Washington - Moroccan cuisine is colourful, sophisticated and always artfully presented. “First, we eat with the eyes,” goes one particularly telling expression.
It is also often meat-rich. Succulent slow-cooked lamb tagines with dried fruits and a heady mélange of spices (ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, sweet paprika, saffron) and chicken with preserved lemon and olives are among its signature dishes.
And while “seven-vegetable couscous” is something of a national dish, and does indeed include seven types of vegetables, the broth is usually flavoured with meat and bones. Ditto for harira, the silky tomato, lentil and chickpea soup that many eat daily during Ramadaan.
Much the same can be said for numerous vegetable-dominated dishes.
Yet, especially for guests and on special occasions, it is an array of vegetarian salads that open meals - often in spectacular fashion.
According to traditional Moroccan hospitality, explain the dadas (traditional female cooks) of La Maison Arabe, the legendary restaurant and hotel in Marrakesh, the more choices one offers a guest, the higher one's esteem for him or her. It is a measure of one’s hospitality.
The range of what a host might offer is wide and, depending on the season, can include chilled caramelised cubes of butternut squash dusted with cinnamon; mashed eggplant and tomato zaalouk with plenty of garlic and maybe some hot paprika; flame-grilled green peppers tossed with chopped tomatoes, herbs and some preserved lemon peel; and cucumbers in a sweet marinade given a scattering of dried wild thyme before serving.
This course of fresh and “cooked” salads is one of the country’s most delectable culinary traditions, and offers an ideal showcase not just of the cook’s ability, but the cuisine’s originality.
After 20 years of travelling in Morocco, I continue to be awestruck by the impressive salad spreads on the tables from the seaside capital city Rabat to Berber villages in the High Atlas to humble places in the desert south.
At the restaurant in the Royal Mansour, a hotel owned by King Mohammed VI that acts as something of an unofficial extension to his palace in Marrakesh, I tasted regal sophistication with salads.
Dinner began one evening with seven of them, each distinct in flavour, colour and texture: orange segments individually wrapped with slivers of beetroot; mashed caramelised pumpkin with plump Medjool dates from a south-eastern oasis; mallow jazzed up with preserved lemons and marinated olives from the souk; and, in the tradition of persistent refinement in the palace kitchen, spinach leaves with orange blossom foam and a pinch of ground cinnamon.
While the dadas of La Maison Arabe stress fresh, seasonal ingredients when deciding on which salads to prepare, contrasts in flavours, colours and textures are also key.
To highlight this, the salad selection often includes versions that use the same principal ingredient.
For instance, a dish of tangy beets with plenty of fresh coriander and parsley might appear beside a sweet one of beets tossed with orange segments and a hint of orange blossom water.
One classic savoury salad is rounds of boiled carrots tossed with olive oil, sweet paprika and plenty of cumin. This is chilled and given a squeeze of lemon juice and a scattering of fresh flat-leaf parsley before serving.