EATING IN MOROCCO
USEFUL ARGAN -
MOROCCO'S NATIONAL TREE
by Habeeb Salloum
visited Morocco a dozen times, but I had never found out what the people
had eaten for breakfast before the French occupation. Every restaurant
and even housewives, served croissants for the first meal of the day
- that is until my trip with a group of tourists to Essaouira - a dazzling-white
Moroccan town on the country's Atlantic coast.
When we stopped at a restaurant for breakfast, I sat down next to our
driver. Without even putting in an order, the waiter brought his breakfast.
Looking at him scooping the syrup-like liquid with a piece of bread
into his mouth, I asked, "What's that you're eating? He smiled,
"Its what everyone used to eat for breakfast before the French
came." Handing me a loaf of bread he urged, "Try it! Join
me for breakfast! Its only honey and argan oil - the best morning meal
in the world." I had often heard Moroccans talk about the argan
tree, but this was the first time I had ever tasted its oil. Not only
was it delicious, but I had discovered what the pre-French southern
Moroccans ate for breakfast. After we finished our morning meal, I told
the driver how much tastier the argan oil-honey mixture - in northern
Morocco olive oil and honey - and bread was when compared to the croissant
- modern Morocco's morning food.
Invented by the Austrians in the 17th century after they lifted the
siege of Vienna by the Turks, the croissant represented a symbolic gesture
of consuming the Muslim crescent. The vast majority of Moroccans are
practising Muslims and I am sure that if they knew its history, their
morning enjoyment of the croissant would fade away and they would return
to their honey and olive or argan oil.
Said to be the unofficial totem that symbolizes the mysterious and independent
spirit of Morocco, the argan tree (argania spinosa), only grows in that
country and Mexico. However, in Mexico it grows wild, but its fruit
is not utilized. Until a few years ago, with the exception of Morocco,
its oil is a virtually unknown food in other parts of the world.
An Argan Oilpress
slow-growing spiny knotted thorn-tree similar to the olive, the
argan is the basis of the sparse forests found in the High and Anti-Atlas
Mountains of southwestern Morocco, mostly within a l60 km (100 MI)
radius of the Sous Valley. From the capital of that Valley, Agadir,
their domain only reaches to the edge of the fertile plains in the
north and the Sahara in the south. Some 21 million trees grow in
the 700,000-800,000 ha (1,729,000 to 1,976,000 ac) of argan forests
in the area.
Argan trees cling tenaciously to the slopes of rough hills and seem
to thrive between the rocks on poor soil. Growing up to an elevation
of 1,500 m (4,920 FT), they only need annually from 100 to 200 ml (4
to 8 in) of rain. Unable to withstand cold, but an excellent resister
to extreme heat and drought, they are ideal for the climate of the arid
southeastern Moroccan coast. The argan, which regenerates from both
seed and coppice, is more like a shrub than a tree, especially in its
first few years of growth. It is a small bushy to medium-sized spreading
tree - often with a twisted and gnarled trunk. Requiring no cultivation,
it can grow up to 10 m (33 ft) high and live from 150 to 200 years.
The roots of the argan go down into the earth deep in search of water,
helping to bind the soil and prevent erosion. Its leaves are like those
of the olive tree, but fuller in shape. Flowers appear in late spring,
followed by the green olive-like fruit which ripens in March.
The fleshy green fruit, larger than the olive, is beaten off the branches
and, in the past, it was fed to goats then the nut recovered from the
animal dung. The nut, with an extremely hard shell, contains one, two
or three almond-shaped kernels.
Today, in many cases, the fruit is gathered and the nut extracted by
machines. The extracted kernel is roasted and ground, then water is
added to the crushed seeds. Rinsing subsequently separates the floating
oil from the water - about 100 kilograms of seeds are needed for just
1 to 2 k (2.2 to 4.4 lb) of exquisite oil - the rarest edible oil in
When squeezed, the seeds produce a heavy amber to orange-coloured oil.
This extracted tasty-rich oil is of great importance to the local inhabitants.
Widely used as a substitute for olive oil and other fats, it is excellent
for salads, cooking, lamp fuel and in their hand-made cosmetics and
soap. In the past, only the peasants and the poor in the towns of peasant
origin utilized its oil. The oil was extracted by animal power, then
bottled by hand in used glass or plastic containers.
The Berbers of the area have always claimed that argan oil has various
medicinal properties. Lately, their claims have, in many cases, been
It has been scientifically proven that argan oil is rich in vitamin
E and has properties which lower the cholesterol levels, stimulates
circulation of the blood, facilities digestion and strengthens the bodys
natural defences. In addition, the wood of the argan, amazingly indestructible
by insects, has been used for centuries in carpentry, charcoal and construction.
Strangely, the fruit and leaves can be consumed by camels, cows and
sheep, but not by horses and mules. However, goats, which have the picturesque
habit of climbing high into the tree, are the animals which thrive on
the argan. Travellers often see them browsing in the top branches, plucking
the fruit and the tender upper leaves. Of considerable curiosity to
tourists they appear, at first glance, an astonishing and improbable
sight. From the distance, seemingly like large black fruit in a foliage
of greenery, they never fail to draw out the cameras. Rare is a traveller
to south Morocco who does not return with at least a few photos of goats
having a meal high in the argan trees.
The products of the argan have been slowly commercialized in the last
decade. Companies are beginning to market the oil throughout the world.
The Argania Company of Paris, has made this unique oil commercially
available for the first time in North America.. Phillipe Schmit, executive
chef of New York's Orsay, the first US restaurant to feature Argan Oil,
elaborates "Argan oil is unique. It has a very powerful fragrance,
almost indescribable, with a slightly nutty flavour." Argan oil
has a silky and rich texture and intermingles intensity and smoothness.
It combines the delicate taste of nuts and mild spices, exuding the
culinary resplendence of Moroccos aromas. It is a tremendous addition
to salads, vegetables, fish, poultry, lamb and other meat.
For hundreds of years, the Berber women of the Atlas mountains have
sworn by the argans, cooking qualities, and its moisturizing and
replenishing properties. Now, that its fame is beginning to win the
hearts of women worldwide, and it is drawing the attention of the cosmetics,
food, and medical industries, the demand for this oil is expected to
Unfortunately, the argan, like many other trees in our modern world,
is a threatened species. To save this rare tree and promote more research
and development into its regeneration, Berber women have made considerable
efforts to create and run argan oil cooperatives. Many of the cooperatives
are administered by Moroccan experts, aided by specialists from organizations
in the European Community and Canada. Working through their organizations,
these women are making great progress in trying to save this tree -
just becoming known to the outside world.
© Habeeb Salloum May 2003
Bio: I am a freelance writer and author residing in Toronto, Canada.
I have travelled extensively to most parts of the world and have written
comprehensively about tourism and the cuisines of the countries through
which I have travelled.I have had hundreds of articles published about
various types of travel destinations, food, handicrafts and other cultural
subjects. In addition I have had books published relating to these subjects.
My most recent history and travel books published are Arabic Contributions
to the English Vocabulary (Librairie du Liban: Beirut, 1996), and Journeys
Back to Arab Spain (Middle East Studies Centre: Toronto, 1994).
In the world of food, my newest publication is a cookbook entitled Classic
Vegetarian Cooking from the Middle East and North Africa (Interlink
Books, New York and Northampton, 2000, HB). I am also the co-author
of another cookbook , From the Lands of Figs and Olives: Over 300 delicious
and unusual recipes from the Middle East and North Africa (Interlink
Books: New York, 1995 HB; 1997 PB).
all rights reserved