Eating Exotic in Marrakech

After seven days of sunshine, chaos, and less than optimal hygiene standards, I finally had it with the national dishes of Morocco: couscous and tagine. I had it with very overcooked chicken. With vegetables. With lamb (with and without dried fruit). With beef. And one offered a camel version, but I didn’t partake.

It’s not that I don’t love tagines or couscous. They’re great- and the Moroccans are the only ones that can do it right (sorry wanna-be ethnic cooks). But if I got sick of tagine and couscous, what about the Moroccans? Don’t they want something else than couscous?

Yep, they do. Beyond the obvious French influence in their cuisine (the French occupied Morocco until 1956), its cuisine is a patois of Arabic, African, and Berber influences. And when you look around the food (or shall I say donkey) carts, street stalls, and food markets everyone seemed to be eating everything BUT couscous and tagine.

What was the other stuff? In an attempt to find out what Moroccans were eating on the street, my family, including 6-year old daughter, went on a mission to eat only street food. We didn’t have to look far.

“Mommy, Mommy! I want to eat that!”

That was a giant pile of steaming snails coming from a food cart at the Fna in the main market of Marrakech. And after the snails, there were goat brains, lungs, kidneys, all served with a spicy salt for dipping (and yes, the little one ate those too).

The grilled meats were next – lamb, beef or chicken – with extra chunks of fat skewered in between the meat to keep the meat from drying out.

We were too full to consider the other options: loads of lentil soup, omelets with spiced with onions and tomatoes (which seemed to be very popular with the young males), mint tea and almond pastries. And the food didn’t stop there. Every step towards the riad we stayed in seemed to be loaded with street food – fried seafood, especially whiting, and olives in every possible permutation and salad –lots of salad.

But the thing that really got to me about the food was its localness. Except for the whiting, which was caught near the Moroccan coast, all the food came from Morocco. When I asked the cook in our riad where the vegetables came from, she looked at me in a funny little way: ”What do you mean? They come from here.” Funnily enough, the only imported food we saw in Morocco was in the French quarter where heaps of Brie, pate, and foie gras were from…France.

In spite of the fact that there was no talk of carbon footprints, Slow Food or locavore, flexitarian or vegetarian foods – food was good because it was food. Maybe I need to get to Morocco more often.

If you are going:
All food stalls at Jemaa El Fna, the main square, are open after 5 PM. The stalls are organized by food type. All the snail stalls are grouped together, all the offal stalls are grouped together, etc. While all the food is generally of similar quality, the best way to judge which stall is best is look at the crowds. The more Arabic spoken, the better. Prices range from 15dh for a small bowl of snails to 100 dh for a grilled meat meal (excluding beverages).

Fried seafood stalls can be found also in Jemaa El Fna, but a nice selection of them (without the hawking & shouting) are around Rue Kbour Chou in the Medina. Look for stalls that freshly fry your fish – it’s your only guarantee of food safety.

For traditional Moroccan pastries, go to Patisserie Belkabir or Patisserie Duniya on 63-65 Souk Smarine. A kilo of pastries will cost about 100dh.

All prices are in Moroccan dirhams at 8.47 dh to the dollar.

Photo Credit: 1. Kay McGowan 2. Quentin Bacon 3. & 4. Kay McGowan


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