Sensory Overload in Morocco
By Nellie Huang | Originally published in WildJunket Magazine
Berber man dressed in a red tunic, with a monkey on his shoulder, approaches me, “Photo, Miss?” I politely decline with a smile and snake my way through the labyrinth of food stalls and hordes of persistent vendors.
In the chaotic square of Djemma el Fna, a whirlpool of herbalists, snake charmers and henna painters converges, erupting into a cacophony of shouts, honks and bells- ringing. Bright neon light illuminates the chaos into a sea of reverberations.
It reminds me of an open-air circus, except that this sets the scene for everyday local life. This is where locals – whether vendors or market-goers – gather in the day and dine by night. I am here in Marrakesh to soak in the much talked-about culinary scene and explore its stimulating bazaars with a bunch of food-loving friends.
Assembly of the Dead
Like a magnetic centrifugal force, Djemma el Fna is the core of all activities in Marrakesh’s medina (old city). Standing before the city’s iconic Koutoubia Mosque, the massive souk (Arabic market) is a jumble of interweaving alleys and artisan shops. Literally translated to mean ‘Assembly of the Dead’ – the hive of activities that make up North Africa’s busiest square is not the least bit gloomy.
Street flavors: A vendor stirs big bowls of cooked foods at the Djemma el Fna open-air food market.
For the uninitiated, Djemma el Fna is an overwhelming sensory overload. My mind is aroused by bouts of raucous sounds and sights, but it is the heady smoke and exotic aroma of herbs that catches my attention: Sprawled across the outdoor food maze, a cook is brewing an intoxicating pot of snails.
The chef greets me in Arabic. “I’ll have a bowl please.” I answer with much enthusiasm. After all, I’m no stranger to bizarre eats – growing up in Southeast Asia has prepared me for odd food. My group of travel mates, on the other hand, prefers to steer clear.
Several forceful strokes of stirring later, a bowl of sluggish, wriggly snails in dark gravy is served. The scent is arousing, heavy with spices. Tugged under their heavy shells, the snails stare out at me with giant antennas for eyes. They are bigger than the European escargot, also juicier.
Dragging the squirmy brown creatures out of their shells with a toothpick, I wolf them down one at a time, slurping the flavorful gravy simultaneously. “Is that seriously good, or are your taste buds just not working?” Ivar, my less gallant Icelandic travel mate remarks sarcastically.
This is merely a gentle introduction to our intrepid gastronomic journey. No stomachs will be spared – I warn my mates.
As the last ebb of sunlight fades in the distance, the food bazaar takes on a life of its own, rumbling with even more fervor than before. We continue navigating the maelstrom of push carts and blazing smoke to hunt down more exotic fare.
Each makeshift food stall is numbered with a handwritten sign above our heads. Ahmed, our friendly chef at the snail stand, is number 6.
Rows upon dizzying rows of grills blind us with a mishmash of colors. Stacks of yellow, green and red spices are piled sky-high, alongside red-and-green marinated meat skewers. Purple and brown olives swim in giant plastic bowls. Thick, lathery meat stews simmer slowly in traditional clay pots.
The day before, at the famous restaurant Chez Chegrouni, we had sampled authentic kefta tajine (beef-balls stew)
and a popular local offering – pigeon pie. Crusted in light, brittle pastry puff skin, the pigeon pie packed in all sorts of flavor: from a tinge of spice to a rainbow spectrum of salty sweetness.
Back in the rambling food maze, slabs of fresh silver grouper and tuna fish strewn on ice are thrown onto the sizzling grill upon request. “Our seabass are the freshest! Nihon jin desu ka? Are you Japanese?” Competition is fierce as vendors contend for customers, each sprouting a different foreign language to cajole tourists.
Much has changed over the decade with the development of tourism in Marrakesh, but the fascinating colors, aroma and vivacity, are unequivocally Moroccan. Djemma el Fna is dominated by camera-toting tourists, yet the rudimentary food stalls are rarely frequented by foreigners. Hygiene might be one of the reasons, but few restaurants can rival such authentic fare.
Slithering our way into the market, we come face to face with the ultimate bizarre food: Stewed sheep’s heads lined unruly on metallic tables – eyes, teeth and ears fully intact. There’s no sight of the sheep’s fur, but cartilage, bones and tongue jut out from the animal’s cranium. We stare at the outlandish sight for what seems like eternity, as if waiting for the sheep to bleat loudly in pain.
The chef at stall number 12 jostles us towards the row of decapitated heads. He even scoops up a spoonful of black gravy with brainy bits swimming in it, for us to sample. Sheep brains as aphrodisiacs? We shake our heads in unison, taking off in all directions.
Stomachs growling, we decide to stick to the conventional comfort food. At Stall 34, blazing flames are clouding up the sky in smoke – this should be good. I order several brochette de viande (‘meat skewers’ in French) right off the sizzling barbecue.
We start our meal with a bowl of harira soup – an essential item in any Moroccan meal. Bubbling with the smell of pepper and coriander, the lentil and chickpea broth rallies up our appetite. Soft baked pita bread is served with the soup, a culinary practice introduced by the French.
The chef works his magic, his kitchen sprawled in front of us. The brochette is smothered with a constellation of condiments and roasted on charcoal-fueled grill. We watch him skillfully turn up the fire by showering the brochette with oil, sending the flames roaring. Within minutes, the meat is cooked inside out, slightly charred on the outside but delicately tender inside. As I dig in, thousands of contrasting flavors explode in my mouth.
For our last treat, the cheeky waiter dishes up an extra platter of minced meat. “But we didn’t order this.” It’s for free – he says with a smile. He keeps his lips locked though; we are left to decide for ourselves what it is.
I ecstatically devour the tender viande: no, not beef. Neither is it lamb. It’s got a subtle hint of herbs. It’s juicy, red meat, with a soft and tofu-like texture.Bull testicles? Sheep brains? Who knows?
The night ends with a question mark. I’m sure the answer will be revealed some day, but until then, I’ll be savoring the memory and keeping the mystery sunken in my taste buds.
This article was originally published in WildJunket Magazine June/July 2012.