Argan oil is to Morocco what olive oil is to Italy—or close anyway. This winter, I had the opportunity to travel along the country’s cool and dusty seaside where I found the oil nearly everywhere: at spas, on menus, in bathrooms, on countertops. In the United States, you may have heard it marketed under the name ‘Moroccan oil’ in shampoo or hair serum, but less likely so as an ingredient at a restaurant or in a grocery store. In Morocco, though, it’s a considered a pantry staple and revered as a cure-all.
My ever-helpful guide Younes, who has hosted and introduced his country to celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Julia Roberts, insisted that some people are such fervent believers in argan oil’s healing properties that they drink a glug every morning at breakfast. They put it in their hair, they pour it on their fish, but they’ll never ever heat it. Read on for everything you need to know about argan oil.
What is argan oil?
Like any nut oil, it’s the stuff extracted from the nuts that grow on argan trees. In a tiny region of southwestern Morocco, Berber women have produced it there for hundreds of years by hand for the entire country. The argan forest, which grows in a triangular patch between three cities, is so rare and unique to the region that UNESCO has designated it a Bioshere Reserve, and Slow Food has included argan oil within its Ark of Taste
How is it made?
Women (as in many things) are the true key to argan oil. Honestly, they run the entire industry, which is an incredible fact considering that Morocco is a rather patriarchal society. Only women are taught to make argan oil, and they are the sole gatekeepers to the centuries-old method. Much of the country’s oil is made in cooperatives that allow women the opportunity to work and make money independently.
Outside the windswept fishing town of Essaouira, I visited the Marjana Cooperative. The little compound is found along a road lined with argan trees in whose twisted boughs goats climb looking for lunch. Like a flock of pigeons, five or six might perch in one tree munching argan nuts lackadaisically. Upon turning into the cooperative, visitors are greeted by dogs barking from a rooftop. “Berber watch dogs,” our host said happily shooing them with her hand. Immense piles of argan shells, which are eventually burned when the oil is toasted, were heaped along the walk.
Packed full of Vitamin E and fatty acids, argan oil is used for almost any cosmetic or edible purpose.
We stepped into a shady, low-ceilinged building full of baskets and bright woven rugs where women ranging in age from very young to very old sat on the floor chatting while doing the daily grind, each taking a turn at one step in the production throughout the day or week.
The process is incredibly time intensive requiring approximately 50 kilos of argan berries and 20 hours of work to produce half a liter of the finished oil. First the nut must be husked from its dark shell—a job completed by cracking each pod between two rocks—then the smooth caramel colored pits are ground into a paste, and the paste is kneaded or pressed with a bit of water to extract the oil. The work at Marjana is done completely by hand without the help of mechanical presses that some operations have begun to use. Ain’t no easy feat.
How is it used?
Packed full of Vitamin E and fatty acids, argan oil is used for almost any cosmetic or edible purpose. Remember the Greek patriarch from My Big Fat Greek Wedding? (“Just put some Windex on it!”) This is the belief behind argan oil. Scars, couscous, wrinkles, bread, frizzy hair—just put some argan oil on it.
There are two types of argan oil: cosmetic and cooking. The cosmetic stuff is bright golden yellow and silky smooth. In Morocco, locals buy it from the co-ops or at pharmacies and use it liberally. Like most Moroccans, men and women alike, my travel guide swore by the stuff. “I put it in my hair every day and it always works,” Younes said pointing at his glossy black hair. It’s true–every morning his hair was fabulously coifed and frizz-free.
Cooking argan oil is toasted before bottling and has a deep, nutty flavor akin to hazelnut oil or a bowl full of warm and roasty Grape-Nuts. It’s a bit misleading to call it “cooking oil.” Less for cooking, and more for finishing, argan oil is an enhancer best for drizzling over finished dishes, salad greens, and even creamy desserts. It doesn’t hold up well over high heat so it’s almost never used to cook ingredients, but may be added to a pan of fried eggs or vegetables at the end of a sauté for flavor and depth. It’s expensive, so it’s used a few drops at a time.
Paula Wolfert, American cookbook author and Moroccan food expert who recently published The Food of Morocco, the definitive tome on Morocco’s cuisine, says, “Argan oil only became a food thing outside of Morocco very recently when French chefs started putting it on everything. In my first cookbook back in the 1970s, I had to use hazelnut oil because I couldn’t find it in the states.” A former long-time resident of Morocco, Wolfert confirmed, “The health benefits of argan oil really are magical.”
One of the best and most simple dishes I tasted while in Morocco was fluffy khobz bread dipped into amlou, a sort of sweet, creamy argan butter. Wolfert’s new book defines the condiment as one of the Moroccan kitchen’s essentials, “Amlou is an old recipe, and it gets better over time,” she says.