When I became a vegetarian a few years ago, I thought it would be a breeze. After all, I live in Morocco. The fruits and vegetables are relatively cheap here and the cuisine is known for its rich, flavorful spices. However, the truth is that finding my food comfort zone (if there is such a thing) took a little more time, and a little more exploration, than I bargained for.
Morocco has a strong cultural rapport with meat. As I am writing this, the country just celebrated Eid Al Adha, a holiday where most Moroccan families will sacrifice a sheep, goat or cow. Think of it as Thanksgiving with sheep instead of turkeys and where the animals are brought home alive and slaughtered on the day of the holiday.
Meat is also viewed as a symbol of wealth and status. It is one of the more expensive foods you can buy. This explains why in most celebration events, such as weddings, the food served is almost always exclusively meat-based. In the more conservative parts of the country, the meat in a tajine (or whatever dish is being eaten), will be eaten at the very end, after it has been divided and distributed by the family patriarch who decides who gets what cut.
Main Vegetarian Courses
While most Moroccan main dishes will have some sort of meat, there are still a few culinary Moroccan staples you should absolutely try:
- Vegetarian Couscous: Couscous is perhaps the best known Moroccan dishes, made from wheat semolina, vegetables and chickpeas. The vegetarian version is just as delicious as its carnivore counterpart.
- Vegetarian Tajine: Another staple of Moroccan cuisine, a tajine is a mix of vegetables, olive oil and spices cooked in a conic clay pot, known as a tajine (from which the dish derives its name). Don’t miss the green pea and artichoke tajine if you spot it on the menu!
Please keep in mind that both of these meals are usually cooked with meat. Make sure to ask your waiter if you follow strict vegetarian guidelines. Oftentimes, if unspecified, the meat is simply removed from the dish to make it “vegetarian.” This is particularly the case with couscous.
Vegetarian Side Dishes
The true gems of Moroccan vegetarian cuisine lie within its huge variety of salads and side dishes, both cooked and fresh. It is not uncommon to have anywhere between 10 to 15 salad options in most Moroccan restaurants. Below are a few options you want to keep an eye out for on the menu:
- Zaalouk, made with roasted eggplant, tomatoes and spices. A staple of Moroccan restaurants throughout the country.
- Taktouka, a traditional Moroccan salad composed of tomatoes, onions, grilled peppers and olive oil. Perhaps the most common fresh salad you’ll find.
- Bissara (also known as bisr in the north): This rich, fava bean soup consists of boiled and mashed fava beans served with cumin, red paprika and olive oil. A popular dish with sailors and fishermen.
- Harira: A thick tomato soup with chickpeas, rice and lentils. This is typically served throughout the month of Ramadan, though you can find it in restaurants year-round.
Eat a Hefty Vegetarian Breakfast
If you’re worried that you might not find vegetarian friendly meals during the day, stock up during breakfast at your hotel or riad. Moroccan breakfasts are typically vegetarian friendly. Try some of the traditional Moroccan breakfast pastries and flatbreads like harcha and mlaoui. And make sure you use some spreads like amlou ( a heavenly mix of argan oil, roasted almonds and honey). A good breakfast can keep you energized so you can explore for hours!
Some Other Vegetarian Options
Morocco has an abundance of fresh, tasty and relatively cheap fruits. These can be bought and consumed from any local market, store or stand. They are also served in more elaborate ways at restaurants. There will almost always be a seasonal fruit salad option on the dessert menu. Morocco is also especially known for its oranges! So do not hesitate to try a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice at one of the many juice stands, like in the Djemma el-Fnaa in Marrakesh!
Dried fruit stands are found on most major pedestrian thoroughfares. These will have a wide array of dried food and nuts — including peanuts, almonds, various seeds, dates and dried figs. These are great to stop at for a quick snack, especially when still warm from being toasted. They are a lifesaver if you’re packing around kids (or grouchy husbands!) with a grumbling tummies.
Some Final Thoughts on Being Vegetarian in Morocco
Depending on where you are in the country, some people might not understand why you do not eat meat. Keep in mind, the relationship with animals is also different in Morocco. Most animals are raised by small, independent, local farmers. Not big industrial farms like in the U.S. People won’t be able to relate to arguments about animal cruelty or global warming. Additionally, Islamic belief claims animals were brought on the earth for humans to consume and use. The easiest way (if you’re not looking for a long conversation) is to say that you have a condition or your doctor asked you to temporarily stop eating meat. This will be easily understood.
However, in the last few years Morocco has caught up a bit to vegetarianism. While vegetarian or vegan substitutes — like soy milk or soy patties — are very expensive, they are getting cheaper. Additionally, many restaurants in more touristed cities, like Marrakesh, Casablanca and Rabat, are accustomed to catering to vegetarians. Vegetarian-friendly restaurants usually have a vegetarian section in their menu, or a at the very least, one vegetarian dish. Finally, most places in Morocco are very flexible. This is especially the case with the boutique hotels and riads, So even if there is no clear options on the menu, do not hesitate to talk to your waiter or the manager. Chances are they will be more than willing to accommodate you!
Wherever you go in Morocco, you will undoubtedly find local vegetarian dishes that will satisfy your culinary curiosity. Enjoy the flavorful cuisine! You won’t find such a variety of sweet and savory spice combinations anywhere else in the world!
About the Author
Omar Moutei is a Moroccan-American who has lived in different parts of Morocco over the past 10 years. Currently, Omar works in the non-profit sector. He is an avid traveler. His other interests include politics, art and food. Omar currently lives in Rabat.