When I was growing up, I would watch MTV Spring Break and think to myself, “I can’t wait to go on spring breaks like that when I am older!”. Then I went to college and instead of spending my spring breaks in Panama City playing Truth or Date with a bikini-clad coed, I spent them with the rest of the Bates Crew team not drinking, waking up early, and generally appalled by the opposite sex.
When I got to business school, I wondered if I would finally take that tequila-fueled spring break I dreamt about so many years prior. But, I realized I am happily married, would swim wearing a t-shirt if it was socially acceptable, and find Ed Hardy clothing to be a reasonable sign of poor education. So instead, I introduced Morocco to this DB.
The trip location was decided somewhat haphazardly, but we all agreed it was a place we likely wouldn’t visit with our significant others and that there was a lot we wanted to see. I was most excited to visit the markets (or souks) in the Fes and Marrakech medinas, since they’ve both been in business for over 800 years. Neither dissapointed.
First stop was Fes where we stayed at a small riad (or inn) just inside the medina walls. On our second day, we hired a local guide named Mohammed to show us around the medina since there are a lot of sites to see and its an incredibly confusing place to navigate yourself.
After walking for about 15 minutes and taking a few confusing turns, I recognized that we were in the heart of the food section of the souk. The most surprising thing, was that I was surrounded on all sides by meat and produce yet it had none of the off-putting smells I had encountered in markets in Italy and China. It smelled clean and kinda delicious.
The most notorious food item that I was interested in finding was khelea, a breakfast food that nearly made Andrew Zimmern throw up when he ate it. I asked our guide about it and he made it sound like it was as common a part of breakfast as bacon or sausage in the U.S. Which he must have assumed was pretty common since he was talking to me. He pointed out a butcher that was making it.
This stuff was everywhere. From my understanding, its meat (I think beef) that is cooked, salted, then packed in animal fat or olive oil to keep it preserved at room temperature. Its taken from that cone and put into smaller containers for sale to the multitudes of Moroccans looking for it. Aside from the olive vendors, it was the most common item we saw.
Back to the kaleah. Most stalls offered a variety of cuts of meat and animal fat vs. olive oil.
As it turns out, this stuff isn’t nearly as gross as it sounds and we ate it mixed in with our eggs without even knowing what it was. The texture and flavor was similar to the air dried beef in creamed chipped beef. Not entirely sure what grossed out Zimmern so much.
Once we got past the overwhelming visual of being surrounded by kaleah, we realized that we were right in the middle of the meat market. They specialize in beef and lamb and all parts of the animal are available. Individual vendors specialized in the prime cuts or the organ meats, but rarely carried both. The latter was definitely the more photogenic subject matter.
Kidneys, brains, hooves, tongues, bones, and whole sheeps heads. Sounds like what Pop Ryan used to tell me was in hot dogs. At this point I was excitedly asking Mohammed way too many questions which he happily answered with only the slightest hint of fear in his eyes.
Boiled brains and steamed sheep heads are both very common foods in Morocco, while the other sheep organs like kidney, heart, and pancreas are usually stuffed with other ingredients and grilled or fried. Check out how much larger the beef counterparts are.
The beef heart I cooked last summer was half the size of the one at this stall, but that was nothing compared to the stuffed pancreas the guy next store was selling.
Apparently this is like Moroccan scrapple, stuffed with other chopped organs and rice, but it was ten times more terrifying to look at. I am still not positive that this was pancreas since I can’t find any images online of anything similar, but thats what Mohammed said. Here’s a sliced version.
At this point, we had seen every single part of these animals except for their skin, until I turned around without looking and somebody carrying about 30 skins ran into me. He was heading to the tannery, which is also located inside of the medina, to drop off his haul.
The tannery made up for the complete lack of foul smells in the food market. This facility processes camel, cow, and sheep skins primarily, and does it all in the labor intensive manner that its been done for hundreds of years.
The initial treatment needs ammonia in the mix. In Morocco, they stick with their traditions and use pigeon poop as the source of ammonia, which definitely doesn’t help make a funky smelling process any less funky smelling. Regardless, it was a very cool process to watch and explained the extremely large amount of leather goods available in the medina. Including the hat from the first photo that cost me $10.
Back to the food, this time the seafood and shellfish section. Lots of fresh stuff coming in from the coast daily.
The fish looked amazing but without a place to cook, much like the meat stalls, it was somewhat painful to look at. We also didn’t see much seafood on menus or at the street food stalls, which made it a little worse. What we did see at a lot of food stalls were snails.
The last time I ate snails I was twelve and had a serious allergic reaction. I came to Morocco prepared with antihistamines and an asthma inhaler since I was very excited to try this local delicacy. There are a lot of things wrong with that previous sentence. More on that in a future post.
I was starting to recognize that there was more challenging food available for eating than I could possibly handle. Feeling intimidated, I distracted myself with the woman making crepes a few stalls down.
This was really cool to watch. That sphere is metal and very hot, so she would drape the crepe dough around the entire dome where it would instantly turn transparent and then slowly turn the opaque yellowish color you associate with french crepes.
After about a minute, she would peel it off and fold it on itself which made for a layered crepe with air inside, kind of like pita bread. Most mornings these were served with breakfast at the riads we stayed at. A little fresh sheeps milk cheese, a little honey, with a cup of coffee on the side, and you had a delicious start to the day. Speaking of sheeps milk, these stands were on the fringes of the market for easy pickup.
The glasses are filled with sheeps milk yogurt that is similar to the texture of a smoothie; the plates have a cheese that is closest to ricotta. You couldn’t stand and look for too long since there were a lot of donkeys being led into the market at the entrance by this stand. You know, since the narrow alleys aren’t crowded enough without lumbering, stupid donkeys.
The other crazy thing about the medina relates back to an expression Mohammed said was very common in Morocco, “Don’t judge a palace by it’s door”. Kind of an equivalent to “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” but they mean it literally, unlike our meaning of not making assumptions about an unattractive person until you see how funny they are (hi).
Every door in the medina looks the same, but we would duck into certain ones with Mohammed’s guidance and discover a beautiful palace inside.
There was ton of great things to see in the souks, but my personal favorite was the community bakery. Aside from the people carrying animal skins, the most common sight was people carrying their homemade dough to the community bakery to make khobz; the local flat-ish, round bread that is plentiful with every meal.
This guy works in a basement-type setup all day baking bread. Most people mark the top of their loaves with a unique set of slash marks to make sure they get their own bread at the end of the day. They pay about 1 Dihram (or 15 cents) to the baker per loaf to get it cooked in this huge wood-fired, honeycomb-style oven. The loaves are constantly cycled in and out of the oven and thrown onto the floured floor to rest.
Morocco was a country that made me hungry at every turn. There were so many unique food items and you could tell that people really put a lot of care into the food that they made and sold. My next post will dive into the foods that I had the courage to try, and also unique experiences like a tagine cooked in the Saraha by our Berber hippie guide. It was a very cool trip.
Sorry for the long post and the hiatus. As usual, I will try to be more regular with posts and get into a groove again.