As discussed in the previous post, Morocco is an incredible place for looking at food. It’s also a great place to eat, and I like to eat. So this entry is about the eating, and a little bit of the travels.
After an overnight direct flight from JFK we landed in Casablanca and had a brief layover before hopping on a train to Fes which was about three hours away. Because we hadn’t eaten since the previous night, I was hungry but hoping to hold out for grilled meat somewhere. So we started with some coffee, croissants, mint tea, and banana milk.
Mint tea is served as a greeting everywhere you go in Morocco. It’s black tea, fresh mint leaves, and a few cubes of sugar steeped together. Always served from a silver teapot into glasses instead of ceramic mugs. It’s sweetness and warmth were welcome due to the chilly temperatures at the time we visited.
En route to Fes, the landscape was not what I expected at all; lots of rolling green hills with delicious animals grazing on them.
After arriving in Fes, we took a cab to our riad and discovered that, since it was Friday, most of the medina was shut down. I was starving and devastated. So we headed to the souk in the new section of Fes and I prayed to find something edible there. Luckily, shortly after exiting the cab, I saw some locals hanging around a counter with this behind the glass.
Sure there was chicken, lamb kefta, and beef, but that skewer of liver looked too good to pass up. Or was it kidney? The dude running the stall responded to that question (asked in English) by mooing at me. Glad we got that straightened out.
I ordered 4 skewers for 10 dihram (or $1.25) grilled and served inside half a loaf of khobz and sprinkled with cumin, salt, paprika and some sort of chili pepper.
I decided it was liver, despite having a little bit of crunch to it which was unexpected. The best and most flavorful bites were the ones that included the one piece of fat on each skewer which you may have noticed in the previous picture. Overall, I though the liver had a surprisingly mild flavor and the sandwich was very tasty if a little dry. Danny disagreed with my assessment when he tasted it, so I guess i just like liver.
To get that taste out of his mouth, we found a guy who was cooking small links of merguez sausage inside the souk.
This was served identically to the liver: pulled off the skewers into a half loaf of local bread. Danny and Zach both ate it without complaint, but it was definitely a little funky. The sausage was mainly blood and fat and tasted like it, but for a dollar on the street we didn’t expect much more than that.
After picking up Jae at the train station, we headed out for dinner where I had my first tagine. Tagine is a ceramic dish with a cone-like top, but its also a style of food; basically a one pot slow cooked meal. It was a little subpar.
Whole slices of salted preserved lemon rinds, un-pitted olives, and a half chicken all cooked together. If the tagine had a bed of couscous, it would have been a hundred times better, but instead it was just a lot of strong flavors with nothing neutral to absorb them. Oh well, we quickly learned that restaurants weren’t where you found the best food.
The next day Mohammed, our previously discussed guide for the day, brought us to a restaurant inside the medina for lunch. We knew we were being pulled into a tourist trap owned by Mohammed’s buddies, but the food ended up being relatively decent. We were started off with a bunch of small cold appetizers which you piled up on local bread.
The main event for me, and something Mohammed promised me I would be able to order, was pigeon pastilla, or pigeon pie.
The pastilla was in an individual portion size and was basically a pastry filled with pigeon meat (some still on the bone), nuts, eggs, and spices.
The tiny bones were annoying. Some were soft enough to easily chew, but others had to be fished out in the mouth and removed. I was getting more comfortable with this process from my time in China, but it made for a less enjoyable experience. The flavor of the spices and pigeon meat was great, though.
The next day we took a minibus to Merzouga on the fringe of the Sahara desert where we planned to ride camels into the desert and stay in a Berber camp for the night. Which we did.
Camels are deceptively tall, extremely wide around the midsection, pretty cranky, and carry a unique odor. Which meant we had a lot in common. Camels are also remarkably comfortable with carrying over 200 pounds of DB on their back over steep dunes on shifting sand.
Shortly after sunset, our camels completed their seven kilometer trip into the desert and dropped us off at the Berber camp where we would spend the night.
Over in the main tent, which was about the same size, we waited anxiously for our guides to cook dinner since we ate an early lunch and hadn’t settled at camp until long after dark. The first course of khobz and soup, that I think was made from bones, vegetables and pieces of lamb fat, was one of the most welcome and enjoyable eating experiences of my life.
I inhaled this soup due to hunger but it was definitely good. Not an overwhelming amount of saltiness, and the occasional white blob of fat that gave the soup it’s meaty flavor. Next up was a tagine of chicken, root vegetables, and couscous.
The chicken was a half bird with heart and liver still attached to the ribs. Pretty strong tasting, but a great meal to put us all to sleep.
We woke with the sunrise to head out of the desert.
Over the next two days we made our way to Marrakech at a leisurely pace. We stopped often to take in amazing sights like the Dades Valley and gorges, the High Atlas mountains, Ait Benhaddou, and the film studio at Ouarzazate. I also got pretty sick of eating tagines and looked forward to the food that Marrakech would have to offer. It didn’t disappoint.
The main square in Marrakech is called Djemaa el Fna. You should have seen how I spelled that before googling it; it looked like I sat on the keyboard. During the day it’s mostly street performances along with dates, juice, and spice vendors.
