In Morocco, Bread is Life

Morocco bread baking oven bakery
Communal Bread Oven, Fes (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

When the only bread you eat comes pre-sliced out of a plastic bag, it’s almost impossible to understand that “staff of life” saying so commonly applied to bread.

George Orwell’s story of feeding bread to a hungry Moroccan worker pointed out the near reverence for bread in much of the world.

And, in Morocco, bread indeed is the “staff of life.” Moroccan bread exemplifies the reason for the saying, as I learned, writing the following in a letter to the folks back home:

It is considered sinful to throw away bread. I had read that often an old man would go from affluent house to affluent house, asking for any old stale bits of bread that the household was unable or unwilling to eat that day. This bread was distributed or at least sold at very low prices to the poor who could not afford to buy their bread fresh. I actually saw this in Fes (Fez), in the form of a large flat, slightly shallow basket brimming with odds and ends of bread, being wheeled along in a wheelbarrow by an old man who stopped from doorway to doorway.

For those who did not grow their own grain, or did not have family members living in the bled (countryside) growing wheat, the old grain market in Rabat provided all the grain and other dried food necessary. Of my first visit to this  market on the banks of the Bou Regreg river, I said in another letter:

The pink walls of the Grain Market hide more than huge mountains of wheat kernels; it also is an excellent place to buy lentils, chickpeas, white beans, broad beans (both whole and split), split peas, cornmeal, pasta, semolina, couscous, short-grain rice for risottos, and broken rice (sift the rice before cooking to get rid of the weevils).

I bought 20 kilos of wheat, which we picked over sitting there in the market with three Berber ladies, the tattoos on their chins and on their foreheads signifying any number of things. It took an hour and a half. After that we went to the souk (open-air market) and bought a large blue plastic tub to wash the grain in when we got back home. Once the grain appeared clean, we spent three days drying it in the sun on the cement floor of the walled-in courtyard. And then we returned to the Grain Market, where the Berber ladies greeted us like friends and ground the grain into flour for us. The flour makes the nicest-tasting bread, even if it is soft wheat and not the hard wheat we prefer for bread.

Morocco breadBread is both the plate and the fork in the countryside, where communal eating takes place from a heaped platter of wheat couscous and whatever stew the cook makes on any particular day.

Without wheat, and bread, it’s hard to imagine Moroccan cuisine.  The Romans, traces of whom can still be seen in Volubilis near Meknes, encouraged the production of wheat. And that’s another story altogether.

**For the next few weeks, I am going to be on a “working vacation,” so my posts will be somewhat more abbreviated. I will still provide you with something substantial to chew on, though!

© 2009 C. Bertelsen



  • This is Paula Wolfert’s recipe, from Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. I highly recommend her book, as well as any by Kitty Morse. The recipes are very close to what you’d get from a Moroccan cook.

    Kisra or Khobz (Moroccan Bread)
    (Transcribed by Nasseh for I made a few corrections to make the recipe more in line with Wolfert’s original.)

    1/4 ounce active dry yeast
    1 t.sugar
    3 cups unbleached flour
    1 cup whole wheat flour
    2 t. salt
    1/2 cup lukewarm milk
    1 t. sesame seeds (optional)
    1 T. aniseed
    Oil for greasing bowl for rising bread

    Add the sugar to 1/4 cup of lukewarm water. Then add the yeast and stir to soften. Let it sit in a warm place until the yeast is bubbly & doubles in volume, roughly 2 minutes.

    Mix the flours & salt in the large mixing bowl. After yeast is ready add it to the flour along with the milk. Add enough lukewarm water to the mixture to form a stiff dough.

    Note:Flours differ in their ability to absorb moisture so no precise amount can be given. Add a small amount at a time. If you have added too much the mixture will be extra sticky and it will be hard to get off your hands. The right consistency should allow the dough to pull easily off your fingers.

    Place the dough onto a lightly floured board & knead hard with closed fists, pushing outward. During the final part of kneading, add seeds. It will take between 10-15 minutes to knead the dough thoroughly. You will know it is ready when it achieves a smooth, elastic consistency. (If you are using an electric beater with a dough hook, knead 7-8 minutes on a slow speed.).

    Take the thoroughly kneaded dough & form it into two balls & let it stand for 5 minutes on the board.

    Sprinkle cornmeal onto two baking sheets & place to the side. Then lightly grease a mixing bowl with oil. Transfer the first ball of dough to the bowl. Roll the dough along the sides while rotating bowl with your other hand, this will make the dough into a cone shape.

    Place the dough, wide end down, onto the first baking sheet. Flatten the cone with the palm of your hand to form a disc about 5 inches in diameter with a slightly raised center. Repeat with the second ball. Lightly sprinkle the remaining seeds on top of the bread.

    Cover each disc loosely with a damp towel & let it rise for about 2 hours in a warm place. The dough will be ready when you can gently pole your finger into it & it will not spring back into place.

    Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Using a fork, poke the bread 3 to 4 times & place in the center shelf of the oven. Bake for 12 minutes, then lower the heat to 300 degrees & make 25-30 minutes more.

    Remove from the oven & let cool. Cut into wedges and serve.

    Note: When done, the bread will sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.


  • I actually just returned from a trip to Morocco, and we had bread that looked exactly like the bread in your picture! It was delicious, and as an amateur baker I’m really disappointed that I didn’t get a recipe while I was there. Do you happen to have one, or do you know the name of the bread? I googled it and found the name khobz, but the images of the finished breads don’t look quite right. Also, they don’t have the interesting bits on the outside.

    Any help would be greatly appreciated!


  • Yes, bread is a holy thing in Morocco and elsewhere. By extension all food really can be thought of as holy. Sometimes we forget that …


  • bread is a holly thing in Morocco.
    all Moroccans fighting to make it true on their tables!!
    actually the poor people are thinking only to bring it
    to their kids is very important for them.we hope the minds change also the fight would be for pizza not for bread!


  • In Egypt and Sudan the colloquial for bread is ‘al-‘aysh’ (‘life’) – and so it is. And yes, in my experience, throughout the Middle East and parts of North Africa with which I am familiar, bread is indeed revered, and that cuts across religions.


  • While I was in Morocco studying last spring, one of my fellow students, also an American, was eating at one of the little “fast-food” places over in our corner of the Ville Nouvelle when he was approached by a beggar asking for food/money. My friend tossed him a loaf of bread. It did not go over well. The scene ended with the food stall owner and a passer-by wrestling the extremely irate beggar to the ground and beating him about the head a little.

    This was at the beginning of the semester, and neither I nor any of the other incoming students were aware of the great reverence held towards bread, any bread; after the above incident we asked one of our instructors about it and he explained things. In reflection, it makes sense- al-khubz is the center of dietary life, and it is not easy to come by.

    I was also struck by the parallel- coincidental or otherwise- between Maghrebi practice and the way Orthodox Christians treat the blessed bread that we receive after the Eucharist. While not consecrated, it is blessed (a “sacramental” I suppose in Western parlance) and hence it is proper to pick up and reverently discard any crumbs that fall on the floor. Related? Probably not, but one never knows… Anyway, between that and my conditioning in Morocco, I tend to be pretty careful with all bread now a days…


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