Moroccan Food is More Than Just Couscous

Moroccan food is much loved by Moroccans and non-Moroccans alike and yet it is quite misunderstood. Moroccan food is not hummus and felafel, and it's not necessarily spicy, though it can be. To me Moroccan food is the spices and flavors but more than that it is the fresh, local ingredients that simply pop with flavor. Great cuisine needs fresh ingredients which Morocco has in abundance, and to that they add glorious touches of cumin, saffron, cinnamon, orange blossom water, garlic or chili peppers.

When I was married I was lucky to benefit from my mother-in-law's wonderful cooking which spoiled me for all Moroccan restaurants. Fortunately I also learned to cook Moroccan food. Below are some of the recipes from my (ex)mother-in-law. 

I can't believe I haven't yet written about food in Morocco because it's one of my favorite aspects of my time spent there (apart from henna, of course). With regard to food I was luckier than most casual travelers to Morocco who only experience restaurant food when eating in Morocco. I lived in Morocco for a year and a half and also visited every year for 13 years. I have visited all the big cities and explored every nook and cranny of them, and I have combed the countryside, looking for local markets, interesting sights, meeting extended family members and eating...a LOT! I have eaten in haute cuisine restaurants in elaborately decorated palaces, I have sipped tea with Polisario wives in their refugee camp tents, I have eaten tagine in desert truck stops, snacked on lung sandwiches in the old part of the capital Rabat and I have broken the Ramadan fast with tea and dates with my ex's family. My food experiences are vast, interesting and mostly delicious.

What prompted me to write is having recently seen a few blogs about Moroccan food which I found a bit misguided. One of these gave a recipe for the famous Moroccan dish "felafel" which isn't even Moroccan. Another blogger wrote about the food she ate in Morocco and it was clear from her statement—that there wasn't much variety in Moroccan food—that she had only eaten in tourist-oriented restaurants around Morocco. I feel it is incumbent upon me to set the record straight by giving you a taste of the variety of wonderful food in Morocco, from the haute to the low.


Food and Restaurants in Morocco

Most travelers to Morocco experience only restaurant food and don't even realize how much they are missing by doing so. They can't really be blamed for this because it's logical to assume that when one is hungry and doesn't have a kitchen, one goes to a restaurant. What most travelers don't know is that average Moroccans don't go out to eat in restaurants all that much and if they do, they don't go out for Moroccan food. They go out for what they don't cook at home, like French or Italian or sushi. They know that the best Moroccan food is cooked in the home, usually by one's mother. From experience, I have to agree that anyone's mother in Morocco cooks better than most restaurants. In the West we often go out to eat for special occasions but in Morocco special occasions are marked by extra attention paid to creating wonderful meals at home, cooking certain dishes that are only for celebrations. Going to a restaurant for a celebration is seen as a cheap and easy way out; whereas cooking something special at home shows that you really care.

That said, sometimes you really cannot eat at home. A traveling salesman must eat his meals on the road, a post office employee can't always run to her house to prepare a home-cooked meal. For these kinds of meals on the go and away from home there are a lot of places that offer quite good food. These places are usually off the radar for most tourists; they are found mostly where Moroccans work and live, not in tourist spots. Their appearance is decidedly not fancy and they rarely appear in guide books, but they are often some of the best places to eat.

In all my traveling around the country one stand-by for food is the ubiquitous pairing of butcher shop and small restaurant. The idea is that you go to the butcher and pick out what you want. You can get ground meat mixed with herbs and spices for kefta kebab (like mini hamburgers on a stick), or just hunks of lamb (on a stick), or something the butcher recommends. The butcher will wrap up your choice, you pay for it and then carry it a few steps to the restaurant which has a charcoal fire burning. The restaurant will grill up your meat, serve it to you with fresh bread (possibly from the bakery next door on the other side), maybe some salad and a drink of your choice. It's a simple meal but the ingredients are incredibly fresh, cooked in front of you and served with bread that was made within feet of where you are sitting. You can put the grilled meat in the bread and take it to go if you need to hit the road. Almost every town or widening of the road will have a stand like this. When you travel by bus around Morocco the driver will stop at a gas station/truck stop that has one of these stands. In larger cities, such stands can be found everywhere each one offering its specialty. It was in such a place that I tried lung sandwich, but only a taste. I opted for a chicken sandwich which strangely enough was made with chicken still on the bones. And the fries are served stuffed into your sandwich, an effort at gustatory efficiency which I applaud.