Its a pretty intimidating place because its huge and there is constantly someone trying to sell you something or throwing some sort of animal on you.
You take a couple pictures with said animal, and then pay the guy ten dihram so that he doesn’t tell the animal to rip your eyes out. I got lucky; Danny had a giant snake thrown onto his shoulders, which would have ruined my jeans and given me nightmares for a few months.
Around sunset the food vendors hit the square. Each food stall is numbered and is basically an outdoor restaurant with tables and chairs
I had seen shows about this and was extremely excited for the tremendous amount of new eating experiences that I would be able to choose from. Right after we arrived the first night, I hit one of the many snail stalls.
The cooking liquid is loaded with spices and bay leaves and has a flavor that mixes shellfish saltiness with sweet and spicy. The broth is considered to have medicinal qualities and many people pay one dihram for a bowl of just liquid. I went for the 5 dihram small bowl of snails.
The snails were very tender and had good flavor. Considering that a small bowl had 12 of them, I can’t imagine eating a large bowl which was more than double the size for 10 dihram.
If you like french-style escargot, you might not like this since it doesn’t have the butter and garlic that makes escargot great. However, it is a good reference point that 12 snails cost about 60 cents vs. the $15 you’d pay for 6 in a French restaurant. Also, no allergic reaction, guess that allergy might have gone away.
We ate dinner at a funny nightclub that featured people dressed like sailors and Michael Jackson impersonators that sounded out the lyrics to entire songs. First odd item of the following day was this fruit.
The guy on the far right would cut into the hard outer shell and pop out a round ball that looked like, and had the staining potential of, a cooked beet.
It also had the texture of a cooked beet with a couple small seeds and a mild sweet and sour flavor. If you know what that fruit is, please comment.
After walking around for about 6 hours and heading back to the hotel to shower and take naps, we were ready to hit the square for dinner. The previous night I saw one particular food item that really scared me but seemed like a unique experience. My apologies to the squeamish, but I was looking forward to trying sheep’s brains.
I ordered and watched as they quickly poached the brains, cut them, and put them on a plate with some cheek meat from the sheeps head (just to the right of the brains in the picture). They added a piece of bread dipped into the poaching liquid as well.
The first bite didn’t go so well. I ate it completely unadorned and as I was chewing/getting an idea of the texture I started thinking a little too hard about what I was eating. The texture is creamy, and the flavor is mildly lamb-like and livery. I had to take a little pause, eat some cheek meat and drink some water. The next bite was much better and led me to take several more, since I figured out the importance of a sprinkle of cumin salt and wrapping in a piece of dry bread.
The dipped bread was really the funkiest part. It tasted fine, but stuck to my fingers and teeth and anything that came into contact with it. Time to move on.
We headed over to stall #1 which was by far the most packed and is noted on travel sites as having the best food on the square.
You pick your meat or side dishes and they grab a few skewers and throw them onto the grill. The eggplant and grilled sweet potato balls were really awesome, and all of the meat was fresh and had nice flavor.
The cake has a pleasantly mealy texture (if that’s possible) and tasted like it was entirely made of cinnamon. The tea was very heavily spiced, almost to the point of being spicy. Each of these on their own wasn’t that great, but when you took a bite of the cake followed by a sip of the tea, it was actually pretty tasty and unique.
If you are somehow still reading this post, I will wrap it up with one last meal that also happened to be our best. On the last day, we finally found an alley that is nicknamed Meshwi alley and arrived right at noon when they opened up. Meshwi is lamb that is hung vertically in an underground clay oven to cook whole. Just as we arrived, the first lamb of the day hit the table.
As we stepped up, the cook took a couple small crispy pieces from the shoulder and gave them to each of us to sample. A truly ridiculous piece of food. Crispy and salty outside and incredibly tender inside. We ordered a half kilo which he took from all areas of the lamb and lead us to a table behind the stall where we could sit and eat.
As we walked to the table, we stepped over the lid to the underground clay oven. The cook was nice enough to take the lid off and show us the inside.
Right as we finished up our meal, the butcher showed up with a fresh lamb that he prepared for cooking. I was completely mesmerized by how quickly and precisely this guy worked.
As he finished binding the lamb around the metal hook that it would hang from in the oven, he cut two slits at the shoulder joints and stuffed balls of fat into both openings. Explains how the meat stays moist throughout cooking.
And that was it. We went to a fantasia show for dinner (think Moroccan Medieval Times) and then I boarded a plane for home the next morning.
Sorry for the long post, wanted to give some context along the way by showing what we did and there was a lot of amazing food to cover. Will be back to cooking my own food for next week’s post.
No pictures of Jae Kim? Dag.
He got a few mentions, and that’s him on the front camel.
Great trip Pete. I felt like I was there with you in the square…
It sounds like when in doubt, just wrap it in that bread. Great recap.
Pete – gonna have to start reading the old/new blog entries. Like your style.
Went to Merzouga a couple years ago. Pics brought me right back. I think I named my camel “Steve” though – perhaps he was friends with Sal & Richard?
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Those fruits are cactus pears
Those fruits are prickly pear…cactus fruit! Your trip looked awesome!