Eating Out in Marrakesh Part I: The Good, the So-So, and the Sheep’s Head

posted in: Eating Excursions | 18

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After much jetlag, dilly-dally, and time spent getting my head back on straight and my body back into the habit of working, cooking and such and such, I’m pleased to share with you my extraordinary culinary adventures in Morocco. Many thanks to all those who offered great suggestions on my previous posts about the trip. I would never have guessed on my own that the cinnamon and powdered sugar-dusted pastries bastilla actually had meat inside them (but would have been delighted anyhow — they’re delicious!).More things that were delicious: Fresh-squeezed orange juice has never tasted better. Thanks to the good fortune of Morocco’s climate and the ubiquity of orange and grapefruit juice stands in Marrakesh, I was able to drink up for 3 dirhams a glass (about 39 cents). While orange juice may have been plentiful and cheap, its antithesis, booze, was not. Morocco has some great wines, too, but you’ll have to pay a pretty penny for a bottle of it in a super-swank bar or restaurant, or else trek out to a supermarket for one. I consider my vacation a relatively healthy one given this. Plus, all the mint tea. I love green tea, and I can think of few better companions for a hot, sweetened glass of it than a fresh mint sprig.

in Moroccan society, genuine hospitality comes with a glass of hot mint tea

Before one goes giddy at the prospect of rivers of free Vitamin C as I did though, beware. All those tall orange trees that line the busy streets throughout the city? Those don’t have oranges on them. They’re bitter oranges. Let me demonstrate, invoking my inner Peter, Paul & Mary:

Orange tree, very pretty, and the orange flower is sweetbut the fruit of the poor orange (plucked from a tree on a street in Marrakesh)

is impossible to eat.

Just so you know, I tasted this, the sourest orange in the world, before handing it over to Jordan, and had my camera poised for the moment. At least photo-op success is still sweet.Moving on to the so-so: After a few days of eating in restaurants and stands in Marrakesh, I was able to identify three classes of flavors that most dishes fell into. These consisted of intensely pungent, salty and/or spicy (i.e. chicken tajine with preserved lemon and olives, pictured at top), super-sweet (i.e. lamb tajine with raisins and couscous, bastilla) and subtle bordering on bland if not properly executed (i.e. vegetable couscous, harira).

Harira, aka “Moroccan soup,” made with saffron, rice, beans and bits of meat and thickened with flour and tomato paste

a typical Moroccan salad

This breakdown, however, does not include all the salads, or first-course vegetable dishes. In Morocco, a salad can be served hot, cold or anywhere in between, just so long as it consists of vegetables. Unlike the main courses I sampled, salads also range wildly in variety and were never spiced too heavily or sparsely. These could be anything from dressed chunks of cold beets to a warm roasted green pepper and tomato dip. My favorite one from the trip were thick slices of eggplant, cooked (possibly fried?) until its surfaces were golden and crispy and its purple skins thin and crinkly as nori. When cut into, the warm eggplant flesh was just the color and texture of pudding. Joy.This was eaten at a typical food stand in the Djemaa el Fna, the main square of the city’s medina, which alights every night with the sounds and sights of drummers, storytellers, snake charmers, magicians and food stands — rows and rows full of them. Often offering the same fare as its neighbor, each stand has a long, communal table for casual dining by tourists and locals alike. (Although, if you’re a tourist, the experience is likely to be much different than the local’s.)

where the magic happens: the Djemaa el Fna

salads, roast chicken and bastilla (the sugared flat-looking pastries in the center) at a fully-loaded stand

If I’m making this all sound like a pretty magical fairy tale, well, it was. But here’s where the sinister troll rears its ugly head. Or should I say, the boiled-to-death, de-eyeballed sheep’s head. I kid you not.By the time Jordan and I decided it was a good idea to try the other signature dish of the Djemaa el Fna culinary repertoire, we were on a relative food high, and hungry for more flavors. So we sat down at one of the sheep’s head stands and waited for our main course, which we smartly decided to share. As we nibbled on bread, we watched the cook lift a massive head out from a vat of steaming liquid and plop it onto a butcher block. With one deft swipe of a cleaver he broke the head into two clean halves. It must have been boiled for the better part of the day. From this steaming mass he pulled out the animal’s jaw and tossed it into a nearby bucket — nearby us, that is. He then began to chop little bits off the head with a corner of the knife. Our plate consisted of a thorough sampling of these parts. There were some brains. To add to our disenchantment, this meal — like many in Moroccan cuisine — is meant to be eaten only with bread and no utensils, so we were hyper-aware of every minute particle that ended up in our mouths. Yes, some of it looked and tasted more or less like falling-apart stewed lamb meat, which was fine. But in my opinion, so not worth it. When I turned over a strip of meat and saw a greyish, thick and blubbery skin I was finished.

