Ask anybody who hasn’t visited Morocco, what the local cuisine consists of, and most people will guess at Tagines, dates and a lot of meat.
Ask anybody who has visited Morocco, and they will tell you…well, pretty much exactly the same.
Marrakesh is a city where old world meets new world, where cool mosques back on to sweltering souks, and snake charmers sit, cobra draped, outside internet cafes. You would think that with this mishmash of cultures and lives there would be some excitingly different foods to try, but the locals seem to live by the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ philosophy. Moroccan cuisine is definitely not ‘broke’, it’s delicious. Heavily spiced meat and sticky dried fruit abounds, which is lovely for the first two days. After those two days however, you are desperate for something refreshing. So desperate, that even the piles of strawberries on a cart attached to the back of a motorbike, that just yesterday looked too polluted to touch, now seem your only redemption.
I am here to let you in on a not-so-secret secret. The food stalls in the Jema el Fnaa square. They are white canopied, temporary structures that get set up at about 5 or 6pm most evenings. They take the form of miniature streets, laid out in rows, and each ‘restaurant’ is numbered. The first time we ate here, we wandered for ten minutes or so around the periphery, trying to see what the deal was. You get hounded here, worse than in the markets, and we were trying to politely shrug most people off. After being harassed quite badly by one particular stall, where they tried to surround us and herd us into the food stall, we were approached by a smiling man from number 117.
I thought ‘Here we go again’, and set my face to ‘disinterest’.
‘Ahh lady, it’s not problem. They grab you because they want customer. We don’t do that here, come on in, 117, take you to heaven!’
As much as this was obviously a ploy to stand out from the crowd, I couldn’t help but smile. We reluctantly let ourselves be shown to a table.
The tables are set out in long lines with benches down either side. Behind all of these is a large stall groaning with food waiting to be cooked. They have menus but these are pretty pointless. Just head on up and point to things, which they will then cook for you in the open air and bring to the table. Despite it all being pretty greasy still, it is far superior to the mediocre food served at exorbitant prices by the cafes and restaurants that surround the square. These places can charge what they like as they have upstairs balconies and tourists will make a bee-line for them rather than risk the ‘street food’. Big mistake.
One part of the stall is dedicated to Tagines of course, which I’m sure were delicious, but we were all Tagine’d out by this point. We ate our way through a plethora of different kebab meats, vegetable kebabs, Moroccan salads, fried prawns and bread, all slathered with their own Chilli sauce. Even with all of this food, a couple of lemonades, and a complimentary dish of the most deliciously marinated olives I have ever had the pleasure of sampling, it seemed impossible to spend over 200 dirham. This works out to something like £17. For Marrakech that is stupidly cheap.
The most important part of the food stall experience however is the entertainment. You are sitting down on street level, open to the world, watching streams of people walk by. The guys that ran 117 had some fantastic lines to get people in –
‘Face to face, romantic place!’
‘Come come, we have aircondition and rooftop swimming pool’
‘Come have a goosy gander yes?’
They had obviously sat down together and watched some Only Fools and Horses. They were far less pushy than the rest, and, collectively, had a great sense of humour. We went back to 117 three times, and they recognised us and let us off some of the bill when we were short of cash. On our last night we were waved off and thanked profusely. Then one guy with a cheeky smile, slowly and carefully, hoping he had the English right, shouted after us –
‘See ya…wouldn’t want to be ya!’