Standing in a busy Moroccan souk, a chicken seller holds up two squawking birds. Holding the brown one slightly higher, he repeats an increasingly familiar word: “beldi.” Beldi is a word in Arabic meaning “traditional” or “indigenous.” Unsurprisingly, the brown chicken’s beldi status bears a higher price tag — nearly triple that of the white one, which is roumi, or conventionally raised, rather than free range.
The appeal of traditional, locally grown food is well-known throughout the world. Within Morocco and abroad, beldi is being used to market quality boutique-style products to foreigners and Moroccans. Moroccan beldi include raib beldi, thin drinkable yogurt; zebda beldia, homemade or traditional Moroccan butter; and citron beldi, indigenous lemons used to make preserved lemons. In Morocco, McDonalds is jumping on the bandwagon with a specialty sandwich called the “P’tit Beldi” featuring spiced halal meat. Even U.S. grocer Whole Foods is now selling products such as “Beldi: A small, fruity olive from Morocco.”
Zester Daily Soapbox contributor Serenity Bolt is a writer and photographer currently based in Rabat, Morocco, where she works with Round Earth Media to edit and publish Reporting Morocco, a source for work by young journalists. In her spare time, Bolt also dabbles in web design, cooking and world travel.
Although such a surge of interest in artisanal goods can help preserve fragile traditions, it can also drive prices up and limit accessibility for locals. So, how does foreign interest in Moroccan food products affect what is valued — and available — in Morocco?
Concept of beldi
To answer that question one needs to understand that the concept of beldi has deep cultural roots in Morocco that go far beyond the use as a marketing tool to foreigners. Omar Magouri, a local shopper in Tangier, explains, “The word beldi can be applied to many things. A woman who wears traditional clothes and does things the old way is beldi. Things that are produced with care are beldi. The opposite of this is roumi, which can be anything non-traditional, imported or made in a factory.” Magouri explains that a person who eschews tradition can also be roumi.
Where food and cooking are close to the heart of every Moroccan, beldi refers to something more elusive than quality; rather, it connotes quality as a reflection of deep cultural pride.
This appreciation for time-honored, traditional methods of producing food and esoteric regional ingredients has made Morocco a place where the Slow Food movement is taking hold. Founded in 1986 by Italian activist Carlo Petrini, Slow Food promotes linking “the pleasure of food with responsibility, sustainability and harmony with nature.”
Slow Food began its involvement with Morocco in 2001 through its international Presidia project, which provides assistance to producers of “threatened” products such as the Brazilian Baru nut, American raw-milk cheeses, Dehraduni basmati rice in India, Mananara vanilla from Madagascar and the Basque pig from France.
In Morocco, the Presidia’s projects have brought positive global attention to local food products and established a link between local food producers and chefs in high-end restaurants, such as Ch’hiwates du terroir in Rabat, the Chefs in Residence program at Restaurant Numero 7 in Fez and the Amal Center restaurant in Marrakesh. They are also involved in training and educational projects, many of which are aimed at women.
Slow Food movement
Sophie Duncan, a Fulbright researcher currently studying food in Morocco, works with the international Ark of Taste, a project of Slow Food that draws attention to, protects and catalouges traditional products around the world. So far, 15 Moroccan products have been nominated to the Ark, including cumin from Anif, a village in southeastern Morocco where cumin is prized for its quality and intense aroma; saffron from Taliouine, a mountain in the heart of Morocco’s famed saffron region; and salt from Zerradoun, a group of scattered houses in the foothills of the Rif mountains in northeastern Morocco where there are two historic salt pans.
Duncan says foreign interest in beldi products can have both positive and negative effects. “It’s wonderful that tourists and foreign customers can buy Moroccan products and support Moroccan producers, and in some sectors and areas this has become an important source of income. However, it can also definitely drive prices up and make products less available to locals. Argan oil and amlou (a paste made from toasted almonds, honey and argan oil) are two examples of products that are becoming very popular abroad and are now quite expensive.”
So far, according to Duncan, Morocco seems well-equipped to handle burgeoning foreign interest in traditional products without sacrificing authenticity. Interest in beldi products is being funneled into high-end restaurants and boutiques, while local markets offer beldi and roumi choices to shoppers of all denominations. Most small-scale producers have maintained a focus on local markets.
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She explains, “For the most part, producers continue to make these products not solely for a tourist/foreign market, but because they feel a connection to their history. I think the feeling that you are contributing to the preservation of a food product that is important to your own identity and your community’s history can be quite rewarding. The vast majority of Moroccans that I have talked to do seem to get far more excited about beldi products than about their roumi equivalents.”
They may be excited, but beldi products can put quite a dent in the average Moroccan’s wallet. Tangier chicken seller Hamm Cherkaoui explains that in the souk, or market, “You can get a white djaj roumi [conventionally raised chicken] for 40 dirhams (almost $5 USD). The djaj beldi (traditionally raised chicken) will cost 120 (about $14.25 USD).” But, with the beldi chicken, “the taste is much better,” Cherkaoui says.
What’s what in Morocco
Looking to go beyond olives the next time you find yourself in a Moroccan souk? Here are a few beldi suggestions from sellers in the bustling markets of Tangier.
Smen beldi is homemade clarified butter or zebda beldia that has been preserved with salt and herbs. Aged smen can be quite pungent because of the aging process.
Citron beldi or l’hamd beldi
These are varieties of lemon found throughout Morocco, such as the small doqq lemons (Citrus limonum Risso var. pusilla R) from the Taroudant region outside of Agadir and boussera lemons, or limonette de Marrakesh, often used in traditional recipes.
These organic eggs are small with white shells and bright orange yolks. Bayd beldi are considerably more flavorful and higher quality than the more common large brown roumi eggs (bayd).
Raib beldi is raw cow’s milk that has been coagulated with enzymes from dried wild artichokes. Raib beldi can be eaten plain or flavored with orange water or vanilla.
Khilia is dried beef or camel meat that has been preserved in fat that is a delicacy from Fez. It is eaten fried, often for breakfast with eggs.
This thick syrup, made from a particular variety of grapes in the mountainous Chefchaouen region, is extremely difficult to find. The juice, which is concentrated in terra-cotta pots, is eaten as a sweet honey substitute in addition to use as a traditional medicine for colds and stomachaches.
Main photo: Bayd beldi and bayd roumi sit side by side. White bayd beldi are smaller than their brown counterparts, and considerably more expensive. Credit: Serenity Bolt