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Morocco’s Mysterious Butter, Smen

Nothing says fatherly love like burying a pot of butter on the day of your daughter’s birth, and then digging it up the fermented dairy and presenting it to your little girl on her wedding day. At least, that’s the legendary custom behind Morocco’s funky smen butter. With its blue cheese-like scent and sharp flavor, smen is a centuries old dairy tradition from the Maghreb region of North Africa. For a country that has a relatively limited market for cheese, smen is the dairy product of choice and is an ingredient in many Moroccan dishes, from couscous to coffee.

Photo Credit: NPR

Photo Credit: NPR

Smen can be made from cow’s, sheep’s, or goat’s milk, and is kneaded inside of an animal hide until the milk becomes buttery in texture. Depending on the recipe of each individual smen maker, salt and other flavorings are then added to the butter and it is left to ferment for as many years as the maker desires. When it is ready to be sold, smen is taken to the Qaat Smen, or “Smen Square”, where the families of many vendors have been selling their versions of smen for generations. Although Morocco’s beloved butter is commonly found in grocery stores, the commercial smen is not aged like the traditional version, and its texture and flavor are lacking the richness that is characteristic of the fermented product. 

Many Moroccans prefer to buy their smen straight from the source, not only because the butters found at Qaat Smen are made without chemical preservatives, but also because traditional smen is believed to have powerful healing qualities. Smen is thought to clear sinuses, relieve arthritis, or lighten scars; some swear by its ability to cure sick farm animals, while the rare magicians among us believe that it has magical properties, which are perfect for spell casting. Moroccan smen consumers aren’t the only ones believe that their delicious dairy has curative qualities. In India, a version of clarified butter known as ghee is used as both a food item as well as a medical treatment. In fact, some families have had the same container of medicinal ghee over 100 years old. On the western side of the world, the belief that quark can be used as a restorative treatment has both baffled and amazed those who are more accustomed to modern medical practices.

Of course, we all know that cheese can be an excellent source of protein in any healthy diet, despite its reputation for being a weight watcher’s worst enemy. However, there are very few dairy products that have the wizarding world’s stamp of approval like smen does, making it a truly bewitching butter.

Photo Credit: Featured image courtesy of NPR

Emily Dangler

Culture Intern Emily Dangler is a creative writer and travel enthusiast, who is always looking for a good story to tell. Originally a West Coast girl, Emily has spent several years migrating across the country and is currently an adopted resident of Boston, where she is enjoying the city's delicious food and rich history.

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