You’ll have to step off the tourist trail to encounter Morocco’s most satisfying dishes.

Photo by Jake Emen

Morocco is known for its great eats, massive markets, and chaotic spice bazaars. But while there are plenty of lists showcasing the country’s standout restaurants, you won’t sit down to your most delicious meal at a traditional eatery. The very best bite of food I had over several weeks traversing the country was a chicken tagine with olives and preserved lemon served at a guesthouse in Marrakech that was far off the beaten path.

That’s right: The ultimate way to eat your way through Morocco is to visit as many homes as possible. Once inside, you’ll connect and break bread with local families, try their homemade specialties, and enjoy a taste of true Moroccan hospitality. It’s a win-win situation because for many families, it’s a welcome opportunity to augment their income. “This is one of the most important things about what we call ‘responsible travel,’ ” says Hassan Azeroual, a Moroccan tour guide with Intrepid Travel.

A bite of an unforgettable chicken tagine in a local guesthouse might just be the defining moment of your next trip to Morocco.

Photo by Jake Emen

Experiences that combine excellent eating and socially responsible travel can be found all over the country. Here’s where and how to track down the best meals in Morocco.

Guesthouse dining

Unlike most multi-course tasting menus at buzzy restaurants, guesthouse meals in Morocco are often characterized by personal connections and hands-on culinary experiences. That preserved lemon chicken tagine in Marrakech, with its fall-off-the-bone meat, was served with an absurdly addictive sauce. As I mopped up every last drop of it with my khubz—the ubiquitous, pita-like bread served at every Moroccan meal—I learned about the family who owned the guesthouse and chatted with their high-school-age son Marwan. He is studying to become an engineer, but it was much easier to get him to discuss his passionate fandom of the Barcelona football team.

I had my second favorite bite of the trip—kefta meatballs with eggs and tomato sauce, a sort of Moroccan eggs in purgatory—in the small holy town of Moulay Idriss, outside Meknes. The meal was served in Mohamed and Rashida Zaimi’s family residence, which the couple has converted into a popular, welcoming guesthouse called La Colombe Blanche.

Fresh cous cous, like the one Rashida Zaimi makes, is a revelation to anyone familiar with the dry, boxed versions.

Photo by Jake Emen

Rashida also put on a couscous demonstration during which I realized that I had never truly tasted couscous until I’d had hers. As opposed to the sawdust-dry versions I’d tried before, fresh couscous sops up the juices of the vegetables prepared with it, allowing you to roll it up into a ball and pop it into your mouth; it’s one succulent bite bursting with flavor and rich with olive oil. Rashida also suggested I try couscous as a sweet breakfast or snack served with cinnamon and sugar (as opposed to veggies and meats) and perhaps milk.

In the High Atlas Mountains, I learned how to make beef tagine at the appropriately named Riad Dar Tagine guesthouse in Aroumd Village. Houssaine Chajaa has been running the establishment for the past two decades, mostly serving hikers and trekkers passing through town on their way to Toubkal Mountain, and he’s slowly added rooms and services as money allows. The journey to his guesthouse involved a bus ride from Marrakech and a multi-hour hike, which made the welcome meal—a steaming hot, tagine-cooked Berber omelet with peppers and tomatoes—all the more special to our herd of hungry travelers.

After lunch, we relaxed at the property and explored the surrounding village before returning for a beef tagine demonstration, during which we learned how to pile vegetables and meat high into the cooking vessel, stacking hearty flavor upon hearty flavor.

At a cooking demonstration at Riad Dar Tagine, students learned to heap vegetables onto meat inside earthenware tagines.

Photo by Jake Emen

Cooking classes

While many guesthouses will offer either observational or hands-on cooking demonstrations, it’s also possible to arrange full-scale cooking classes that allow you to dive deeper into Morocco’s beloved dishes. In Fes, chef Abdul Drissi hosts classes at his restaurant Le Patio Bleu that showcase chicken pastillas, the savory-sweet Moroccan pie flavored primarily by cinnamon and almonds and wrapped in a thin phyllo-like dough.

