Is it still possible to love Moroccan cookery if you can’t stand fruit in savoury dishes? Yes, discovers Camilla Stoddart
I love Morocco. Everything about it is exotic and visually pleasing — the landscape, the interiors, the souks, the carpets, the slippers — but there is a major hurdle lying between me and full Moroccophile status. This hurdle is fruit. Or more specifically fruit combined with meat. I don’t have many personal food rules but not mixing fruit with meat is one of them. And Moroccans don’t just flout this rule, they beat it to a pulp with a tenderising hammer and then scatter prunes, dates, apricots and pomegranate seeds on top of it. Take harira, the gutsy lamb, lentil and chickpea soup traditionally eaten during Ramadan to break the fast; it’s absolutely delicious but in Morocco it’s served with dates or figs. And then there are the slow-cooked tagines of chicken with apricots and almonds or lamb with honeyed prunes and roast chickens stuffed with raisins, pistachio nuts and couscous. Sometimes it feels like an insurmountable hurdle ….
On closer inspection, it isn’t just the fondness for fruit I find difficult, it is also the blurring of the boundaries between sweet and savoury. A typical meal in Morocco might start with a refreshing salad of sliced oranges with olives and onions then move to a main course of grilled fish stuffed with dates and almonds and finish with candied aubergines for pudding. Collectively the Moroccans appear to have a very sweet tooth and it influences everything they cook.
But recently I read something that made me wonder whether I couldn’t overcome my aversion to sweet things in a savoury context. Apparently some supposedly ‘sweet’ spices such as cinnamon and vanilla aren’t actually sweet at all but because our brains associate them with sugary desserts, we register a sweetness that isn’t even there. The same is true of other common Moroccan ingredients such as cardamom, ginger, almonds, rosewater, orange flower water and preserved lemons, none of which are actually sweet; exotic and perfumed, yes, but not sweet.
Once I realised that perceptions of sweet and savoury could be learned, I started experimenting at home where I could be in control of exactly what went into the pot. Cooking Moroccan food can be delightfully simple and very satisfying and by taking timid baby steps with the unfamiliar combinations of ingredients, I have begun to retrain my brain to enjoy the fragrant loveliness of some of the key flavours (the books of Claudia Roden and Ghillie Basan have been wonderful guides). I haven’t yet graduated to willingly adding apricots or prunes but I no longer struggle with the supposed sweetness of everything and I have come to love dishes such as lamb tagine with caramelised baby onions, cinnamon and ginger, chicken with saffron and honey and glazed carrots with coriander and orange flower water. A whole new world of delicate, aromatic flavours has opened up to me.
I have also discovered that Morocco’s distinct and diverse cuisine has plenty of other things to tempt a conscientious fruit objector; there are grilled spiced meats, tasty minced lamb kebabs and fried fish with chermoula (a bold marinade of garlic, coriander, chilli and paprika) as well as fresh dips and unusual salads, mini fish cakes, crisp briouats (deep fried parcels of spiced meat or cheese and herbs), meatballs spiked with harissa (hot chilli sauce) and couscous-stuffed vegetables. Along the way I have even decided that some fruits are permissible in meat dishes: quinces with their inbuilt tartness are delicious in lamb tagines while preserved lemons add an aromatic bitterness to chicken with olives. Maybe I can call myself a fully fledged Moroccophile after all.