A QUICK GUIDE TO A VEGETARIAN DIET IN MOROCCO
Morocco, by its Mediterranean traditions and by the Muslim culture has a meat orientated gastronomy where lamb and chicken are dominant; the exception is the coastal areas where the fish is popular particularly the sardine.
But still, there are several options for vegetarians in the Moroccan traditional cuisine, like the soups, sandwiches and a big choice of bread, which combined with olives, nuts and dry fruits result in a balanced diet for vegetarians.
Many restaurants in the more popular tourist areas already have a vegetarian tagine or couscous, and in the small villages or if you have the chance to eat in a guesthouse for sure that they are available to prepare a vegetarian version of these traditional dishes, as the food is usually prepared daily, and you just need to order with a few hours in advance.
About dairy products, don’t be concerned as they are not common in the traditional Moroccan dishes and in fact it’s very difficult to find cheese (except the processed triangle cheese) despite the many sheep and goats that you can spot a bit everywhere. Yogurts are an exception and you can find homemade yogurts in small groceries shops and well as in dairy shops… yes, in Morocco the commerce is still organized according to the type of product.
Eggs are easy to find as a snack but not as part of a main dish, except in the Moroccan style sandwiches, an underestimate item in the Moroccan gastronomy but that is very common between local population, and I think it’s a mandatory experience for those who appreciate street food!!
Soups… filling and comfort food
As a vegetarian, the soups were many times the best option for a meal, as they are widely available, are very cheap and are served along all day… just have in mind that each kind of soup has a specific schedule.
In a local eatery a soup should cost between 6 and 8 Dirham, which many times includes half bread…. if not, just ask for it, as it doesn’t cost more than 1 Dirham.
The besara is a thick and consistent soup made from dry fava beans, which are soaked, cooked and reduced to a pure. It’s served in a big bowl, with a generous topping of olive oil and lots of paprika and cumin, which contrast with the pale brown color of the soup. It’s a classic of the traditional Moroccan breakfast, but sometimes it’s also available in the evening.
Not so easy to find is the lubia, a white beans soup with a tomato sauce base. It’s not the most appealing option but ate with fresh bread and a few olives can be a feeling meal. I didn’t find any sign or indication of this soup in the eateries where I pass by… it seems that the local population knows where to get it, so the best is ask directly at the counter.
For the evening, the most popular option is the harira, the traditional Moroccan soup made with chickpeas, vegetables and a bit of pasta. This type of soup use traditionally meat stock (I saw using that processed cubes) but it’s also possible to find vegetarian options… if you can communicate a bit in French or Spanish.
As it’s very consistency and rich harira was many times my dinner, working perfectly as comfort food for the cold night of the desert areas.
The eateries that serve harira, as well as besara, don’t have a menu or a sign indication it, but try to spot a pile of empty bowls nearby the counter or simply ask for it.
Bread… so many options to explore
The bread remains as a delicious memory of the Moroccan stay.
Since early morning that you can feel the smell of the freshly baked bread, being available all day, not only in the proper bread shops but also in groceries shops all over the city, in improvised stalls in the medina alleys, in street hawkers pushing hand cars along the markets or directly at the bakeries, where you have the chance to observe the handmade process of making the bread, and having the opportunity to taste the warm bread that has just come out of the oven.
From the rooftops from where you can have a medina view, it’s possible to spot a thick column of black smoke indicating the location of a bakery, often located next to a mosque as well as a public hammam, as these three spots are a kind of institution in the traditional Moroccan lifestyle.
In Morocco, the bread is mandatory at any meals and despite the French colonization that brought the baguette, the traditional Arab flatbread is the most popular, the khobz a classic white bread made from wheat that is present at every meal and in every house. There are few variations of this type of bread with a darker color and more dense texture… just walk around and try the different kinds as the bread change from city to city, and from bakery to bakery!!!
