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may 04 2007

Morocco's national drink: Berber whiskey

Melissa Kronenthal, who runs the blog Traveler's Lunchbox, recently visited Morocco. Here, she shares an anecdote from her trip and offers an insight into that country's culture.

By the time we arrived at our riad, it was early evening in Marrakesh and we were starving. We were desperate to drop our bags as quickly as possible and set out in search of dinner, but the riad manager, Omar, had other ideas. He assured us we couldn't leave without first accepting some traditional Moroccan hospitality. "Our custom in Morocco is to offer all guests some refreshment," he said, escorting us up to the riad's expansive roof terrace, "and customary for all guests to accept it."

"Alright," we acquiesced, certainly not keen to start our trip by contravening tradition, "what kind of refreshment do you offer?"

"A glass of whiskey berbere, naturally," he said with a grand gesture, and disappeared.

"Uh, okay," we said exchanging confused looks. Wasn't it awfully risqué to offer alcohol in a Muslim country, particularly with the mosque next door in plain sight? But before we could ponder the mystery further Omar was back, carrying a worn steel tray, two small glasses, and an ornate silver teapot.

Of course, we should have guessed - whiskey berbere is nothing other than the tongue-in-cheek name for mint tea.

The joke may have been casual, but the analogy isn't actually so farfetched, as we would soon discover. Like whiskey in Scotland, mint tea isn't a quaint tourist gimmick - it's a national obsession. Hot, sweet, and bracingly bitter, it punctuates Moroccan life like clockwork: mint tea to wake up, mint tea with pastries in the afternoon, mint tea to round out every meal. It's served with panache, poured from a great height out of bulbous silver pots into glasses barely bigger than thimbles; the aeration is important for developing the flavor, we were told, and the size of the glasses insures your tea will never get cold (and makes it easier to down the three obligatory cups that tradition dictates, I imagine).

In a country where alcohol is forbidden and water is often of questionable quality, it's a beverage that has acquired tremendous practical and symbolic value, functioning as digestive aid, pick-me-up, negotiation facilitator and simple sustenance. I wouldn't be surprised if Moroccans have it running through their veins instead of blood. As we sat there in the growing twilight, sipping our tea and listening to the call to prayer reverberate across the rooftops, it seemed about as perfect a first taste of the country as we could have asked for.

You can read more about Melissa's trip to Morocco by clicking here.

For Budget Travel's advice on visiting Morocco and the Sahara Desert, click here.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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