Customs and Cuisine of Morocco
By Vinola V. Munyon
Location: The Kingdom of Morocco is located in Northwestern Africa directly south of the Strait of Gibraltar. Morocco is a coastal country and has the distinction of being the only African nation that has borders with the Mediterranean Sea (in the North) and the Atlantic Ocean (in the West). Its land borders are Algeria, Mauritania and Spain.
Name Origins: The Arabic name, Al Mamlakah al Maghribiyah (short form: Al Maghrib) means “far west” or “where the sun sets” and harkens back to the first Arabic settlers who recognized it as the western most part of Africa. The English name, Morocco is a variant of “Marruecos” (Spanish) and “Marrocos” (Portuguese), which are in turn thought to have derived from the Latin name for Morocco’s capital, Marrakesh.
Population: The population estimate for July 2021 was 36.6 million. The population is predominantly composed of an admixture of two ethnic groups, the Arabs and the Imazighen. The Arab-Imazighen (Arab Berbers) account for 99 percent of the population of Morocco.
Religion: The dominant religion is Islam, with about 99 percent of the population identifying as Muslim, per data from 2020. Of those, virtually all ascribe to the Sunni branch of the faith with a scant 0.1 percent identifying as Shia. The remaining 1 percent identify as Christian, Jewish, or Baha’i.
Language: The languages most predominantly spoken are Arabic and the Berber languages Tamazight, Tachelhit, and Tarifit, and French. Of those, Arabic and Tamazight are official languages. A throwback to its days as a French colony, French is still largely considered the language for business.
CLAIM TO FAME/INFAMY
To the South of Morocco is Western Sahara. Home to the Sahrawi, the Western Sahara is a disputed territory. Twenty percent of the territory is controlled by the Sahrawi and is known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic while the remaining 80 percent is occupied by Morocco. Initially under control of Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania, the Western Sahara came under just the control of Morocco and the Sahrawi Nationalist Movement (the Polisario Front) when Spain relinquished control in 1975 and Mauritania followed suit in 1979. Morocco maintained de facto control of 80 percent of the territory including all the major cities and most of the natural resource reserves. The Polisario Front, and not Morocco, is recognized by the United Nations as the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi.
Morocco is most known in other parts of the world for its famous cities; Casablanca, Marrakech, Fes (home to the oldest and largest Medina), and Chefchaouen (the blue pearl of Morocco). In the early 1900s, Casablanca, under the French, transformed into the economic capital of Morocco. The site of the allied invasion in 1942 and of the conference between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in 1943, Casablanca has been romanticized in books and movies.
Moroccan society is highly stratified. Occupation/wealth is a marker of one’s standing in society, with occupations/wealth that are inherited being by default “top tier.” The royals, government officials, and wealthy Moroccans occupy the top tier in society. Merchants, entrepreneurs, and business owners occupy the next tier. The language one speaks in another marker of social status. Fluency in French is equated with sophistication. Fluency in Arabic is considered respectable, while knowing only the Berber language is considered a mark of lack of sophistication. Headgear and clothing are yet another way to signal status. The quality, craftmanship, and the embellishments on one’s headgear translate to one’s status in Moroccan society. A strong belief in fatalism – that fate determines which family (and thereby social status) one is born into – enables this social stratification to be accepted and abided with.
Roles within the family are gender-based, and the hierarchy of power within a family is age and gender-based. The males and boys within the family thus enjoy greater freedom of choice and access to education. On the other hand, female children within a family, even as young as five years old, are expected to help with childcare and household chores. They have, traditionally, less access to education and to freedom of choice. Women and female children care for the home and the children while men, traditionally, were the source of income. There are changes happening in big cities, where women are beginning to work outside the home, but this change is slow.
Marriages are typically agreed to by families and orchestrated between them. Religion, social standing, level of education, wealth, etc. are all criteria that matches are based on. Islamic law requires Muslim women to only marry a Muslim man, while men may be permitted to marry women who do not adhere to the same faith. Divorce is initiated almost always by the man in the marriage as while men have little to no hurdles to getting remarried, divorced women are shunned and have no prospect of remarriage. The identity of an individual is closely tied to the identity of the extended family (as social standing is dependent on it) so the honor of an individual, thus an individual incurring “shame” or “dishonor”, known as hshuma, is incurred by the entire extended family. This can lead to a lot of pressure to conform to societal mores.