While the participants in Drissi’s class made individual pastillas, traditionally an entire family will share one mammoth pie. “We mostly serve it for special occasions, such as a wedding ceremony or when you have very important guests over to your home,” Azeroual says. I dutifully wrote down the recipe and brought it home; this past year, it became a new Thanksgiving tradition when I transformed our leftover turkey into Moroccan pastillas.

Nonprofit culinary schools in Morocco

A twist on traditional cooking classes, Amal is a female-run nonprofit cooperative dedicated to improving the lives of disenfranchised women by providing them with culinary and job skills training. Located in an enclosed compound in Marrakech, it is tucked away from the clutter and chaos of the rest of the city. Visitors can participate in half-day cooking classes, which help to fund the cooperative. The nonprofit has graduated 230 women since 2013, many of whom had been living on the street, unable to support their children or find stable, safe places to live. Now, more than 200 of these women have full-time jobs, and six own their own businesses.

At Amal, women learn job skills and teach visitors how to make a variety of traditional Moroccan dishes.

Photo by Jake Emen

Amal offers several cooking classes, and the resulting feasts stand out on their own merits. For example, after one class focused on Moroccan salads, half a dozen heaping bowls of brightly colored Moroccan vegetables graced the table. Several dishes, such as eggplant salad, lentils with bell peppers, and potato salad, shared the traditional Moroccan spice profile of parsley, coriander, cumin, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper, and perhaps a dash of harissa. But there were less familiar dishes as well, such as carrot salad with orange, rosewater, and cinnamon.

How to get in the door

Many guesthouses in Morocco can be booked online, including La Colombe Blanche and Riad Dar Tagine. But some don’t have online presences, and arranging for extra experiences, such as in-house cooking classes or demonstrations, may prove difficult.

Intrepid’s Morocco Real Food Adventure, a comprehensive 10-day tour of the country, is devoted to discovering the culture of Morocco through a culinary lens. Along with guesthouse stays, cooking classes, and demonstrations, the itinerary includes other culinary experiences such as market tours and visits to argan oil producers.

When you can’t devote an entire week or more to culinary adventures in Morocco, consider Traveling Spoon, a platform for finding and booking one-off culinary experiences around the world, such as home-cooking classes. Traveling Spoon’s team vets all the vendors and handles all the logistics, so you simply need to reserve and show up. Another popular choice for finding a local purveyor is Viator.

In Fes, chef Abdul Drissi teaches travelers how to make Moroccan pastillas.

Photo by Jake Emen

How to be a good guest

While you’ll receive graceful, welcoming hospitality wherever you go in Morocco, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind. Know that you’ll be eating many dishes with your hands—traditionally your right hand—and prior to a meal, a pitcher of water and bowl may be passed around for washing. Khubz bread generally accompanies every meal, and also serves as a crucial food-delivery vehicle, sometimes functioning as both utensil and de facto plate. “Bread is sacred in our culture,” Azeroual says. “We would not survive without it.” Many guesthouses do offer utensils as a courtesy to their visitors, though you may impress more by sticking with your hands.
Mint tea and cookies are served at the start of the meal, or your hosts may present them when you enter their home. “Tea is part of the culture, and it’s to welcome guests as well,” Azeroual says. In Fes and other northern regions, you’ll find the mint in your glass, while in Marrakech and beyond, the mint is kept in the teapot.

It’s recommended that you only drink bottled water in Morocco. But even at guesthouses far removed from the big city, your hosts will be able to provide you with affordable bottles. And while Morocco is more liberal than ever, don’t expect to imbibe alcohol at your guesthouse dinner. In fact, in certain cities, including the aforementioned holy town of Moulay Idriss, alcohol is strictly forbidden.

You’ll likely be able to find many restaurants in Morocco with delicious and authentic cuisine, but when you want the most memorable food with the most enriching experiences, step outside your normal travel patterns and find your way to a local’s table.

>>Plan your trip with AFAR’s Guide to Morocco

Jake Emen