I feel really lucky to have come across the Marrakech Food Tour. It's a big world but made smaller by the internet. I was doing my research and found MarocMama: Tastes, sights, and virtual smells from my Moroccan kitchen. I love to cook and believe it can bring people together even from the most different of places. I started corresponding with Amanda, the owner, and learned that her and her husband, Youseff, ran Marrakech Food Tours. Not only did she have wonderful recipes from her kitchen, some that I tried out before we embarked on this journey, but also great advice for when we would be traveling to Marrakech. Being a lover of food and wanting to feel a connection with some locals, we had to try the food tour out. It was easy, we were able to prepay, and list items that we were allergic to or foods we really wanted to try. They even offer a Freaky Foods tour at night where you can explore just how tough your stomach is in the Jemaa el-Fnna, the main square in town. I knew already that our stomachs were not ironclad, so we opted for the daytime tour with both Amanda and Youseff.
They picked us up at our Riad and we were off. He is a local, she is American. They both spoke English and I liked that it was her first language. There are things you pick up when you have known a language from birth that learning one just doesn't teach you. They were a wealth of information and able to answer anything we asked. Being able to walk around with them was worth the money, let alone all the food they experienced with us. It was magnificent. Youseff's shirt said "Local Hero" and that was the truth. Everywhere we walked he was known, greeting people or joking around, he had grown up on these streets. Before our first stop we got to visit a community bakery where they make bread. 10,000 rounds a day to sell, think small tortilla size, and whatever the local women brought in on boards that same morning. They also cook dishes of food for families. Just like the bread, you bring it in & they cook it. Since wood-fired ovens are a scarce commodity, this oven is used by many in the community. Bread is served at every meal and very important here. Whatever is not eaten is used for animal feed, very few things get wasted. All of the food is free of perservatives so shopping for what you are going to eat that day or in the next few days is a regular occurrence. Some people don't have refrigeration either. It was hot outside but inside the bread shop it was sweltering. The boys working didn't seem to mind, they worked 7 days a week. The trays of bread they were bringing to be cooked in the fire oven seemed limitless, 10,000 rounds is a lot to bake every single day.
Our first stop was a wonderful small restaurant, tucked away down a small alley that we never would have found ourselves. I wish I would have gotten the name but a woman was in the kitchen cooking and our guides both knew her well. They exchanged a greeting and we sat down to enjoy a wonderful array of Moroccan salads and some vegetarian couscous. The salads were my favorite part; local fresh produce, simple ingredients, and all with distinct flavors. They come out in small bowls, we each got our own and you eat them with bread, no utensils needed. They did have them just in case though. It is so nice to eat with your hands, it makes me feel more connected to the food I'm consuming. The next was the vegetarian couscous. You haven't had couscous until you've eaten it in Africa. Couscous in the states is bland, usually out of a box and takes no time at all to cook. Here couscous is a time consuming food, it steams for hours in a pot that looks like a double boiler and the process is repeated more than once. It makes the softest, most fluffy and flavorful couscous I've ever eaten. The bottom of the pan, again think double boiler, has broth that boils the veggies until perfect. Think one pot meal and a simple clean up. The couscous is at the bottom and the veggies are on top with the broth poured over. The little grapes or raisins that were on the top of the dish were to die for, so good! This dish made me re-think being a meat eater and made me want to hunt for some good couscous in the states. We had mint tea, something that is customary in Morocco and enjoyed at all times of day. Most locals drink it all day.
On the way to the next place we got to see how the perceived chaos was actually a well thought out plan in a different way. We walked down into another structure that housed a fire pit surrounded by pipes leading out of the building to next door. Wood is such a scarce commodity here and isn't the primary source of burning. I was walking on leather discarded from making sandals or shoes. They burn anything they can get their hands on to create flame, not just for cooking but also for heating water. Hammams are spa-like spaces where there are rooms with different temperatures of water coming out of pipes. I think of the Korean ladies spa with the different temperature pools and ladies just hanging out and scrubbing down. There are Hammams for men too. The pipes that feed into the Hammams are the ones warmed by the fire in the building next door. They are so resourceful that the hot ash is removed from that same fire and piled up to be used to cook a dish called Tangia.
That was our next stop, a restaurant that cooked lamb right in the ground and served Tangia. It was a crazy sight to see, a row of nothing but lamb heads and cooked lamb on a board with men cutting it up and people crowded around waiting to buy it. Think butcher shop but more rugged and just everything out in the open, flies and all. Youseff, was able to let us walk behind the cutting board station and take a look in the hole that 30 fully skinned lambs go directly into to cook. The picture doesn't do it justice but it was huge inside. One lamb at a time goes in on a hook until it's full and when they are all cooked, one at a time comes out. It takes about 3-4 hours to cook them all. This process happens everyday.
We went up stairs to the third floor and got a table. It is nice to be high up, with some distance from the noise of the square and the sight of the lamb heads.
I tried to take a picture of the butchering but lots of people have signs that say "No Photo" and I'm always respectful of their wishes. We ordered a piece of the roasted lamb and also a Tangia. Tangia is amazing and made me rethink my thoughts earlier about becoming vegetarian. In the states we don't eat lamb often; it really gets a bad reputation when it comes to a meat option. Here it is a staple and this dish made me see why. They get a pot, a Tangia, and fill it up with spices, raw chunks of lamb, olive oil, and some preserved lemons, maybe onions if available. It's covered in a waxpaper-like top and then stuck in the hot ash overnight. Remember the ash from burning anything and heating the Hammams? Very resourceful people but when there are no other options you make do. Amanda had called it bachelor stew because it's cheap and easy to make. A little pot makes quite a bit too and with the roasted lamb we were all full by the end. We were back to eating with our hands with rounds of bread to scoop up the meat.
I'm telling you this is good! So juicy and moist, the lamb was falling off the bones. It was a little fatty but everything usually gets eaten here. We left the fat & the bones but devoured the rest.
We were stuffed and made our way to a little baked good shop down another small alley for our final treat. The French definitely made their mark here with the amount of coffee and baked goods readily available. We got to enjoy a few types of cookies and coffee. Most were like shortbread cookies with a few being filled with a mascarpone type filling flavored of orange blossom. They were tasty but by the end we were so full that we had leftovers to take back to our Riad.
This was the best thing we did while on our adventure in Marrakech! Not only were Amanda and Youseff the perfect hosts but we tried things we wouldn't have tried otherwise and saw things that wouldn't have made sense without a locals perspective. We got some insight into daily living, community life, and didn't feel like tourists during our time spent with them. It was amazing and something that I would recommend to anybody traveling through Marrakech.