“The great misconception about Morocco is that it’s just sea and desert,” says writer and cook Jeff Koehler. “But there is great variety in the landscape. There are valleys covered with cherry trees and streams filled with trout.”
Koehler, who spent four years traveling the globe after college before settling in Barcelona, is enamored by how deeply embedded food is in Mediterranean culture. He has authored the cookbooks The Country Cooking of Spain and Rice Pasta Couscous, and his newest, Morocco (which he also photographed).
“I first visited 12 years ago, and each time I go back I am fascinated with not only the sentimental role food plays there, but the regionality.” The book is an accumulation of recipes he picked up after returning to places like Tangier and Rabat, as well as traveling to southern towns like Safi and to villages in the Atlas Mountains.
“Berber cuisine is very rural and influenced by whatever is available, so you get lots of barley couscous and vegetarian dishes in the villages. Whereas in cities like Fez, you get much more complex combinations of ingredients.” Even simple fried fish varies, from spicy chermoula-marinated fillets in the south, to pan-fried trout stuffed with carrots and bay leafs in the Middle Atlas mountains.
On the Mediterranean coast, meanwhile, back and forth culinary exchanges with Andalusia are evident in variations of dishes like b’stilla—filo pastry stuffed with almonds, raisins, and cinnamon—where it is made with seafood rather than pigeon.
When not traveling with his two daughters, who he took to a rural souk in the north and to the Atlas Mountains for mushroom hunting, Koehler would stay in small riads and even in family homes.
“Moroccans are incredibly open and accepting. The more I went back, the more I was taken by how phenomenal the hospitality is there,” he says. “Even when I would stay in a riad, it was always easy to just go into the kitchen and talk, or to follow the chefs to the souk and buy bread at the public dispensaries.”
Though the book includes sections on Maghreb ingredients and kitchen tools, like the tiered couscoussier and terracotta tagine platter, Koehler’s recipes place an emphasis on the final textures and flavors of the dishes rather than the traditional techniques.
“I very much try to make the recipes authentic, not something that was merely inspired by what I saw and learned,” he explains. “But some of these dishes are cooked on embers on the floor, so part of the challenge is making them reproducible for someone in a San Francisco apartment.”
Regardless of whether you have access to tools like the gsâa (a platter used for preparing couscous) or ingredients like argan oil, one thing that translates without assistance is the communal nature of Moroccan dining.
“Food plays an intimate role, it’s so important to the family,” says Koehler. “One thing I learned in Marrakech, while eating a tagine with a Berber woman and her family, is that in Morocco, one never eats alone.”