By SADIA KHATRI
Food streets in Morocco are a vegetarian’s nightmare. Butcher shops flaunt meat in every form: cut into sausage, minced, sliced, finely chopped. Roadside restaurants advertise an assortment of chawarmas, paninis and burgers while customers loiter about. Biased menus flap in defiance, offering modest salads as their sole vegetarian option, as smoke from barbequed chicken lingers invitingly above grilles, and snail and fish smells waft in to tantalize passerbys. In Morocco, meat is more than a popular cuisine: it is a lifestyle
“It’s very shame[ful] if you have people in your house and you put Tajine without meat,” stresses Ibrahim Adaoui, 46, referring to his favourite stew of chicken, tendered to perfection. Like most Moroccans, meat holds a cultural value for Ibrahim, and promoting vegetarianism can be a social faux pa.
“Sometimes I make pasta without meat, and my friends say, what’s wrong with you?” Adaoui shakes his head disapprovingly.
Moroccan feasts, weddings and holy days are celebrated with elaborate meat-foods such as Tajine that can take days to prepare. For strict vegetarians therefore, options are limited.
“You can do soups, but not main courses,” 22-year-old Karim Abdellah*, another Tajine-lover, offers. He figures Couscous is the closest one can manage, with its bulky base of wheat-grain, accompanied by a variety of vegetables. But even this savory dish is peppered with chicken or another meat, softened overnight.
“It is a very Western concept,” Abdellah explains, saying that many Moroccans do not even understand the term ‘vegetarian’. In Islam, meat is permitted or considered ‘halal’, therefore Muslims, who constitute the country’s majority, see little sense in avoiding it. In fact, annual religious occasions like Eid-ul-Adha require Muslims to sacrifice meat in the name of God.
In this landscape, food hunting for vegetarians can be a daily ordeal. Fruits, of course, are plentiful, with handcarts featuring everything from figs to different-sized peaches. Bakeries line the streets, putting on tantalizing displays of croissants and chocolate layered buns; cakes and pastries; and local sweets whose sugar content outdoes the popular mint tea’s.
At any time of the day, bread is available to overdose on, in all shapes and sizes: round, square, flattened, rolled. Lentils and beans are also often served, but as supplement to a main meat-dish. The only respite perhaps, is the soup-dish Harira, a recipe of chickpeas, lentils and herbs.
Unless vegetarians cook for themselves, they should prepare for a limited menu, aided by occasional spaghetti or pasta. Less-strict observers, of course, can help themselves to the vegetarian bits of a non-veg main course.
Such a diet might ensure vegetarian survival, but according to Abdellah, it would be a miserable way of living. For detaining one from experiencing authentic Moroccan cuisine—the butter-soft Tajine, the crispy meat-stuffed Pastilla, the festive goat’s head, the chewy street snails, and fresh fish from Rabati waters—also prevents one from an authentic cultural experience. Food in Morocco, and especially meat, is to be celebrated, shared, and enjoyed.
“If pork meat was not prohibited,” Abdellah grins in confession, “I’d definitely try it.”
*Last name changed upon request.