Eating out in the Djemma el-Fna, Marrakesh
Arab/Middle Eastern cuisines tend to blend into one another. From the souvlaki of Greece to the kebab of Turkey to the kabab of Iran, dolma from Armenia to Bosnia to Egypt, and yogurty drinks galore, dishes identified even as national specialties are usually transnational. Even the cuisine that is often identified as the most significant in the region–Lebanese–is somewhat diluted by the omnipresence of many of its staples, such as hummus and tabbouleh, over a wide region. This sort of general murkiness makes Moroccan cuisine stand out all the more for its distinctiveness and flavor.
Without a doubt, Morocco was one of the culinary highlights of our travels in the “Arab” world. People eat salads and roast meats, sure, but they do not comprise the core of Moroccan restaurant food, as in most other parts of the Arab world. Nor does often mediocre Indian food pick up the slack, as in the Gulf, for lack of local development and innovation. Given the well-developedness and tastiness of Moroccan food, it’s no wonder that there are plenty of Moroccan restaurants outside of Morocco–and so you may have tried many of these dishes. But here is my brief survey:
Food stall, Djemma el-Fna, Marrakesh
The king of Moroccan dishes is surely the tagine. I actually considered doing a post on tagines alone, because, as a sort of national staple, the tagine is almost unique in its incredible variety and sometimes complexity of flavor. One could easily travel in Morocco and eat only tagines for lunch and dinner–they are always available, cheap and almost always quite delicious, and no two tagines are exactly the same. Our favorite was served to us at a roadside stand, packaged to go in plastic bags!
The “tagine” is actually the name of the special pot (much like the way that Americans (and French?) use the word “casserole” to describe a kind of dish).
A common sight–tagines on the fire around mealtime.
Sometimes, tagines are displayed with clues as to the contents.
Remove the lid to reveal usually a piece of meat (chicken or lamb) slow-cooked with a range of vegetables (potatoes, onions, tomatoes) and flavored with a satisfying mixture of spices and, often, lemons and olives.
Traditionally, eaten with bread.
A rather simple meat tagine, with egg.
Perhaps even more famous in the west is couscous, small pasta that has almost the same mouthfeel as broken rice. Generally, however, we didn’t find couscous nearly as often as we thought we would–as common restaurant food, the tagine is supreme in Morocco.
Of course, more simple roast meat is also eaten (and, as usual, delicious). In Francophone Morocco, they are usually called “brochettes,” and not kebab.
Two local specialties stand out. Most famous perhaps in Marrakesh, but available elsewhere, is tangia, a form of slow-cooked lamb that varies from greasy to sublime (or both!).
In Marrakesh, tangia is cooked in little clay pots in the embers of a hammam fire. The guidebooks suggest that you can actually rent a pot, stop by a butcher and take the package to a hammam yourself–but that seemed like too much trouble when premade tangia was easily available.
The pastilla, a Fes specialty. The pastilla is a sort of meat pie, though very different from, say, a Cornish pasty. Somewhat unusual, but not particularly remarkable.
Strong tea is the drink of choice (see post of 09.01.17), with mint if you’re lucky, but there is also a surprisingly large number of coffee shops with high quality pastries, presumably a remnant of French domination.