Morocco, the culinary star of North Africa, is the doorway between Europe and Africa. Much imperial and trade influence has been filtered through her and blended into her culture. Unlike the herb-based cooking across the sea to the north, Moroccan cooking is characterized by rich spices. Cumin, coriander, saffron, chiles, dried ginger, cinnamon, and paprika are on the cook's shelf, and in her mortar. Harissa, a paste of garlic, chiles, olive oil, and salt, makes for firey dishes that stand out among the milder foods that are more the Mediterranean norm. Ras el hanout (which means head of the shop) names a dried spice mixture that combines anywhere from 10 to 100 spices.
Each vendor has his own secret recipe (hence the name), and no two are exactly alike. Couscous, granular semolina, is central to Morrocan cuisine and is often cooked with spices, vegetables, nuts, and raisins. It makes a meal in itself or is topped with rich stews and roasted meats.
Lamb is a principal meat. Moroccan roasted lamb is cooked until tender enough to be pulled apart and eaten with the fingers. It is often topped with raisin and onion sauces, or even an apricot puree. Meat and fish can be grilled, stewed, or cooked in an earthenware tagine (the name for both the pot and the dish). Savory foods are enhanced with fruits, dried and fresh—apricots, dates, figs, and raisins, to name a few.
Lemons preserved in a salt-lemon juice mixture bring a unique face to many Moroccan chicken and pigeon dishes. Nuts are prominent; pine nuts, almonds, and pistachios show up in all sorts of unexpected places. Moroccan sweets are rich and dense confections of cinnamon, almond, and fruit perfumes that are rolled in filo dough, soaked in honey, and stirred into puddings.