But there are many more kinds of bread as the msemen, a flatbread with a square shape, made from layers of dough, that is fried in a pan, gaining a crispy texture on the outside and a bit more chewy on the inside. It can be eaten plain, with olive oil, honey or cheese (always the over-processed-triangle-cheese, as proper cheese is rare in Morocco), many times as snack or as a meal with a soup besara or harira.
There also a “red” variation of msemen, seasoned with a paprika and onion past that make it more tasty and interesting. The msemen is cooked in big trays and sold in portions, by weight… you can just ask for 2 Dirham or any other amount.
But I was totally surrendered to the harcha, made from semolina and cooked in a flat metal surface heated by gas, resulting in crispy texture, dense inside and with slightly sweet and salty flavor. Usually it’s not available at bakeries but can be found at the same shops or stall that sell msemen, and it’s easy to spot by its yellow color and by the perfect circular shape, that many times is cooked in a big size disk shape (more than 50 cm), that is sold in portions, by weight.
Many times I saw old men in teashops eating it during the day with a tea, but can also be eaten as a side of a besara or harira soup for breakfast or evening meal. But I found it so delicious that I was eating harcha just plain as a snack, with some olives and nuts.
It’s not unusual to see ladies or kids carrying trays cover in with a cloth in the streets of the medina, on the way to the community ovens where the homemade bread can still be baked, keeping the Moroccan traditional where each family made their own bread, attesting the importance of the bread in the family and social life in Morocco.
Sandwiches… also an option for a vegetarian diet
The traditional Moroccan sandwiches are also a good option for vegetarians, being widely available in medina streets and markets.
These sandwiches basically consist in half of a flatbread stuffed with egg, boiled potato, meat, grill vegetables (sometimes also deep fry), seasoned with olive oil and a lot of cumin. You can choose the ingredients from a window that usually face the street, where usually there’s a lot of grill vegetables, like pepper and aubergine, add a bit of fresh tomato salad, egg and potato… yes, it’s strange potato inside bread, but this combination that is chopped and mix inside the bread end up revealing a very tasty meal!
For a vegetarian sandwich, with boiled egg, I pay 15 Dirham.
Tea and coffee… a strong flavor whatever the choice
We can say that tea is the national Moroccan drink, a strong green tea, seasoned with mint and served with big chunks of sugar. It’s not just about drinking tea… is about how to prepare it, dipping the mint leaves into the freshly boiled tea, adding the sugar cubes, and after a pause, pour the steaming contents of the teapot into the small glass cups. The technique lies in the skill of pouring the tea into the cups by placing the teapot at a certain high, in a way to create bubbles on the tea surface, producing a characteristic sound that you can’t miss if you hang out in a Moroccan tea shop. From the cups, the tea returns to the teapot and this process is repeated several times until the mixture reaches a mysterious point that only those initiated in this technique know.
We can say that Moroccan’s have a sweet tooth, and if the tea comes already in cups it probably will be already with sugar… a lot of sugar. If you have the chance to communicate with the staff it’s better to order the teapot and then you add the mint and sugar to your taste. The tea is always made with green tea, very intense especially the last cup, where the leaves left on the bottom of the teapot release the typical astringent taste of the over boiled tea.
Despite the tea being the most popular drink, the coffee is also widespread and it’s not difficult to find an espresso… but be prepared as the coffee in Morocco is very strong, not just in terms of taste, being very bitter, not just in terms of caffeine, giving you a strong kick that last all day 😉
Tagines… where are the spices?!?!
Tagine is the Moroccan national dish without doubt, not only in the tourist menus but also present in daily Moroccan meals, being a good option for vegetarians as it’s available everywhere. In small villages maybe it’s not so easy to find, but if the restaurant doesn’t have a vegetarian tagine ready just ask them to prepare one version of this dish without meat or fish. Yes, despite the dominance of meat in the Moroccan diet, nearby the cost it’s easy to find sardine tagine.
The couscous is very popular too, and you can also find vegetable couscous, but for the local population is just a Friday meal, eaten after the visit to the mosque.
