The vitamin-rich oil is great for dipping bread and making spreads

Credit: Photo by Cole Burston

The hills of Morocco’s Anti-Atlas mountains are flecked with irregularly shaped argan trees. Some are low to the ground, hunched over like shaggy trolls. Others have grown tall and outstretched, providing high branches for goats to scale and find food. The tree has been generous to the human population of Morocco, too. They provides millions of people, including many indigenous women, with jobs processing and selling argan goods, like internationally renowned hair oil.

“Their lives changed because of the argan,” says Khalid Lamlih, an award-winning guide from Morocco who runs tours through the country for Intrepid Travel. “Whenever you go to a place to buy argan, you always find girls and women working.” A customer at a drug store in Nebraska has the chance to appreciate the work of women 5,000 miles away thanks to the popularity of argan oil-infused hair products. While the rest of the world may only know argan for its cosmetic purposes, Morocco has been enjoying the ingredient in other ways. In some parking lots, you’ll find argan seed shells packed on the ground in lieu of gravel. And in the Moroccan kitchen, argan really shines.

Credit: Photo by Cole Burston

The sun is setting in Tafraout, a mountain town near Morocco’s southern coast. The pink sky softly hits the pink buildings, and people are buzzing around town running errands between fruit carts, butcher stands, and leather smith stalls. Woven into the maze of back alleys and side streets there are argan oil shops with women and children making the labor-intensive stock right there on the floor, filling the hallways with a delightful aroma.

The difference between cosmetic and culinary argan oil is simple: One’s toasted (the eating kind) and one’s not (the skin and hair kind). To make argan oil, you first take off the pulp of the dried argan fruit to get the inner nut alone. Then you crack the nut to get the kernel which are roasted, ground on a rotary quern, pressed, and decanted. The decanted oil is later filtered to various purities to become ready for your eating pleasure.

Credit: Photo by Cole Burston

“One kilo of argan nuts will lead to a half liter of argan oil,” Lamlih explains as the women in the shop work quietly. The most popular ways to eat argan in Morocco is using the oil for dipping Khobz, aka bread, or drizzling on other dishes like cous cous. Another is through Amlu, or amlou, a spread or dip made with argan oil, almonds, and honey. It puts any Whole Foods almond butter to shame. “In food, they never cook with argan oil like we do with olive oil,” Lamlih says. “They take some pieces of bread and dip it in oil and have it with tea. They do use argan oil for dressing, but not for cooking.”

It’s a precious product, something you wouldn’t want to waste as a cooking oil. It’s not cheap, which makes sense when you see how much physical effort and time goes into each batch. Then there are the health benefits that add to the the nutty taste. It’s rich in nutrients like vitamin E and fatty acids. “People believe that it’s very good to have it daily because it has more vitamins than olive oil,” Lamlih says. Beyond what argan oil can do for you, you have to respect the tree itself. They can live for centuries and, thanks to their deep roots, can survive years without rain. We dip our khobz into the silky oil and appreciate its many wonders.