For all of our traveling, we rarely go anywhere just for a vacation. But, one year, we were on our way to Europe for a project, and it made sense to meet up with some colleagues on the way to discuss a future venture. Looking at the map for a meet-up place somewhere between where they were and where we were, I was thrilled that Morocco, with its blue skies and famous mint tea, was the perfect location.
Morocco! We had never even considered it, but I quickly became dazzled with the idea. The Kingdom of Morocco is an amazingly beautiful little country in the northwest corner of Africa, with a lengthy historical mix of tribal Berber, Arabic, Roman and African influences. Both Spain and France laid claims to the region as ‘protectorates’ in times past and current. The official languages include Berber and Moroccan Arabic, although French is also widely spoken.
The entire country of Morocco is only a bit larger than the state of California in the USA, and interestingly, has similar climatic zones – with coastal seasides, high mountainous regions, fertile coastal plains and inland deserts.
And, aside from its natural beauty, Morocco is truly a mecca for anyone who loves herbal remedies, natural products, tasty fresh food and gorgeous handicrafts, as we do! So, we made our arrangements and ended up in Marrakech with several days to spare before our colleagues were set to appear.
Talk about sensory overload! I loved Morocco, from the moment we arrived, which happened to be in the middle of a steamy late summer night. Not a problem for our riad (guest house) owner, Brahim… we arrived at 3:00 in the morning and he immediately made us welcome with an offer for breakfast in the riad kitchen. We were starving, and our bodies were lost in a tempest of jet-lag, so of course we said yes.
In a traditional layout, all rooms of the newly renovated guest house faced an inner tile-floored courtyard just next to the kitchen where we settled for our impromptu meal. The riad was full of sleeping guests, so we conversed in hushed whispers while Brahim prepared Moroccan pancakes and green tea with fresh mint.
He skillfully poured the tea from an alarming height (over 12”!) into tiny gilded glass cups, quietly explaining the history and benefits of Morocco’s famous sweet mint tea. I’ll fill you in on those details at the end of the article, with a recipe for the tea. 🙂
The next day, Brahim gave us some hints for navigating Marrakech, his version of a “Do’s and Don’ts” list for tourists. Punctuating each tidbit of information with a raised index finger, he’d say emphatically, “Never again!” which seemed to be his go-to phrase for not doing something dumb.
After each point, he’d ask us to repeat after him, “Never again!” just to make sure that we were paying attention… he really took his role as host quite earnestly, which was very sweet and also entertaining.
Marrakech is known as the “Red City” because of the red colored walls that surround the medina, or old city. It’s a truly wonderful place to soak up culture and history. First off, we explored the nearby souks, an enormous maze-like old Arabian style market place in the heart of the medina, with vast sections of tunneled walkways lined with merchant stalls at every turn.
One section housed colorful home furnishings – everything from lampshades to glassware to rugs and furniture, plus intricately carved wooden tables and chairs, hand woven carpets and leather products. There was even a whole tannery section, for everything from clothing to shoes to belts, wallets, and the ubiquitous French “pouf” cushion-stuffed chairs.
Taking another turn we reached the jewelry section with glittering trinkets and treasures of silver and brass, and embellished brilliant gemstone ornaments. Then, artisan clothing, featuring the famous Moroccan fabric, sousdi, a unique blend of rayon and cotton that is woven into a very fine cloth and available in all manner of exotic gypsy/boho type designs.
And, oh! The spices – huge open bags of ginger, pepper, sweet paprika, saffron, turmeric, fenugreek, nutmeg, alongside enormous piles of multi-colored olives, dried fruits, candies, pastries and breads – those sections of the market were much too much to take in during just a few days. For a foodie like me, it was pure heaven!
And so, for a few days, we did those things that we often don’t have time for… we explored the medina and the souks, admired monuments, parks and gardens, and sampled Morocco’s national dishes that are traditionally cooked in a round clay vessel called a tagine. As we don’t partake in red meat, we tried several veggie versions that contained eggplant, potatoes and carrots in a delicate broth, sometimes with dried fruits – raisins, apricots or olives, along with couscous – huge platters filled with that tiny pearl pasta, seasoned with herbs and spices.
