealth and refinement.
Another famous sweet-and-savory dish with a long history is bastela, a kind of pie made of flaky pastry, filled with chopped meat - generally pigeon or dove - eggs, parsley and a quantity of ground almonds, and seasoned with the usual sweet spices: ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, saffron and fresh cardamom. Before serving, it's patterned or dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon. Bastela - also spelled bistilla, bisteeya or b'stilla - may have other fillings, such as the meat-and-onion version known as mrouzia, which is similar to the Andalusian empanada.
Another favorite, this time a snack often sold in the street, is the briq or briouate -from the Turkish borek. A briq consists of a triangle or half-moon of flaky filled pastry, deep-fried in oil until golden crisp. Moroccan briouates often have a pigeon-and-almond filling similar to bastela, occasionally with raisins added; the effect is rather like the original English mincemeat pies. Other favorite fillings are chopped meat or merguez, highly spiced lamb sausages. The Tunisian version contains an egg, lemon juice, parsley and sometimes a touch of tuna. The egg is only very lightly cooked, and to eat it neatly is an achievement, whether you're in an elegant restaurant, where the briq will probably be fan-shaped and sitting elegantly in a holder made of lemon peel, or standing with singed fingers in a corner of the suq.
In discussing North African contributions to cuisine, couscous cannot be left out. Traditionally, it was prepared at home: Semolina, flour, salt and a sprinkling of water were worked with the palms of the hands into small pellets. Rolling couscous is an art, with many theories on how it is best done, and not everyone has the knack of getting the grains even and fluffy - least of all, it is often said, new daughters-in-law! It is also a lengthy process, and in an old-fashioned extended family some of the women spend a good deal of their time together rolling couscous: it is a particularly sociable task.
After being rolled, the couscous is steamed and "its face is decorated" in a number of ways, varying from town to town. In Morocco, the couscous is generally heaped on a dish, which for feasts or weddings may be a metal tray as much as a meter and a half (five feet) across. A hollow is made in the heap and filled with the meat or chicken and onions of a rich stew. The sides of the mound are then garnished with more onions, raisins and chickpeas and sometimes almonds and pieces of pickled lemon. The couscous is generally accompanied by a side dish of broth with boiled vegetables and a bowl of hot sauce made from red peppers.
This is a fairly standard couscous, but of course the basic semolina can be served with fish, poultry, vegetables, grilled meat - mechoui - or just the hot sauce, depending on taste and pocket. For special occasions, the meat may be hidden inside a pyramid of couscous that has been patted smooth and coated with powered sugar, crushed almonds and cinnamon. Couscous can also be served as a sweet - this is a specialty of Marrakesh - where the sauce is made with mild onions, raisins, honey, ginger and sweet spices, or with quinces, or with pomegranates and orange-blossom water.
While the similarities are great, Moroccan food is not the same all over the country. In the past, when the transport of raw materials was difficult and uncommon, regional styles developed. Thus, the southern oases with their dates and sugarcane became famous for their sweets, while the mountains made use of their nuts, apples, figs and prickly pears, and the rich agricultural regions their oranges, lemons, almonds, apricots and pomegranates. Marrakesh has come to be known for its cakes, although these vary in shape and name more than in content, which is firmly based on almonds and pistachios, honey and orange-blossom water, dried fruit and sesame.
The first sweet encountered in the course of the day is a kind of doughnut. Early in the morning, children hurry along with half a dozen or so threaded on a piece of reed or palm frond. These are sfenj, and they are generally found in tiny hole-in-the-wall shops hardly larger than the great cauldron of oil traditionally used to deep-fry them. Again, the recipes vary. The best - and hardest to carry - are dipped in honey after cooking; a cheaper but neater version is rolled in sugar. Raisins may be added to the dough, or orange juice, orange peel and orange-blossom water; these, perhaps, are the subtlest.
Among the most famous cakes are kab ghzal - gazelle's horns - curved and filled with almond paste. Similar in taste are the khalkhal al-arusa, or bride's anklets, and ladies' fingers, each shaped as the traditional name suggests.
Preparing Moroccan sweets requires much time and skill. Usually they are made at home only for a special occasion - a feast, a wedding, a circumcision - and then in sumptuous quantities. At such times, the women of the family rival each other in preparing their specialties. The cakes, once made, are arranged on large metal trays and carried to the communal bakehouses. These are still such a sensible part of North African life, for not only are they economical of fuel, but the flavor of the food cooked in these huge wood-fired ovens can never be matched by a small domestic stove. The sight of the trays, carefully covered in white cloth in summer, or the breadboards, each with an owner's mark stuck in the loaf, being delivered to the ovens by school children, is an unforgettable part of the street life of all the older quarters of the cities.
Moroccan cooking is a mixture of elements that have arrived from many regions: the meat dishes of the Bedouin; foods - perhaps even couscous - that have come up from south of the Sahara; echoes of the sophisticated court cuisine of Baghdad, which arrived by way of Andalusia; the plain, filling food of the mountain Berbers; Turkish recipes and recipes from France, Italy, and the Levant. And the list of origins does not end there, for the Moroccan coast, especially Rabat and Sale, was once notorious for its pirates; men of all nations turned up there, sometimes as merchants or master mariners, sometimes as slaves.
But the history of the food, as of so much else in this part of the world, is often complicated and unexpected. Noodles, for example, are not a purely Italian introduction: There are mentions of them, under the name of rishta, going back at least as far as the 14th century. The version known as rezzat al-qadi is typically Moroccan. These "judge's turbans" of noodles, rather like little nests, are baked golden brown and served sweet or salty, with butter and honey, in a chicken soup or, especially for children, in warm milk. Such dishes likely owe their origins more to the Far East or to Central Asia than to the opposite shore of the Mediterranean.
Generally speaking, the foods of Andalusia and Morocco have diverged, but Fez, Meknes, Marrakesh and Tetouan have preserved the recipes of the Muslim principalities. The thick omelet with vegetables is eaten in Morocco as it is in Spain, under the names egga in Morocco, tortilla across the Straits.
Another shared taste is that for snails - not the large French variety but the small brown-and-cream banded snails known as babouch, the same word used for the curly-toed Moroccan soft leather slippers. A bowl of snail soup is considered a great restorative, and is one of the dishes commonly sold in the street.
Another delicacy served on both sides of the Straits is al-mhannasha, the almond cake coiled like a snake that is baked in Morocco for major family celebrations and in Spain at Christmas and New Year. Made of flaky pastry filled with marzipan and decorated with powdered sugar, candied fruit and cinnamon, something about this cake suggests great antiquity, and its origins would make an interesting subject for research. Curiously enough, the best such cakes in Seville are sold at the corner of one of the oldest streets: Sierpes, the Serpent.
One could stray on and on through the varied landscape of Moroccan cuisine, wandering from city to city, recipe to recipe, and anecdote to anecdote. Those who like to do their exploring on a kitchen stool should turn to some of the excellent Moroccan cookbooks available: Secrets of Moroccan Cooking by Fettouma Benkrane; her shorter Moroccan Cooking: The Best Recipes; The Moroccan Cookbook by Irene E. Day; Paula Wolfert's Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco; or Taste of Morocco by Robert Carrier. Better still is a visit to a good Moroccan restaurant, should there be one nearby. And best of all, of course, is to visit the source, and bring your curiosity - and your appetite - to Morocco.
Caroline Stone is the author of The Embroideries of North Africa. She now divides her time among London, Rome and Seville.