It is also possible to find more elaborate stands that make tagine, a kind of stew that is prepared in a many different regional varieties across the country. The stew is named for the cone-shaped earthenware pot in which it is prepared. I have a bunch of recipes here which will give you an idea of what goes into the dish and how it is prepared. The pot is put onto a charcoal brazier and cooked for a few hours; these stands usually have the tagines cooking out in front. You can stop by and ask to see what they have cooking and pick what you like. Again, you take a seat in the restaurant and the waiter will bring you bread (with which you eat the tagine), some salads and drinks. This option is a bit more expensive than the grilled meat stand, but it is also more of a complete meal.

In addition to the above, there are always stands selling specialties like steamed snails, lamb and lentil soup (harira), fruit smoothies, dried nuts, bread, sweets, fruit etc. Because Morocco is such an agriculturally rich and varied country, the food is all excellent and very fresh. I've eaten an lowly, quotidien orange in Morocco that blew my socks off; I never knew an orange could be so delicious. I was told that these were the reject oranges, the leftovers after they export the best quality oranges to Europe. That ruined me for oranges evermore.


That brings us to the discussion of staples of Moroccan cuisine. Protein comes from chicken (#1 most consumed meat in Morocco), beef, lamb and fish. European fishermen vie for the right to fish in Moroccan waters, specifically the Atlantic coast. In seaside towns there is usually an area near the port where you can buy fish directly from the fishermen and have it grilled right there, similar to the grilled meat places described above. With fish that fresh you don't have to do much but grill it and squirt a little lemon on it.

Moroccan food is said to be spicy. I would agree with that in the sense that they use a lot of spices, but it is not usually hot spicy. The most common spices/flavorings are cumin, saffron, turmeric, ginger, garlic coriander, pepper and cayenne pepper. There is a liberal use of olives and olive oil, lemon, mint, tomatoes, onions, peppers and parsley. Common fruits are oranges, figs, dates, pomegranates, apples and apricots. Sweets are often made with almonds or walnuts, mixed with honey and rosewater. Bread is a very important staple, served with practically every meal, and never wasted. When bread goes stale it isn't thrown away, but instead ground into a sand-like meal from which tea biscuits are made. Couscous, a fine-grained pasta made from semolina, is another staple which is the basis of the national dish of Morocco of the same name. Needless to say the marketplaces in Morocco are dazzlingly colorful, highly fragrant and mouth-watering.

My favorite Moroccan cookbooks

Cooking at the Kasbah: Recipes from My Moroccan Kitchen by Kitty Morse

Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco by Paula Wolfert

Mediterranean Street Food: Stories, Soups, Snacks, Sandwiches, Barbecues, Sweets, and More from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East by Anissa Helou (this is more than just Moroccan food; I love it for all the breads)



(note: t=teaspoon, T=tablespoon, C=cup)

1 lb couscous (not the instant kind) 
11/2 - 2 lb chicken pieces on the bone 
2 med. sized onions, sliced 
1/2 lb daikon (white radish), cut into 2-3" x 1" pieces 
1/2 lb carrots, cut into 2-3" x 1" pieces 
1/2 lb zucchini, cut into 2-3" x 1" pieces 
1/4-1/2 head of cabbage, cut into large pieces
1/2 lb. pumpkin or butternut squash with skin cut into 2-3" x 1" pieces 
1 lg. tomato, chopped
1/2 can of chickpeas (or 1 C dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in water) 
1 T salt 
2 t pepper 
2 t ginger 
2 t cumin, ground 
2 t coriander, ground 
1 t red pepper 
1 T turmeric 
Fresh parsley , about 10 stems and leaves
Fresh coriander, about 10 stems and leaves        