We also made connections for ongoing projects with Moroccan women’s cooperatives that produced beauty and skin care products, such as the famed argan oil ✓ that is so amazing for health. As a specialty oil for both cooking and skin care, it is full of anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial nutrients and is known to aid in wound healing for skin and to lower cholesterol, along with numerous other benefits. It is fairly costly, and rightly so, from what we learned about the grueling and lengthy process by which argan seed kernels are hand crushed to produce the precious oil.
Enjoying the sunny desert climate, we also noticed the recurring theme of Moroccan blue… in varying shades, from the incredibly brilliant sky above to painted walls around town to the intense blue color of many handicraft items. There is even an entire city in Morocco, Chefchaouen, that is a blue painted city, with all the buildings sharing varying tones of the same exotic and soothing cool blue.
And when we grew tired in the heat of the Marrakech days, we savored refreshing fruity sorbets and creamy gelatos (in fascinating flavors like blackberry and mint, ricotta with pistachio, cream with black pepper or dark chocolate from Venezuela). Then we would rest our tired feet in the waning sunlight of the afternoon on the roof-top terrace of our lovely riad.
One evening, attracted by a window display of large glass jars filled with colorful liquids, we stepped into an apothecary shop near the medina. With the sweet scents of herbs and spices filling the air, we selected some natural soaps and chatted with the owner, Hassan, a middle-aged family man who had spent his youth being educated in our home country – the USA. He invited us to walk with him to his home a few yards from the shop to enjoy his view of the King’s palace.
As we admired the twilight city-scape from his rooftop, Hassan told us he had made sure that his home, although multi-storied, was purposefully built not quite as tall as the palace, as a sign of respect. He then gave us a tour of the expansive living quarters, complete with two family rooms… one, Moroccan style, with long, low bench-like sofas covered in brightly patterned fabrics; the other was “American” style, Hassan proclaimed, with sleek black leather sofas facing an enormous flat screen TV. 🙂
A few days later we discovered that one of the two most important religious festivals of Morocco, Eid-al-Adha, was upcoming. Also known as the Feast of the Sacrifice, it commemorates Ibrahim’s devotion to Allah.
Eid-al-Adha is a three day celebration during which every family slaughters and offers a sheep, symbolizing their own faithfulness. Although… they might offer a goat or even a camel, but usually it’s a sheep. This time of prayer and cheerful family gatherings revolves around the resulting roasted mutton feast.
As first-timers to Marrakech, we were also surprised to learn that all, and I mean all businesses in the entire city, including restaurants, close for one to three days during these events. Realizing that we would be on our own for meals on Eid days, we hurried to make arrangements with Brahim, who graciously offered up the use of our riad’s kitchen.
We noticed the frenzy of activity as carts, wagons, trucks and people moved bleating sheep up and down the streets. We quickly shopped for grains, dried fruits and veggies at outdoor markets in advance of the coming shut down.
We dropped by Hassan’s apothecary shop to add some spices to our ingredient supply. As we sat for a mint tea break in the cool shadows of his store, we enjoyed a lively discussion as he told us of his Eid preparations.
He explained that not only was it significant for each family to offer a sheep, but it was important that it was a really good sheep, not just any old sheep. We were unclear about what determined a good sheep, but, realizing that said sheep was facing a short life anyway, we hesitated to ask for too many details.
As we were talking, we heard several thumps coming from behind a closed door at the side of the shop. Ignoring them, our conversation continued until Hassan asked us if we would like to see his sheep, impressing upon us how great his sheep was. “Um, sure.” we answered, “We’d love to see your sheep.”
He walked us toward the thumping sounds and opened the door. There, at the back of a small store room, stood a live sheep chewing on the edge of a wood shelving unit. Apparently, the sheep had just been delivered from the countryside that morning. “See how beautiful my sheep is?” Hassan asked with pride.
I had to admit, as sheep go, it was a pretty nice looking one. Large and plump, with abundant curly white wool, it stared at us with its huge round eyes, as it stood serenely in its own poop… indeed, it was a beautiful sheep.
In the generous manner of most Moroccans, Hassan invited us to celebrate Eid and share the mutton dinner with his family. Although we would have loved the cultural experience, Brahim had already warned us that Moroccans love to extend invitations and it is considered rude to accept and then refuse any of the food or drink on offer, especially the main dish! So we regretfully declined, having already made our (meat-free, but no need to mention that!) plans with Brahim anyway.
