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Sugar’s place in Moroccan dishes, desserts and drinks
Sugar is a familiar presence in the dishes, desserts and drinks of Morocco, including as a means of sweetening the nation’s favourite drink: mint tea or ‘atay’. Uniquely influenced by the cuisines of Arab, Berber and Mediterranean cultures, alongside a rich tradition of its own, Moroccan cuisine features many dishes that include the wide range of natural cane, and later beet sugars, available locally.
Sugar’s introduction to Morocco
During the late 7th century, the Arabs reached Morocco and brought with them the Arabic language, Islam and sugar. In the centuries that followed the Arab conquest, and with the agricultural revolution, Morocco’s commercial sugar industry developed. Before too long, Morocco was trading sugar with Europe.
By the 9th century, however, sugar production in Morocco was closely linked to forced labour or slavery, and many Moroccans were taken overseas to work the land and help meet the growing demand for sugar in Europe. As the 10th century dawned, new and more efficient methods of sugar production were tested and introduced, while land that had once been used for local crops such as grain was replaced with sugar cane.
As the centuries advanced, the process of refining sugar moved from Morocco to Europe, contributing to a decline in refined sugar production. In the 20th century, as Morocco struggled to compete with the likes of Brazil in sugar cane production, it chose to invest in producing sugar beet.
Today, Morocco continues to cultivate and produce both cane and beet sugar. Production in 2022-2023 was 349,000 tonnes, of which 40,000 tonnes was cane sugar and 309,000 tonnes beet sugar.
Sweetening Morocco’s main savoury dishes
Moroccan cuisine blends Arab, Berber, Mediterranean and some French influences – an outcome of its cultural history and colonial past. In the West, couscous and tagine-cooked lamb or chicken stews are synonymous with Morocco, though in reality the nation’s cuisine is far more diverse with spices, fruits and vegetables, and seafood dishes.
Beef is also popular. Typically, rich, dark and bittersweet cane molasses will be added to a beef stew to enrich its colour and flavour. A sweet pumpkin paste, known as gr’aa mderbla or m’aassla, is made with cinnamon and unrefined sugar and this paste is a topping for the dish D’jaj (or L’ham) M’qualli Mderbel, or Moroccan chicken, lamb or beef. The sweetness of the paste counteracts the otherwise intense savouriness of the dish.
Even sweeter desserts and baked goods
Ghoriba bahla, a shortbread biscuit traditionally made with toasted sesame seeds and almonds, benefits from the mellow flavour and crunchy texture that demerara sugar imparts. This baked good is a staple in many Moroccan homes.
The country is also known for its sweeter-than-sweet desserts that are so often a feature of festivals and celebrations. Sellou, stouf or zmita is a heady, unbaked mix of roasted almonds, toasted sesame seeds and roasted-until-brown flour. The exact recipe may vary by region, but the almonds and sesame seeds are roasted after blanching or washing, and the flour is roasted in the oven and sifted. The dry ingredients – including spices – are combined before melted butter is added to bind the mixture together. It is then kneaded to a paste-like consistency.
Traditionally served during Ramadan or to mark other celebrations like weddings, sellou, stouf or zmita owes a lot to the sugar that gives it its flavour, texture and colour. Modern variations feature white granulated table sugar, but traditional variations of the recipe use dark soft brown sugar or dark cane muscovado sugar. There was a time when these more traditional recipes favoured raw cane sugars or sugar loaves made from unrefined sugar cane juices.
Sugar loaves and mint tea
Morocco is one of the few countries around the world to still manufacture sugar loaves, and these loaves are central to how the people of Morocco consume food, share experiences and show affection. For example, sugar loaves are exchanged at marriage proposals, weddings and birthdays. Traditional loaves are made from unrefined raw cane sugar. During the refining process, juice is squeezed from sugar cane. This juice is filtered and boiled before being poured into conical moulds.
However, the traditional light brown coloured cones are becoming increasingly rare, as loaves made through industrial processes for volume retail are made from beet-based white crystalline sucrose or table sugar.
Sugar loaves perform an important role in Morocco’s tea ceremony. Enjoyed far beyond the country’s borders, Moroccan mint tea is consumed daily between family and friends and making it is something of an art form. Traditionally, the tea is served with sugar loaves (cones) but lumps of sugar may also be used. Some recipes use granulated crystalline cane sugars, such as muscovado, as a sweetener.
Morocco is a melting pot of cuisines from cultures throughout the Mediterranean and North Africa, which draw heavily on natural sugars from the sugar cane industry. Despite the relatively recent switch to sugar beet cultivation and the proliferation of basic white sugar as an ingredient, authentic contemporary and traditional recipes use cane sugars and molasses for their unique flavour.
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