“everything is consumed except for the eyeballs,” my Lonely Planet Morocco book informed

proof that sheep aren’t the cleverest of animals

our plate

As if the whole sheep head/brains/teeth spectacle weren’t uncomfortable enough, the food here was almot as creepy as the guys at the table who were leering at us the entire time. So after putting a few dirhams on the table, we left for the safety of another stand we’d visited the night before, and ordered a pile of french fries and kebabs. Pretty good ones, too.

grilled mixed meat and veggie skewers with a few merguez sausages on the side

So I guess that takes me full circle with my little survey of Marrakeshi eats. But really, it was all good in terms of culinary exploration. My first recipe inspired from the journey is likely to be a warm winter salad. I like the broad application of the word salad here. It makes me realize that I don’t need to have expensive, highly perishable, shipped-from-California little greens to get my vitamins in the dead of winter when I can just cook up some squash and perhaps mushrooms. Can’t wait.

But first, the oddyssey continues: Eating out in Essaouaria, the Berber mountain villages, desert, and my cooking class at La Maison Arabe are soon to be posted!

the pink clay city at sunset

18 Responses

  1. Laura Wehrman
    |

    Welcome back! Your first post of the trip is fascinating and I look forward to more.

  2. Sarah
    |

    Welcome home! We’ve missed you.
    I looove the Moroccan Mint tea. I just tried brain the other day for the first time myself, and it was ok, but I can’t imagine it just being chopped up with all the other little bits.

  3. kittie
    |

    Welcome back – and thanks for such an interesting post! I spent a couple of weeks in Morocco a couple of years ago – and this brought it all back… was far to chicken to try the sheep’s head though!
    Can’t wait to hear about your Berber experiences – in my opinion that was the best food I had whilst out there.

  4. Jordan
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    It’s all true! Great post, Cathy.

    I love the sour-orange photos, especially since it looks like I’m potted in that chair and have no legs. 🙂

  5. Neener
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    Great reporting. I would like to hear more about side dishes, rice pilafs and the like.

  6. Michelle
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    I’m so jealous. Eggplant, sheep brains & a Moroccan sunset!

  7. cathy
    |

    Thanks everyone!
    Hi Neener: It’s strange, I didn’t see rice pilafs at all while I was there… and my cooking class teacher told us that couscous and bread are the commonly eaten grains. But I just did a quick Google search for “Moroccan rice pilaf” and see there’s a recipe from Emeril and a couple others. Curious. Wikipedia has a really concise entry on Moroccan cuisine, and I found it to be pretty accurate from what I saw there (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuisine_of_Morocco). But, who knows, I only visited the country for 10 days…

  8. Jennifer
    |

    What fun. Food tourism is one of the best kinds… I just love food!

  9. Ohiomom
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    Welcome home … loved your tale of food delights (or not so delights 🙂

  10. […] Eating Out in Marrakesh Part I: The Good, the So-So, and the Sheep’s Head […]

  11. Yvo
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    I love the sour orange pics, and the Lemon Tree reference? Brilliant, reminds me of my dad singing that to me when I was a kid crying over something or other. I didn’t get the metaphor at the time.
    I have to say, trying sheep’s head might be a bit much for me. Fried lambs brain in Turkey was pushing it, but it looked so much like fried whatever, filets of fish, that no big deal. To see someone chop a … yeah. I couldn’t do it, props for you.

  12. Chef Erik
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    Your food looks great! Funny pics 🙂

  13. JG
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    Recently found your blog and I’ve been reading some of the older posts. Here in Florida we’ve got lots of sour orange trees…there’s four in my yard and I live downtown. They’re usually wild shoots from cultivated trees and you can always ID the sour ones cause they’ll have thorns on the branches.

    Two great things to do with them:
    1. Marinade almost anything, but especially great with Cuban flavors
    2. Substitute for Key lime juice in your favorite Key lime pie recipe – sublime

  14. Chinese Chicken
    |

    From the desert state of Rajasthan, this one’s a delight. The Rajasthani people were often deprived of fresh vegetables and fruits in their hostile arid environment. Most also happened to be die-hard vegetarians. They used non-perishable dried legumes, and root vegetables such as potatoes, onions and garlic capable of prolonged storage

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