1. Moisten the couscous with 1-1/2 cups of water, rubbing between hands to remove lumps; let sit for 1/2 hour.
2. Place couscous in top part of couscoussier; you can fill bottom with water to steam the couscous or use the chicken and vegetable mixture to create the steam to cook the couscous. 
3. In the bottom part of the couscoussier sauté the onions in 2-3 T of olive oil over medium to high heat; when the onions are soft add the chicken pieces to brown. 
4. When chicken is brown add the salt, pepper, ginger, cumin, coriander, red pepper and turmeric; cook for another 5 minutes then add enough water to cover the chicken and simmer for another 5-10 minutes (be sure not to pour the water directly on the chicken as this will make the chicken tough).
5. Add all the slower cooking vegetables (except the tomatoes, chickpeas, zucchini, and cabbage); make a small bunch with the parsley and coriander stems, tie with a piece of string and put this in the liquid while it cooks; add enough water to cover the vegetables and simmer over a medium to low flame .
6. At this point fit the top of the couscoussier (containing the moistened couscous) onto the bottom thus allowing the steam to cook the couscous; if there is any steam leaking out at the joint between the top and bottom of the couscoussier, soak a dishtowel in a flour and water mixture for a few minutes, wring it out and then tie the towel around the joint tightly to seal off any leaks; let simmer and steam for about 45 minutes and then proceed to the next step .
7. Remove the top part of the couscoussier and pour the couscous out onto a large platter or flat shallow bowl, spreading it out and sprinkling it with cold water to cool it off so you can handle it; use a spoon to break up any big lumps and then let it sit for 5 minutes. 
8. Sprinkle a little more cold water (1/2 C) over the couscous and begin to rub it between your hands; you are trying to break up any clumps and to moisten and separate each grain of couscous; continue until the lumps have all been broken up. 
9. Return the couscous to the top of the couscoussier which you put back in place on the bottom part of the couscoussier and using the handle of a wooden spoon poke several holes in the couscous to let the steam seep out; let steam for another 45 minutes (if the chicken has finished cooking, remove it from the pot, and add more water at this stage if necessary). 
10. Repeat steps 7 and 8 again; add the tomatoes, zucchini, cabbage and chickpeas to the mixture and add more water if necessary); put the top part of the couscoussier on the bottom and continue to simmer for 30-45 minutes. 
11. Repeat steps 7 and 8, this time sprinkling 2-3 T of olive oil over the couscous grains in addition to the water and rubbing that into it to coat the grains evenly; taste the couscous grains to see if they are ready; they should be fluffy almost bouncy (if they have a hard or chewy center, they need to cook longer), the grains should be cooked through and moist but not soggy (if they are soggy, they have cooked too long); one method for testing the couscous is to take one grain between your index finger and thumb and smash it - if it becomes a paste it is ready; tasting the couscous will determine how much longer it should cook but usually you will have to steam it for at least another 30 minutes (you may want to add the chicken back to the pot to warm it up).


Pour the couscous evenly on a large flat platter and make an indentation or well in the middle, about 3" in diameter; place the chicken pieces in this well Using a slotted spoon begin removing the vegetables from the liquid in the pot and pile them up on the chicken; the vegetables should be used to form a cone on top of and around the meat and you may have to place the vegetables with your hands to get them to stay in place.

Strain the liquid from the pot so you have just the stock, gently pour about 2 C of it over the vegetables and the couscous, but be careful not to wash the vegetables down the side of the cone. Pour the remaining broth in a bowl which you should put on the table for people to serve themselves; I usually heat up some of the broth and dissolve 2-3 T harissa (Moroccan chili paste) in it and serve that along side the tamer broth. My friend who passed this recipe along to me said that in his family they always serve cold leben (a kind of watery yogurt) with couscous; this is delicious especially after the meal if you add a handful of couscous, some honey and cinnamon.

These days most Moroccans eat couscous from a common platter using spoons; each person eats from their section of the dish, pouring on broth to their taste, mixing the couscous with the meat and vegetables. Traditionally, however, couscous is eaten with the hand. It seemed to me during my travels and meals with friends that only older women knew how to eat with their hands; they would scoop up the couscous grains, a little bit of vegetable and some meat, squish it into a ball and then start tossing it lightly in their cupped hand to round out the ball. Then they flick this ball into their mouth with their thumb like flipping a coin. Often they end up feeding us, trying to convince us that couscous tastes better when human hands touch it in this way (reminds me of metaphors of taking a shower with a raincoat).


2-3 green peppers (this salad can be made with eggplant instead of green peppers) 
1-2 cloves garlic, minced 
3-4 small tomatoes, chopped 
1 medium onion, minced 
2 tsp. red pepper 
2-3 Tbs. tomato paste 
1 tsp fresh parsley, minced 
1/2 tsp. pepper 
1/2 tsp. powdered ginger 
1/2 tsp. turmeric 
1/2 tsp. cumin 
olive oil

Put the green peppers on an open flame or under the broiler until the skin is burned black; put the peppers in a plastic bag rubbing briskly between the hands to remove the burned skin (if you are using eggplant instead of peppers, char them in the same manner, but simply scrape off the burned skin with a fork).

Sauté the onions and garlic in the olive oil over medium to high heat; when the onions have become soft add the peppers, tomatoes, red pepper and other spices; when the tomatoes are soft add the tomato paste; lower heat, cover and simmer for 15-20 minutes.

Allow to cool before serving, sprinkle with minced parsley.


