In Morocco (and Beyond), Flavor Principles

Preserved Lemons
Preserved Lemons (Photo credit: Wendy)

Northern Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt)**

According to Harva Hachten, in her Best of Regional African Cooking, “the North African housewife can choose from up to 200 different spices and herbs when she stops to replenish her supplies at a spice stall in the souks of the medinas.”[1] The guiding flavor principles in northern African cuisine include intricate spicing, particularly in Morocco, similar to the Persian manner. But flavor principles applied to North African cooking don’t begin and end with spicing alone. As with all cuisines in Africa, ingredients other than spices and herbs contribute to the taste profile of North Africa.

Yet, as in most of Africa, the basic meal pattern consists of a stew-like tagine served with a starchy “cushion,” wheat couscous.

Spice blends used commonly like harissa (red chile peppers mashed to a paste with garlic, cumin, ground coriander, ground cardamom and mixed with olive oil and salt) and ras-al-hanout (or “head of the shop,” consisting of cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, ground chili peppers, caraway, coriander, cumin, mace, nutmeg, peppercorn, and turmeric, as well as other less common spices) exist side by side with saffron, paprika, ground red pepper (cayenne), ground coriander seed, ground ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, and fresh herbs like mint, parsley, and cilantro leaves. Rosewater and orange flower water also add uniquely North African tastes to various salads and pastries. Olives, preserved lemons, fresh lemons, almonds, honey, dates, warka (similar to phyllo), sugar, salt, vinegar, fava beans, couscous, rice, squash (winter and summer), eggplant, green bell peppers, carrots, lentils, chickpeas, lamb, chicken, fish, and fruits –– particularly citrus and melons ––  round out the North African flavor pantry.

Fermented foods play an important role in the flavor profile of northern Africa, too.  Many of these fermented ingredients include those made from dairy products. One taste-altering ingredient used heavily in Moroccan cooking, smen (spiced fermented butter), appears in books such as Paula Wolfert’s Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco (1987). Most cookbooks, including Wolfert’s, suggest using regular butter instead. In Egypt, zabadi, a fermented yogurt-like product resembles, at least in principle, the buttermilk-like leben of Morocco, which is often fermented in earthenware jugs. Raipe (raib) is another fermented Moroccan milk product, thickened by the addition of young artichokes. Preserved lemons are a prominent fermented food in northern African cooking, utilizing lactic-acid fermentation.

Jessica Harris mentions the dadas of Morocco, black cooks with the culinary wisdom of cooks in the U.S. southern plantation and other kitchens.[2] These women and their position in and influence on the Moroccan kitchen deserve further study.

To make just about any food taste as if it came from a North African kitchen, add the following to meat and vegetables: grated onion, ground ginger, paprika, cumin, cayenne. North Africans also utilize sweet tastes side-by-side with acidic favors (raisins with carrots in a salad spiked with lemon juice, etc.)

[1] Harva Hatchen, Best of Regional African Cooking. New York; Hippocrene Books, 1998, p. 8.

[2] Jessica Harris, The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent, Simon & Schuster, 1998, p. 23-24.

**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


2 Comments Add yours

  1. But the salt DOES cause them to ferment. I lived in Morocco for two years, and the cooks often served tagines on top of couscous, not all the time, no, but they did. For a quick understanding of the fermentation process, see this page put out by FAO on fermentation: .


  2. Kitty Morse says:

    Hello: FYI, a few clarifications:
    Tagines are NOT served with a “cushion of couscous.
    Tagines are served on their own. They almost always combine meat (or seafood) and vegetables (or fruit).
    Couscous is a complete meal, as well, as Couscous Beidoui, in the style of Casablanca.

    Yes, dadas (usually descendants of Sudanese slaves) were the royal cooks, and are still the keepers of tradition (now freelance caterers) in Morocco, as I state in my first Moroccan cookbook, Come with me to the Kasbah: A Cook’s Tour of Morocco.

    Preserved lemons are not fermented. They are preserved in salt until they attain a jam like consistency.

    Kitty Morse, author
    Cooking a the Kasbah: Recipes from my Moroccan Kitchen
    The Scent of Orange BLossoms: Sephardic Cuisine from Morocco
    and 3 more books on Moroccan cuisine


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