(CNN) — One of the signature photos people always take home with them from Morocco is of heaping piles of spices in a variety of enticing colorful displays. These setups aspire to overwhelm visitors with the enchantment of a new and undiscovered place — and to encourage wide-eyed tourists to part with their dollars.
Diane Rice of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, captured a singular image of one of those remarkably shaped groupings of spice cones, a monument to Morocco’s exotic qualities.
Spice shops are located all over the place, inviting visitors to try a sniff. Ras el hanout, or “top of the shop,” is the country’s signature spice blend. There may be dozens of ingredients involved, including nutmeg, pepper, cinnamon and cardamom – and everyone has their own variation. It is these same spices that lend Moroccan foods a special flavor.
“I’ve traveled extensively in Europe, but nowhere than can match this experience,” Rice said. “Whatever exotic dream I had of Morocco before I went was more than confirmed. It was way better than I ever expected, and by far the farthest thing from our life in the U.S. that I have ever visited.”
Rice was visiting her son-in-law’s family in Morocco and wasn’t sure what to expect during her May 2011 trip, but any fears were quickly dissipated by the hospitality — and tastes — she encountered.
Two popular meals are the tajine (or tagine) and the pastilla. The former is a style of slow-cooked stew often filled with meat and vegetables, and is named for the special pot in which it is cooked. The latter is a Moroccan meat pie often made with pigeon or chicken.
“My experience with the food was amazing, but different because I was eating in private homes, prepared by real, traditional Moroccans,” she wrote. “I had every conceivable tajine recipe and loved all of them. I had some clean, lemony salads and some creamy, delicious couscous that I remember vividly.”
Jessie Faller-Parrett of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, shared a photo of the colorful array of vegetable foodstuffs one might find in just one course of a Moroccan meal. Multiple courses with many different components and local breads are common when eating in Morocco.
Like Rice, Faller-Parrett spent time eating with Moroccan locals during her travels, so she also got the non-touristy perspective on food.
“I was fascinated during one of our first breakfasts, as the hosts at our riad served us three different kinds of bread, hard boiled eggs, cheese, jam, cocoa, honey, butter, olives, orange juice, coffee and mint tea.”
She enjoyed immersing herself via the varied foods available in Morocco, including the tajine and pastilla. She also made sure to try a sheep’s head and brain straight from a stall in Marrakech’s Jamaa el Fna, the country’s most famous market.
“Meals are a wondeful experience, with many different courses and new tastes,” Faller-Parrette said. “Be adventurous and try everything from the many delicious types of bread and vegetables to pigeon pastillas and boiled sheep’s head.”
If you go to Morocco, you’ll also find that tea is steeped into the culture. Swishing a paper tea bag in a steaming coffee mug can be heavenly on a cold day, but it’s a far cry from the elaborate rituals of the East. Residents drink a special green tea several times a day. It’s a part of daily life, and a component of hospitality shown to guests.
“The ubiquitous mint tea was ever-present,” wrote Rice. “Every shop, hotel, restaurant and home.”
The tea is prepared with mint added to it, and then sweetened to varying degrees by regional preference.
Visual presentation is a big part of the ritual, and the preparer typically uses a tray with glasses and pots. There may be an elaborate preparation technique designed to affect the taste and consistency of the drink. Pouring is done from a distance to ensure a certain foaminess, which is a practice that can be found in many other countries around the world.
Vivienne Chapleo and Jill Hoelting , who run WAVEjourney.com, visited Morocco and participated in a tea ceremony with a Berber family just outside Marrakech in the Ourika Valley. The Bend, Oregon, bloggers said the tea ceremony was a treasured experience featuring more than just tea, and plenty of attention from their hosts.
“They also served warm, fresh bread from flour they had stone ground themselves. Accompanying the bread was honey from their own bees, butter from their cow and olive oil from their olive trees.”
The traveling pair made sure to record a video of the elaborate preparations for the tea.
“The mint tea was served with copious amounts of sugar and was an absolute treat to see being prepared.”
Faller-Parrett says she also enjoyed tasting the tea with meals or just to relax wherever she went.
“Mint tea is such a huge part of Moroccan culture, and I enjoyed taking a moment after meals to drink it and talk about all of the delicious foods we ate or to take a break from a day of exploring to sit for a moment at a café, soak in my surrounds and drink tea.”
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