Lemons (cut in four parts lengthwise but not all the way through) 
Coarse salt 
Jars (Bell jars are best, or any jar that can be sealed tightly)

Pour about 2 T of salt into the opening in the lemon, squeeze it shut and place in the jar. When the jar is filled with lemons, cover them with water and seal the jars tightly (you may want to put a sterilized flat rock on top of the lemons in the jar to keep them from floating above the water level).

Place the jars in a cool dark place for 1-2 months or until the skin of the lemons becomes transparent, almost crystallized. You may find a thin white skin on the surface of the water, this is normal so just skim it off and throw it away.

Preserved lemons have many uses, especially as an integral part of the traditional Moroccan dish called Chicken with Preserved Lemon and also in a tagine of chicken with olives and preserved lemons; the water from the jar can be used in salad dressings; very thin slices can be included in all sorts of salads.


Harira is the traditional meal eaten to break the fast during Ramadan; it is usually served with dates, figs and special sweets called chabakiya. A Moroccan proverb says that if someone tells you the harira is cold, tell him to put his hand in it.

1 lb of lamb cut in large pieces 
1 small onion, minced 
1/4 head of cabbage cut in largish pieces 
1 C chickpeas soaked overnight (or from a can) 
1/3 C lentils 
2 quarts of water 
1/4 C olive oil 
1/3 C fresh parsley, minced 
6-7 strands of saffron (soaked in a few tablespoons of hot water) 
1/2 - 1 t pepper 
2/3 t ginger 
1 cube of chicken bouillon 
1/2 lemon

Cook the lentils in salted water, when done drain then and squeeze the half lemon over them. Cook all the other ingredients in a soup pot over low heat for 50-60 minutes (enough time to cook the meat and the chickpeas).

Additional ingredients:
1/4 C rice 
1/4 C angel hair pasta, broken up 
2 lbs crushed tomatoes (in cans) 
3 T flour 
1/3 C fresh coriander, minced 

Add the tomatoes to the broth previously prepared and cook for 10 minutes.

Mix the flour with a little water to form a paste and then add this to the soup a little bit at a time while stirring constantly to avoid lumps.

Bring the soup to a boil, add the rice, pasta, coriander and the salt;  allow to simmer another 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the lentils, let cook for another 5 minutes and serve in bowls with lemon wedges on the side for those who want to add it to their soup.

Harira should be somewhat creamy but not thick so if it is too thick add a little water and cook for a few more minutes; if it is too thin add a little flour and water paste to thicken it. Some cooks break an egg into the soup during the last five minutes of cooking and mix it well to keep the egg from solidifying.


1 lb. of lamb shanks  
2 medium potatoes, 1/8” slices  
3 medium zucchini, in finger-sized wedges  
1 medium onion, sliced thinly  
2-3 artichoke hearts (fresh, not pickled)  
1 tsp. ginger  
1 Tbs. pepper  
1 tsp. tumeric  
2 tsp. cumin  
1 tsp. red pepper  
2 Tbs. salt  
4-5 threads of saffron (soaked in 1/4 cup hot water  
for 10 minutes to release flavor and color)  
olive oil 

Start preparing coals so that they will be red when you are ready preparing the tagine for cooking; the coals can be prepared in a barbecue or a hibachi and there should be enough to last for 2 hours.


You will need a tagine pot which consists of a flat round terra cotta dish with a rim, and a cone shaped top (you can use an oven safe casserole or a cast iron pot instead and cook on the stovetop); start by browning the lamb shanks in some olive oil.

Place the lamb shanks in the center of the tagine dish creating a flattish mound; next cover the meat with a layer of onions followed by a layer of potatoes, then the zucchini and then the artichokes;  sprinkle with the spices (except for the saffron) and pour 3T of olive oil over the ingredients.

Place the tagine dish on the burner/barbecue/hibachi and cover; after about 10 minutes of cooking pour 1- 1 1/2 cups of warm water over the ingredients and cover again; there is no predetermined cooking time - the dish is ready when the ingredients are ready; the meat should be fully cooked and tender and the vegetables should be cooked but not too mushy; keep an eye on the tagine to make sure it doesn’t dry out; about 10 minutes before it is finished cooking add the saffron and the warm water.

Serve hot right in the tagine dish; let everyone eat from the dish using their hands and pieces of bread.


1/2- 1 lb. lamb on the bone 
2 medium onions (or shallots) sliced thinly 
1/2 tsp. pepper 
1/2 tsp. salt 
1 tsp. tumeric 
1 tsp. powdered ginger 
1 Tbs. cumin 
1/2 tsp. cinnamon 
4-5 threads of saffron (soaked in 1/4 cup hot water 
for 10 minutes to release flavor and color) 
Olive oil

In a medium-sized saucepan heat 2-3 Tbs of olive oil over high flame; add the onion and lamb to brown until the onions are soft and transparent; add the spices except for the cinnamon; reduce the head and add 1/2 - 1 cup of water, cover and simmer for 20-30 minutes until meat is tender; add more water if necessary and salt and spices to taste; add cinnamon about 10 minutes before the end of cooking.


