MOROCCO IS a land of contrasts, where donkeys share the road with Mercedes and veiled women share the sidewalks with teen-age boys dressed in designer jeans. An equally dramatic contrast is at once evident in the country's cooking pots, where fruits are commonly mingled with meat and sugar is the topping for bisteeya, a flaky pastry stuffed with savory minced pigeon.
The Arabs who brought the Islamic religion to Morocco in the 8th century also brought the sugar and spices that gave the very basic cooking of the native Berbers the variety and characteristic flavors we now think of as Moroccan cuisine.
One has only to walk through the ancient twisted alleys of the souk, or open-air marketplace, in Fez to sense the range of the Moroccan cook's spice palette. There are the familiar cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, clove and cardamom, and the lesser-known galingale (a camphor-like aromatic root), long pepper and cubeb (both members of the peppercorn family). Over a dozen of the cook's choice of spices are blended into a powder called ras el hanout ("head of the shop"), used to flavor rice, couscous, game and lamb dishes. The Arabs, who are credited with the discovery of distillation, also introduced to the Moroccan kitchen the fragrant rose water and orange-flower water, both of which are used to perfume salads and desserts.
Unfortunately, the tourist in Morocco rarely -- if ever -- gets to experience the complexity of flavor that is the hallmark of the country's finest home cooking. Even in the best restaurants, menus tend to be restricted to five or six main dishes and these are almost always tastefully prepared but lacking in nuance of flavor. This is not to suggest that Moroccan cookery is delicate -- it surely is not. But recipes in locally published cookbooks make it clear that the fine cook's challenge is to play flavors and textures off against each other in a manner so sophisticated that the diner is tricked into forgetting that he is once again eating chicken or lamb.
Inspiration for the kitchen wizardry in Morocco has come from the fact that the cook's larder does not offer much variety of basic ingredients. There is lamb, lamb, and more lamb, chicken, pigeon and root vegetables such as carrots, turnips and potatoes. Fish is available along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts and then, of course, there is couscous, Morocco's national dish.
Couscous provides outstanding evidence of the labor-intensiveness that is characteristic of this country's cooking. To prepare couscous in the traditional way, a local cookbook called "Fez: Traditional Moroccan Cooking" by Z. Guinaudeau (privately printed in Fez) tells us that the semolina flour must first be hand-rolled and then sifted to produce tiny balls of grain that are of equal size. The grain is then seasoned and steamed with chicken or lamb and vegetables. Says Latifa Bennani Smires, author of "Moroccan Cooking" (published in Casablanca): "The grains of semolina should be fine, regular, separate and never sticky. To succeed in making this requires skill, patience and a knack that can only be acquired with long experience." The cook ambitious enough to make couscous will find excellent, detailed instructions in Paula Wolfert's "Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco" (Harper & Row, $16.95).
Couscous is not tricky to prepare, but it is to eat. According to Guinaudeau, "You must take in your right hand a chickpea or a raisin with a handful of semolina, press and shape carefully to form into a small ball, and an expert twist of the thumb should carry it to your mouth. As you will probably only succeed in besmearing yourself with grease it is better to ask for a spoon." Which is what we did.
The undisputed workhorses of the Moroccan kitchen are the tagines, those shallow earthenware pots with cone-shaped tops in which hundreds of varieties of stews are slowly cooked until the myriad flavors are mingled to perfection. Whether the meat be lamb or veal, whether the vegetables be zucchini, carrots or turnips, the mellow flavors are characteristically counterpointed by the addition of preserved lemon, an essential ingredient in Moroccan cooking. They are easily purchased in the souks, but may be made at home by submerging lemons in salted lemon juice and spices for a month.
Another of Morocco's most characteristic dishes is bisteeya. Culinary historians have suggested that the Arabs were the inventors of flaky pastry and in this pigeon pie -- a specialty of Fez -- the crispy, crunchy pastry shell is a good foil for the soft and mellow filling. Properly made, bisteeya is a joy to behold as powdered sugar is sprinkled on its golden top in a cross-hatched design.
Bisteeya is often served as an appetizer to the Moroccan meal, usually accompanied by an interestng array of salads with tastes and textures intended to stimulate the appetite. Here are a few of those salads, ideal to serve as a warm-weather medley or individually as an accompaniment to more substantial fare. GRATED CARROT SALAD WITH ORANGES (4 to 6 servings)
This salad couldn't be simpler to make, and the combination of flavors are haunting. 1/2 pound carrots, scrubbed and grated 2 large oranges, peeled and thinly sliced 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice 2 teaspoons sugar 1 1/2 teaspoons orange-flower water (available in gourmet shops) Pinch salt
In a large bowl, combine the carrots and oranges. In a small jar, combine the lemon juice sugar, orange-flower water and salt. Shake vigorously and pour over the salad. Mix thoroughly and chill before serving. TOMATO AND SWEET PEPPER SALAD (4 servings)
3 large green peppers
2 large ripe tomatoes
1/2 cup finely minced parsley
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Set the peppers directly on the flame of a gas burner and grill them until charred and blistered on all sides. Place them immediately in a brown paper bag, fold over the top, and let them set for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, peel and seed the tomatoes and chop them. When the peppers have cooled, peel off their skins and cut them into thin strips. Combine the peppers and tomatoes in a bowl, and toss in the minced parsley.
In a small jar, combine the lemon juice, oil, cumin and salt and toss to combine. Pour over the salad and toss to coat. Chill before serving.$& BEET SALAD (4 servings) 1 pound fresh beets (weighed without leaves) 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice 1 tablespoon orange-flower water 1/8 teaspoon each cinnamon and ground cumin 1 tablespoon sugar 1/2 teaspoon paprika Salt to taste
Trim the leaves off the beets, leaving about an inch of the stem. Boil the beets in water and cover until they are fork tender, about 45-60 minutes. Remove beets from cooking liquid and cool. Reserve 1 cup of the liquid.
Peel the beets and slice them thinly. Set them in a small bowl. Combine the remaining ingredients with the reserved beet juice and shake them vigorously. Pour this dressing over the beets and chill at least 4 hours or overnight. ZUCCHINI SALAD (4 to 6 servings) 1 pound small zucchini, diced 1 large clove garlic 1/4 cup olive oil 1/2 teaspoon salt 3/4 teaspoon paprika 2 tablespoons lemon juice 3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
In a saucepan, bring 1 cup of water to a boil. Add the zucchini, garlic, oil, salt and paprika and simmer, covered, for 3 minutes. Remove zucchini and garlic with a slotted spoon and boil liquid vigorously until slightly reduced. Cool. Combine the liquid with the lemon juice and cumin. Adjust seasonings and pour over zucchini. Chill before serving.