Almost as soon as Pumpkin let the cat out of the bag about where he was taking me as a surprise birthday trip this year, I was dreaming of the food.
I knew of scorching tagines where tender lamb is cooked to perfection at a pace so languid it leaves you aging during its creation. I knew of the plump and succulent Moroccan olives strewn affectionately into this literal culinary melting pot, which glaze this classic Moroccan dish with a sharp pervasive filter. I knew of the fine couscous grains that assume a new life as they sponge the excesses of the inviting aromas. But this was all I knew about Moroccan cuisine, about the history of their mouthwatering meals and about the way they are prepared.After previously trying out a daytime food walk in London and a Friday night food tour in Ljubljana, Pumpkin told me he had booked us onto the hottest foodie ticket in town at Marrakech Food Tours.
And so we arrived at the electric Jemma El-Fnaa square as the sun was starting to retire for the day. The crowds, which I was soon to learn pour in boundlessly, were starting to line the corners of the square but we managed to spot the handful of fellow, food-fiends huddled together, chatting away to the charming couple Amanda and Youssef, who engineered this fabulous tour and personally lead the tours.
Rather unfortunately, my overactive thumb has since made the onerous blunder of deleting all the Marrakech photographs that were tucked away neatly in their own folder on my phone. I still have the pictures from my camera and it has taken numerous episodes of me telling myself to keep things in perspective to avoid having a full blown hissy fit about it but apologies for not being able to offer even more photos.
Marrakech Food Tours
Tagine vs Tanjir
Tagines are commonplace throughout Morocco but the Tanjir on the other hand is a local Marrakech specialty, cooked in this deep underground oven and when I say oven, I mean a hole in the ground. Historically, these underground spaces were heated up by the leftover ashes from traditional Hammam spas. Vegetarians may wish to pause reading now…The entire sheep meat is suspended into this heated underground oven and cooked tentatively for hours. We were served both the lamb that is placed straight in the “oven”, cooked with no seasoning and served with just a lacing of cumin salt. There’s no cutlery here so you pick up the lamb with a husk of bread and away you go.
To compare and contrast, we were served a second lamb dish, cooked in a similar oven but this time placed inside a clay pot for cooking with more of a citrusy flavour. Opinions were divided as they were both tantalising but I definitely preferred the first.
And speaking of underground ovens, we found that these were not used just for meat. The aforementioned husks of breads are cooked right underneath our feet with children often being given handmade dough from their mothers to drop into these ovens on their way to school. Each individual cooked piece of bread is then returned to its rightful owner at the time of collection. Goodness knows how they keep tabs on whose is whose?
Before progressing to the second dish of the night (we had no idea just how much food was to come),we paused to get a fix of olives at this vibrant market stall. Just take your pick between the mild and fragrant green ones, the salty black ones or the spicy harissa olives. I hadn’t realised that Morocco is one of the world’s biggest exporters for olives.
A Moroccan Sardine Sandwich
Now I must admit, when I was told we were stopping for a sardine dish next, I thought about doing a runner. I’m not a fussy lady – there are only about four ingredients that I actually dislike and sardines (I thought) were one of them. But fortunately for me, the sardines here are reincarnated into a fresh and filling sandwich, made up of ground sardine served inside hearty Moroccan bread with fresh onions and olives.
I’ll admit it sounded utterly bizarre and I half expected to force it down with a polite smile on my face but I absolutely loved this dish! It was one of my highlights of the night and nearly all of our group agreed that with the exception of a hint of salty aftertaste, you’d never even know there was sardine in it!
Another reason that I love food tours like this is because it gives you the security and confidence to venture into eateries that you may perhaps be too apprehensive to attempt just like this sardine sandwich cafe.The numerous episodes of gastroenteritis I had as a child visiting India left me with a bit of a phobia of eating street foods abroad but with some delicious snacks in Rio last year, I finally started to overcome that. There’s a strong misconception that if a restaurant looks posh and glamorous, it equates with good hygiene standards.
The Best Couscous in Marrakech
Amanada and Youssef believe that the best Moroccan cuisine cannot be found in tourist squares or hotels but rather in the depths of family kitchens across the country, being made by the hardened biceps of mothers and grandmothers, who have been cooking for generations. Prior to choosing a couscous dish for the tour, they sampled numerous restaurants before they found a Grandmother who was doing just that in the heart of Marrakech, a city where most restaurant kitchens are staffed by men.
At this small family restaurant, the lamb and vegetable couscous dish is enormously portioned and the best I’ve ever tried. Unlike my “just-add-boiling-water” packet couscous in London, the traditional Moroccan process of preparing a family couscous meal takes hours and involves numerous steps. Served in one large dish, the only rule is that you eat from your own triangle and don’t cross into your neighbour’s. I frequently bat away Pumpkin’s hands from my food but at least here, I could do so in the name of cultural etiquette 😀
By now, I had crossed from being pleasantly full to bursting out of my jeans but fortunately, the desserts were in small bites and were predominantly almond-flavoured biscuity treats but after those savoury dishes, it was hard for anything to compete. The avocado and date smoothie, however, was a pairing of flavours I had never tried before but worked well together and felt nutritious enough to somewhat appease my guilt about an evening of foodie indulgence!
I would highly recommend an evening with Marrakech Food Tours for a unique way to discover the best Moroccan cuisine and to uncover the tales and treasures behind it.
Have you visited Morocco? What did you make of the cuisine?