1/2-1 lb. of lamb shanks 
1/2 lb. peas, shelled 
3 medium zucchini, diced 
1 medium onion, minced 
2 cloves garlic, minced 
1/2 fennel heart, sliced (or artichoke hearts, chopped) 
1 1/2 tsp. black pepper 
1 Tbs. cumin 
1 tsp. powdered ginger 
1 tsp. tumeric 
1 tsp. coriander, powdered 
1/2 tsp. salt 
1 tsp. fresh parsley, minced 
4-5 threads of saffron (soaked in 1/4 cup hot water 
for 10 minutes to release flavor and color) 
olive oil

In a medium-sized saucepan sauté the onions and garlic in olive oil and when the onions are soft add the lamb to brown; when brown add the spices and let cook for another 5 minutes; add the peas, zucchini and fennel heart along with 1 cup of water (more if more sauce is desired) and let simmer for 15 minutes over a medium to low flame; taste for salt and other spices and serve hot. 


2 lbs of chicken, whole or in pieces 
1 T Ginger 
2 cloves garlic, minced 
7-8 threads of saffron (soaked for 10 minutes in hot water) 
3 T olive oil 
1 small onion 
skin of one preserved lemon cut in four pieces 
1 dozen green olives (or more if you prefer) 
2 T butter 

In a saucepan over medium heat, brown the chicken in the olive oil, add the salt, butter, ginger, onion, garlic, saffron (the water also) and 1 1/2 C water. Bring the water to a boil, and then turn the chicken, stir the mixture; reduce the heat to medium to low and simmer. Keep an eye on the sauce to make sure that it doesn’t reduce completely, adding water if necessary.

When the onion is cooked, remove it from the pot. When the chicken is cooked and starting to come off the bone remove it from the pot, rub butter on it and put it in the oven at 350 degrees for 10-15 minutes or until the skin is brown. Return the chicken to the pot, add the olives and the preserved lemon and let cook for another 10-15 minutes. Remove the chicken, olives and lemons and place them on a platter; let the sauce reduce and then pour over the chicken before serving. 

COUSCOUS TFAYA (with lamb or chicken, onions, chickpeas and raisins)

2 lbs chicken in parts or lamb 
2 lbs onions, thinly sliced 
1 lb couscous (not instant) 
2 C raisins 
1 1/2 C chickpeas soaked overnight (or one can) 
1 1/2 t Ginger 
1 1/2 t Tumeric 
1/2 t Black pepper 
1 t Salt 
3 t Cinnamon 
3-4 T Sugar or honey 
Olive oil

Moisten the couscous with 1-1/2 cups of water, rubbing between hands to remove lumps; let sit for 1/2 hour. Place couscous in top part of couscoussier and fill bottom with water; bring the water to a boil and steam couscous while preparing chicken (see instructions from Couscous recipe above).

Brown the chicken in olive oil with half of the onions; when browned reduce heat to medium and simmer for about 20 minutes; Add all the spices (except cinnamon) and the rest of the onions, the raisins and 1 1/2 C water; let simmer for 10 minutes; add cinnamon and chickpeas; continue to simmer until chicken is fully cooked.

When chicken is cooked remove it from the pot and continue to cook slowly simmer the onions, raisins and chickpeas. Add more cinnamon to taste and add water so that the mixture doesn’t burn. After about 10 minutes add the sugar or honey and let it dissolve; add a little more water if needed and simmer for another 10-15 minutes until mixture begins to caramelize; add the chicken about 5-10 before the end to heat it up.

To serve, pour couscous on a large place and form a well in the middle; place the chicken pieces in the well and then put the onion, raisin chickpea mixture on the chicken forming a kind of pyramid.

Food Links

Kalustyans, New York / incredible ethnic food store; not to be missed if you're in NYC, but also offers online ordering; everything is high quality, well-sourced and very fresh / an excellent source of high quality Moroccan tagines; they carry real cooking tagines but also pretty, decorative tagines for serving; decent prices

Friends of Morocco Restaurant Listing / this site is run by former Peace Corps Volunteers in Morocco and has a good list of Moroccan restaurants around the US

The View from Fez / great blog about life in Morocco which includes a lof of info about Moroccan cuisine