All too soon, our colleagues arrived and our activities switched to meetings and plannings. With Morocco’s small size and excellent roads and railway, we were able to visit a seaside village near Spain and the capital city of Rabat, as we collected sources for new and exotic products to put in our repository of natural findings from around the world for future use…
Brahim’s Do’s and Don’ts For Tourists
If you visit Morocco, you’ll find that your guesthouse owner or manager will be your steadfast go-to helper, guide and friendly host to help you navigate your Moroccan stay with ease and comfort.
They will take whatever time needed to arrange anything you require (yes, they might make a small commission from bookings they make for you and we willingly paid this. In most cases you save both money and time, and will be able to count on the quality of the offering because they want you to love your Moroccan stay.
They will happily organize anything reasonably possible, from simple taxi rides to tours to custom henna session for ladies… I even got a referral for a personal seamstress to do some mending for me at our riad – lovely!
Our riad owner told us the best places to shop and explained how things were done. He gave us lots of salient advice including:
- Don’t pay full price at the souks (covered shopping market/bazaar) – bargaining is expected. Start with half the price quoted and end up at about 2/3 – but bargain only if you’re serious about buying the item.
- Don’t take a taxi tour before checking at your riad for what the normal price should be. (you might be talked into booking from your riad owner, but you can always politely decline)
- Don’t stand on the street looking lost or you will be surrounded by “helpful” young men who will all vie for your attention and try to get you to pay them to guide you somewhere… anywhere. If you need help, ask a woman or shop owner; they will likely not ask you for money for assisting.
- Be cautiously adventurous: Don’t go into the empty souks on a holiday and in general, avoid “lonely” places. (We learned this the hard way and got a good chastising from Brahim afterwards)
- If you want to try the delicious fresh juice from stalls on the streets and in the famous Jemaa el-Fnaa Square, be aware that the quality is most likely fine in all of them, but your foreign stomach may not react well to bacteria that locals have adjusted to over time. Look for stalls with crowds including lots of tourists. Or, avoid the stalls altogether and order juice at restaurants.
- Be aware that the (albeit talented) “henna ladies” in the Jemaa el-Fnaa Square can be quite aggressive and the black “henna” they use is not really herbal natural henna at all, but rather, a chemical derivative that can be toxic to skin. If you want a real henna tattoo, henna artists can be found in salons and spas; just ask your at your riad for a referral.
- Try to carry lots of small bills when paying for anything, even for restaurant meals. Vendors and restaurants often “don’t have change” and won’t help you to get change. You might have to walk away, leaving your change as an unplanned tip. It’s never fun to bargain down on an item and then have an awkward moment when you hand over a large bill. 😉
About Moroccan Mint Tea
The cultural experience of having a Moroccan Mint tea is more than just sitting down for some refreshment. Moroccans provide the cooling tea, also known as Mahgrebi Tea or sometimes as Moorish tea or Atay, as a compulsory welcoming offer to anyone who enters their home, office, shop… anywhere, really!
In general, we found Moroccans to be most hospitable so we were (thankfully) offered tea numerous times during our relatively short stay in the country. And be prepared to drink lots of tea per sitting… you are usually offered (and expected to drink!) at least 3 small cups of tea.
There are several stories passed around about the origins of Moroccan mint tea, starting with the Berbers in the 12th century and continuing on with claims that it was the British in the 18th century who first introduced Morocco to tea, but no one really knows for sure – all of the stories are exotic and the resulting custom benefits everyone, regardless of its source.
Moroccan mint tea is made with a specialty green tea, known as gunpowder tea. Gunpowder tea (which is made from either black or green tea) originates in China, most often from the Zhejiang province, most likely during the Tang Dynasty, from 618-907 CE.
Gunpowder tea is comprised of large tea leaves and buds that have been rolled into tiny balls resembling gunpowder pellets, from which the name (probably) stems. Although it used to be made by hand (!) nowadays only very high-end gunpowder tea is hand-rolled, with modern machinery now taking on the bulk of that laborious production.
As with all green tea, gunpowder green tea contains caffeine, which gives a nice energy punch.
