For travelers with specific dietary requirements, such as vegetarians and vegans, a key concern when planning a trip to Morocco is whether they will find enough variety in their meals. Part of the fun of travel is discovering the local cuisine and the good news is that even those who don’t eat meat can experience the unique flavors of Moroccan food.
Moroccans live in tune with the seasons and tend to shop fresh and local. You will see souks (markets) piled high with freshly-harvested fruit and vegetables. Much of these have not been treated with pesticides or artificial fertilizers and after a quick rinse or peel, these are ready to eat! In summer, men set up carts laden with Berber figs (prickly pears) which they will deftly peel for you right on the spot. These, along with grilled corn; boiled and salted garbanzo beans and fava beans; ma’aquda potato patties; freshly roasted nuts, or a handful of dried fruit make great vegetarian snacks and all this street food is readily available for a few dirham in a paper poke.
But let’s get on to the main affair… Morocco’s famous tajines and couscous! Can vegetarians safely eat the Moroccan national dishes? The good news is that yes, these are easily adaptable for non-meat eaters. The less good news is that Moroccans typically eat meat every day and rely on it to flavor the dish – they may find your request strange, but in tourist centers restaurants will be accustomed to requests for vegetarian tajine or couscous. Strict vegetarians and vegans may find it harder to ensure that their dish is not simply the normal version with the meat picked out. The safest way to avoid this is to order your meal in advance, for example from your riad. To make meat-free tajine or couscous more interesting (and authentic), request the addition of chickpeas (in Arabic: hoummus) or a garnish of caramelized onion and sultanas (tfaya).
All those fresh veggies are fabulous in salads. Once you’ve had enough of the standard salade marocaine (diced tomato, cucumber, onion and herbs), track down the full range of cooked Moroccan salads. These take longer to prepare, so are often found in more formal restaurants, but they are worth it! The combination of herbs and spices in a selection of small taster salads – like a Middle Eastern mezze – is a real treat and they are all generally vegan, made with olive and argan oils. Try shakchuka (roasted pepper and tomato), zaaluq (pureed eggplant with tomato) or salads with carrots, pumpkin, beets or beans.
The classic Moroccan soup, harira, is also often made with a vegetable stock (but double check to be sure!) Served to break the fast during Ramadan and a favorite as an early evening snack all year round, it is like a meal in a bowl. Containing tomatoes, garbanzos, lentils, pasta or rice and herbs, it is flavorsome and – served with dates, sweet pastries or fluffy msimen pancakes – sure to satisfy your appetite! Another popular vegetarian soup is baysara. You’ll find this thick soup of pureed fava beans, with its characteristic slick of virgin olive oil and sprinkle of cumin, only in the mornings – it’s a popular breakfast dish for workers, costing only a few dirham.
For those with a sweet tooth… You are in good company in Morocco! Moroccans love cakes, pastries and biscuits. Some may be made with butter, although traditional breakfast/teatime snacks such as sfinj (ring donuts), msimen (flaky pancakes), bghrir (full of holes like English crumpets only larger and thinner), shbakia (fried cinnamon twists) and breads tend to be made with oil or water. Pastries such as the classic ‘gazelles horns’ and other sweet treats may contain butter, so vegans will need to check. For a healthier sweet option, there are a myriad of juice and smoothie combinations and many juice bars can also make up a fruit salad on request. If you like your juice natural, ask for sans sucre (no added sugar).
To finish at the start of the day, breakfast is seldom an issue for vegetarian travelers in Morocco. Typically riad guest houses and hotels serve a selection of breads and pastries with jams, honeys and oils, perhaps some local olives or fruit and orange juice. Eggs are available everywhere and a “BM” or Berber omelet (an omelet on a base of spicy tomatoes and onions) is something every Moroccan can rustle up – even in the remotest desert or mountain locations.
For those almost-vegetarians who eat fish, you are in for a treat on Morocco’s Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines in cities such as Agadir, Essaouira and Oualidia. And if you hanker a little variety and yearn for something more familiar on one night of your vacation, you will find a selection of restaurants in large cities serving everything from Thai food to pizzas; Lebanese falafel to sushi and spaghetti to curry. An entirely vegetarian restaurant, however, would be rare in Morocco!
Then there are Moroccan riads that specialize in cuisine and offer meat free options. Wonderful vegetarian and even wheat free cuisine can be found in Fes at Dar Roumana, a boutique riad run by French chef Vincent Bonnin and his wife Vanessa. Riad Idrissy and The Ruined Garden in Fes offer an interesting take on vegetarian dishes as does the famous boutique hotel La Maison Arabe in Marrakech that can serve up one of Morocco’s most tasteful Berber Vegan tajines. As a Morocco traveler you are guaranteed contemporary inspired and traditional cuisine in Morocco that is meat free.
Besawaraha! (Arabic for “Bon Appetit!” or “Enjoy!”)
Written by Lynn Sheppard
Lynn Sheppard has lived in Essaouira, on Morocco’s Atlantic Coast for more than 2 years, supporting local non-profits, writing and becoming an expert on all things Swiri (ie. Essaouiran). She blogs at Maroc-phile.com and for other travel industry clients.