In Morocco, as elsewhere, eating habits are evolving, but probably much more rapidly than in Europe. Classical French, German, English, etc. cuisine has evolved, but dishes such as bouillabaisse, paella, poule au pot, pudding or choucroute have been around for centuries. This is just as true for pastry as it is for cooking.
So it's hard to imagine the vortex into which the Moroccan cook has been swept, the number of ingredients and dishes that are now so strongly Moroccan that you'd swear your great-grandmother's great-grandmother was already preparing them in her riad, even though they could only have been cooked a century ago. And the story of this culinary evolution is also a colonial story.
Tea (with mint)
The Moroccan glass of tea is a relatively recent import. Tea has been known for centuries, but it took a long time to conquer the world. In China, where it is believed to have originated, it has been known since ancient times. It was used as a drink, medicine and currency: as with metal, tea leaves were compressed into bricks or circles of standard weight and size.
Protected by the barriers of the Chinese Empire, tea began to be widely cultivated in India in 1855, once the British had managed to steal some Camilla Sinensis plants and acclimatise them, in Ceylon and in the foothills of the Himalaya. These plantations needed outlets, so it was English traders who introduced tea to most African countries, at least to the Maghreb. (With the exception of Ottoman Egypt, which discovered it much earlier).
In reality, tea was not totally unknown: it had been introduced at the court of Sultan Moulay Ismaïl in the 17th century, and the English had already begun to market it in the 18th century, but it remained an expensive import product, limited to the trading posts of Tangier and Essaouira. The Moroccans drank herbal teas, often based on mint (naana) or wormwood (cheba), which are nowadays two plants traditionally associated with tea, like thyme or rosemary.
The Moroccan salad
This deliciously refreshing little dish of tomatoes and finely sliced onions probably did not exist in the 19th century. The tomato originated in Peru and Mexico. It arrived in Europe via Spain in 1523. At the time, it was thought to be dangerous, as it belonged to the Belladonna family. It was not consumed until the 17th or 18th century. It remained unknown for a very long time in Arab countries, where it is still not a common ingredient.
It penetrated Africa in the 17th century, but did not really reach the Maghreb, where it was known as a foreign ingredient.
Indeed, the tomato is one of the crops introduced under the French Protectorate. The first maps of possible agricultural production drawn by colonial affairs officers do not mention the tomato, focusing mainly on wheat, which was needed to supply France. It was only in the 1920s that market gardening really developed, in the Casablanca and Zenata region and, further down, in the Sous plain and around Agadir. The cultivation of this red fruit (yes, the tomato is a fruit), imported from the American colonies, made the fortune of some colonists, in particular Simon Oleggini, treasurer of the Syndicate of Market Gardeners and nicknamed "the King of the Tomato". Similarly, tomato cultivation was introduced to the Middle East in the 1930s by the British. (Known since the beginning of the 19th century in Aleppo, it was imported from 1840 onwards.
In addition to the Moroccan salad, we can forget the chermoula sauce and the "married sardines", at least in their current version.….
A story of wheat and flour
North Africa was the granary of the ancient Roman Empire. Later, in the 17th century, the warehouses built in Meknes by Sultan Moulay Ismaïl (him again!) made it possible to store the kingdom's wealth, to smooth out the price of wheat in times of shortage and to maintain a greater genetic diversity than if the peasants had simply resown their own seeds.
But with the arrival of the French, everything changed: wheat cultivation was intensified, but the local wheat, a hard, drought-resistant wheat, was replaced by a soft wheat, the one that was appreciated in Europe and that made it possible to produce very fine flour and good white bread. The only problem is that soft wheat requires much more water than hard wheat.
On the other hand, it contains a gluten that is easier to work with and less "rigid". Its flour is therefore more breadmaking: it can be used to make leavened bread, which is very different from the flat breads that were — and still are — baked in earthen ovens. The famous "tafarnout" is much better with durum wheat flour, you should try it!
Like its cousin the tomato, the potato comes from the New World. However, it is known that, curiously, it was first adopted for human consumption in Central European countries. Adopted in France under the rule of Louis XVI, it migrated to England, Scotland and Ireland, where it helped to minimise the impact of the great famines of the 19th century.
The French therefore hurried to introduce it to Morocco, where it conquered the tajines, without any further additions.… (no purée, for example).
And all the other immigrants ...
We can still mention most of the vegetables that are neither root vegetables, nor seed vegetables (like beans) nor cucurbits. Beef was extremely rare, but known, as an exceptional dish (as raising a beef requires much more resources than a sheep), goat meat and dromedary meat much more widespread. Turkeys also arrived with the settlers, who had acclimatised them from America.
As for dairy products, they are still relatively little used by Moroccans, apart from dairy products, raïb, msamem and very fresh cheeses. 'La Vache qui Rit" is of course a "colonisation",
How to recognize them?
Recent immigrants are easy to recognise: they are often absent from the souk or hanouts, they have no Arabic or Berber name (for example, in classical Arabic, the name of the tomato is its simple transcription, "tomatim" طماطم , while in Darija it is called matisha the diminutive of tomatisha). For the slightly older immigrants, it is finally the mode of use that will inform: if the ingredient is used in many preparations, transformed, like lemon or onion, it was well established before the arrival of the Europeans.
Conversely, if it is used without much variety, in the same way from North to South, like all the vegetables that are simply cut into pieces in the tagine, then there is a strong chance that it arrived in Morocco in the colonists' canteens.
All cuisines evolve
All cuisines change: Europe also completely changed its diet from the Renaissance to the beginning of the 19th century, with the contributions of the colonies, and it did so a second time with the rise of a "culinary conscience", a search for healthier food, based on organically grown and environmentally friendly ingredients, and an immense diversification, with the most distant foreign products often being grown locally.
But this change has been much more gradual than in Morocco. Here, the result was a certain impoverishment of the culinary tradition: the women, who were responsible for the kitchen, did not go out much, the shopping was done by the men, who did not interfere with the tagine. This was not a favourable environment for discovering the possibilities of extensive use of these foods. Only the women who worked for Europeans were trained in these new recipes…
But these "immigrants", produced in a modern, intensive, cheap way, often took the place of other cultures.
Rediscovering the true traditional cuisine of Morocco
If we compare Moroccan cuisine with "Persian" cuisine in the broadest sense (in fact that of Iran, but also of Afghanistan, which share geographical characteristics with Morocco, and many common products), we can see how "different" we can make of the same thing. Similarly, in the south and in the oases, local crops have been destroyed, little by little, including by drought, and people cook what they buy at the souk… which often comes from the big central markets or from the farms in the suburbs.
So I wanted to find this real "traditional cuisine", the one before the Protectorate. This is a difficult task, as there are few written sources: travellers' accounts, which are not very extensive on the subject (and generally only describe festive meals), and the kingdom's registers, which make it possible to know what was sold, imported or exported. And this ancient cuisine responds to many of today's preoccupations: almost vegetarian, they used a lot of gluten-free flours, fruits and local oils. Quite a programme!