Moroccan cuisine is renowned the world over for both its diversity and complexity of flavor. A fortunate confluence of factors – the fertility of the Moroccan soil, the richness and variety of its produce, and the diverse influences – has resulted in a cuisine that is well loved. The Berber and Arab influences dominate, and the staples rely on locally abundant and fresh ingredients such as olives, figs, dates, prunes, lamb, and spices. The Arabs are credited with introducing spices such as cinnamon, cumin, carraway, ginger, and saffron to the Berber repertoire of spices. The pickling and preservation techniques used in Moroccan cuisine is traced to the arrival of Jews who had migrated to North Africa. One of Morocco’s famous dishes, the b’stillah (or pastilla), is credited to the Moors of Southern Spain.
Among the many spices that are found in the Moroccan pantry, Ras El Hanout is likely one that is uniquely Moroccan. The name literally translates to “head of the shop” and means “top shelf.” It is a mix of salt and seven spices: cinnamon, cumin, coriander, cayenne, cloves, allspice, black pepper, and ginger. Harissa, a hot chili pepper paste/sauce that is Tunisian in origin, has a Moroccan version. The word “harissa” is derived from the Arabic “herass” and refers to the crushing of the dried chilies that are made into the paste containing the crushed chili peppers, red peppers, garlic, salt, and olive oil. The following are some of the most well-known Moroccan dishes.
Couscous: Often referred to as Morocco’s national dish, couscous is a rolled wheat –semolina grain that is steamed. Often likened to tiny pasta, couscous is a staple and served with stewed vegetables and meats. Couscous is used in salads and entrees and even the occasional dessert.
Tagine: The name of both the earthen pot it is cooked in and the resultant dish, Tagine is probably one of Morocco’s well-known dishes. Tagine is a meat and vegetable stew, braised slowly at a low temperature. Dried fruits, such as apricots and prunes, and nuts, such as almonds, are mixed in with lamb or chicken and vegetables and braised. The resultant dish has extremely tender meat and vegetables in a spiced, savory, and sweet sauce. It is served with crusty Moroccan bread.
Harira: A tomato, lentil, and chickpea soup that also sometimes incorporates meat and vegetables. Rice or broken pieces of vermicelli may also be added. It is a popular soup that is eaten year around. On account of its hearty, nutrition-packed nature it is typically served to break the fast for Ramadan.
B’stillah: A savory and sweet pie, the B’stillah was traditionally prepared using pigeon meat. Now it is more commonly made with chicken. Shredded chicken is mixed in with eggs and layered with roasted, crushed almonds and wrapped with phyllo dough.
Moroccan meals are eaten family style. Everyone gathers around low, round tables and sits on cushions on the floors. Silverware is eschewed and food is eaten only with the right hand, as the left hand is considered unclean. Everyone eats from the communal bowl or plate, reaching only into the portion of the bowl or plate that is directly in front of them.
THE MOROCCAN WAY OF LIFE
The Moroccan way of life centers around family and community. Religion is central to the way of life and it governs most aspects of everyday living. This is especially so during the holy month of Ramadan. Community cafes are a popular gathering place for men. Drinking mint tea and catching up over a game of football at the café is a preferred way to pass time. The souk or the open-air market and hanouts (akin to bodegas) are a bustling blur of activity where people of all ages shop for various goods and commodities.
The Moroccans are known to be extremely warm, generous people who are quick to open up their homes to guests and are enthusiastic to share their culture. It is traditional custom for Moroccans visiting another’s home to take milk, sugar cubes, or fruit as presents for the hosts.
The siesta or afternoon nap is observed by most and in deference to that, most stores and businesses tend to close the during hours of 2 p.m. to 4 or 5 p.m. Likewise, on Friday afternoons, stores tend to be closed during hours of prayer (noon to 2 p.m.).
Among the Islamic nations, Morocco is considered the more moderate. There are still aspects of life and living that are considered criminal by the cultural mores even in moderate Morocco, including homosexuality and pre-marital sex. Women are also expected to “protect” their modesty and dress conservatively, wearing loose fitting clothing. A lot of these traditional mores are changing in Morocco, but slowly.
CIA World Factbook
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