But after seeing so many spices shops, with piles of cumin, paprika, nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, curcuma, saffron… I felt a bit disappointed with the soft taste of the tagines and couscous, at least the vegetable ones, where the flavours of the ingredients are present but where something was missing to give a bit of life to this stew. After a the tagines that I try in restaurants as also a few homemade versions, I just got a bit bored and question myself if they make the tagine tasteless to suit the western taste or if it’s just like that!
Yogurt and smoothies… fresh and homemade
In Morocco, it’s easy to homemade yogurts in juice and smoothies shops and well as in dairy shops, for about and it costs about 2 Dirham. The taste and consistency change from shop to shop, but they all have a bit of sugar… sometimes a lot of sugar!!!
The juice shops are a popular choice between the local for an afternoon break and in Marrakesh main square there’s a lot of this stalls, but I confess that I found these guys a bit push and never try there. I had a tasty avocado smoothie in Tinghir in a small shop that was also selling homemade yogurt. These shops offer a big choice of fruits, and you can make the combinations that you want… but watch out that the smoothies are made with milk.
During the months of October and November, it’s the pomegranate season, and in medina streets and markets, it’s easy to find these street hawkers that make the juice at the moment. They are very sweet and tasty… I think the pomegranates that I try in Morocco where the best that I ever try!!!
Sweets… sugary and delicious
Sugar, honey, nuts and puff pastry… these are the magical words that make sweets a landmark in Moroccan gastronomy.
It’s also present the French influence with more sophisticated cakes with cream that in Morocco gain a colorful version. The mille-feuille are very popular and are sold in bakeries as also in groceries shops, a bit rough version of the French cake but worth the 2 Dirham if you are in a sugar mood!
Meknes and Fes where the best places to explore the endless variations of the traditional Moroccan sweets, many of them made with puff pastry, stuffed with nuts and soaked in a sweet syrup: if they attract bees, probably they are made with honey… otherwise, if it’s just a sugar syrup the flies take over 😉
Nuts and dry fruits… well come to the paradise
Always present in Moroccan diet are the nuts and the dry fruits, with the dates being the dominant product, being Morocco a big producer (and a huge consumer!!!) despite this, the top quality dates are sometimes imported from Tunisia or Middle East countries. And nuts and dry fruits are a good and healthy choice to carry around while traveling and suit a vegetarian diet.
The souks have specialized shops where you can find a big diversity for different prices according to the quality… you can always ask to try before you make the choice. The markets are also a good place to buy dry fruits, and in some cities there even a specific street or area dedicate to dry fruits and nuts, where the dates stand up, showing the importance of this products in the Moroccan daily diet.
Street-food… tasty and oily
Morocco is a good place for street food, being a cheap choice with several vegetarian options.
In the medina souks, there are shops specialized in snacks, some sweet others salty seasoned with herbs and spices, which are good entertainment for long bus trips. The products are displayed in large spreads on a bench at the entrance of the store, from where the seller skillfully takes with a long spoon.
For those who like deep fry stuff, the Morrocan doughnuts are a mandatory experience, being freshly made in the morning in some local coffee shops… they are good with a besara soup or just with a tea, but be prepared for an oily experience!
The Medfouna a.k.a. berber pizza is a flatbread filled with vegetables and spices, fry in a metal flat surface, popular in the south nearby the desert areas. I try it in Ouarzazate in a street market in the evening time and really enjoy the crunchiness of the dough with the intensity of the spices that season the vegetables filling… I couldn’t avoid a second round!
Markets… a colorful experience
As a result of different altitudes and climates, Morocco offers a wide range of fruits. The autumn brings the apples, oranges and the pomegranates pop up as also the cactus figs coming from the more desert areas. But as traditional in Mediterranean climate the olives are a landmark in Moroccan cuisine and can be found in a wide range of types as also seasoned with paprika, chili, lemon or spices.
But the markets offer a wide range of choice in terms of fruits and vegetables and everything looks fresh and attractive, filling up the streets with colors and smells, changing according to the season and to the climate of each region.