Additionally, gunpowder tea is quite high in anti-oxidants and provides several health benefits, including the following:
- provides immune system support
- stimulates metabolism (aiding in weight loss)
- improves heart health
- has anti-inflammatory actions that help to reduce acne and improve skin
- reduces blood sugar
Let’s Make Some Moroccan Mint Tea
The type of mint used in traditional Moroccan mint tea is a variety of spearmint, also referred to as Nana, or simply, Moroccan mint. It grows in the mountainous regions of Morocco and has a sweet flavor, a bit fuller than other spearmint varieties. Moroccan mint provides additional health benefits such as aiding digestion, soothing respiratory ailments and acting as a general anti-inflammatory agent.
Moroccan mint tea is easy to make! It’s basically just gunpowder green tea, (I like to buy it in bulk to save money and also packaging) ✓, fresh spearmint leaves and lots of sugar! Traditionally, Moroccan’s follow a more elaborate procedure as per below, so you can try it out if you want to be more authentic 🙂
The tea is usually served in small specialty glasses, however, small juice glasses will suffice. The tea glass is only filled to about 2/3, and using a traditional Moroccan tea pot with a long spout, it is poured from several inches above the cup to create foamy bubbles on the top. You can add in a few sprigs of fresh mint if you choose.
Hold the glass by the top rim and sip, as the glass becomes very hot!
Although spearmint is the most common mint used, you can also follow the same directions using peppermint with excellent results. Another variety of Moroccan mint tea, known as Berber tea, is a popular option that includes other fresh herbs that have excellent health benefits, such as verbena, wormwood, wild thyme, geranium or sage.
These are just guidelines, but if you prefer to drink this tea out of a ceramic cup or mug, that’s ok too…this tea is so delicious (and good for you!) no matter how you drink it!
If we ever plan a vacation, I would certainly love to return to Morocco and spend more time in this very unusual and charming country. We didn’t have the chance to visit the blue city of Chefchaouen before we had to say our goodbyes, but maybe one day our travels will take us that way again.
Until then, we remember Brahim’s (perhaps) most salient reminder: “Don’t forget,” he would say each time we walked out of the riad door, “Life is adventure!”
Thank you for reading! If this post has piqued your interest… or if you find it useful, inspiring or otherwise magical, please pin it and share it… And we’re always happy to hear from you via the Contact page.
Moroccan Mint Tea
- 8 cups water
- 1-2 TBSP Gunpowder green tea
- 1 handful fresh spearmint leaves can substitute with peppermint
- sugar or other sweetener to taste
- First, you’ll boil water, enough to fill a small tea pot (yielding 6 small glasses of tea)
- In another pot (or your teapot, if it is stove-top safe) add a few tablespoons of water, about enough for 1 cup of tea and bring to a boil. Place about 1 full tablespoon of green gunpowder tea in the water and remove from heat.
- Let this steep for a few minutes and, without stirring, pour that tea liquid into a cup (it will be slightly less than the full cup of water as the tea leaves absorb some of the water.) Reserve this tea, referred to as the “essence” of the tea, which is quite strong, as it will be returned to the pot later.
- Adding another cup of boiled water to the pot, swirl that water around in the tea leaves “washing them”, strain out and discard that cup of tea water… it is said to enhance the flavor of the tea, removing some bitterness.
- Fill the pot with the rest of the previously boiled water (to about 2/3 full) and return to the heat. Add back in the reserve first cup of strong tea that you had set aside.
- When the water begins to boil, add a large handful of washed fresh spearmint leaves to the pot (just stuff them in and use a spoon to carefully submerge them in the tea water) along with however much sugar you like… Moroccans love their tea with lots of sugar, so add as much as you prefer!
- Allow the pot to come to boil again, just to the point where bubbles break the surface. Remove the tea from the stovetop, cover and let steep for about 5 minutes and it is ready to serve.
- Moroccans mix the tea by pouring some into a cup and returning it back to the pot a few times, but unless you are making a special event out of your tea time, you can feel free to skip this step.
- The tea is usually served in small specialty glasses, however, small juice glasses will suffice. The tea glass is only filled to about 2/3, and using a traditional Moroccan tea pot with a long spout, it is poured from several inches above the cup to create foamy bubbles on the top. You can add in a few sprigs of fresh mint if you choose.
- Hold the glass by the top rim and sip, as the glass becomes very hot!