24 HOURS EATING STREET FOOD IN MARRAKECH
Updated: Jun 19, 2020
I’ve come to Marrakech to cook at the inaugural Beat Hotel pop-up, a four-day festival of live music, DJs and talks inspired by the Beat Generation, a post-war literary movement that emerged in the 1950s and for which Morocco played a formative part. William S. Burroughs, one of the leading protagonists of the Beatnik movement came to Tangier in 1954, seeking social liberation, sexual exploration and, I’m guessing here, the freedom to consume enough drugs to kill a small camel. He was also getting away from a charge of manslaughter for accidentally killing his second wife whilst drunk, but let’s not mention that part, it’s far less romantic. Burroughs was soon followed by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones no less, all in search of the sort of hedonistic hippy lifestyle which Morocco came, and continues to represent. And so here we all are, at The Fellah Resort on the outskirts of Marrakech, following in the footsteps of the Beats and musical giants, to indulge in our own form of hedonism, and to cook and eat some great food of course.
Marrakech doesn’t so much get under your skin as crawl all over it, wrap you up and then spit you back out, totally consumed or edified as some sort of living, walking ode to Moroccan culture. I defy anyone visiting the city for the first time not to leave garnering a brand new pair of Moroccan harem pants, a brightly coloured pashmina, some sort of oil to rub into your temples when life becomes too much, frankincense (natch) and an ornate Moroccan tea-set so you can try and impress your friends when they come round for dinner. Invariably you will never use this stuff when you get back home, but I never give up on the idea that one day I just might. Some people call this consumerism, others label it stupidity.
This is my fourth visit to the city in as many years, my seventh in total, and I don’t envisage stemming the flow anytime soon. I love everything about the place. I love the weather. I love its aesthetic and style, its character and charm. I love the roof terraces and the evocative call to prayer at sunset that bellows out across the land and makes you know you’re somewhere foreign, some place distant. I love the people. I even love the hustle. It’s like being cast in some sort of real-life version of monopoly, except instead of haggling with your siblings over property landmarks, you’re fighting to the financial death with a shop-keeper over some incense, a secret jewellery box that even the most advanced scientific minds in the world couldn’t open, and a random rug to really tie your whole living room together.
Most of all however, I love the food, and I love the love that goes in to making the food.
I have eaten my way around Marrakech on numerous occasions, and when I say eaten my way around what I really mean is that I’ve dedicated entire periods of my life, numerous days at a time, exclusively to the singular purpose of consuming as much Moroccan food as possible. It’s amazing what the human body is capable of in the name of research. And greed.
Through my journey of culinary discovery and exploration I have discovered one undeniable constant, one irrefutable truth, and that is this; the best food in Marrakech is found on the street, not in the fancy restaurants, of which there are many, set up to cater largely for tourists with delicate tastes, the vast majority of which aren’t worth the hour and a half you’ll spend wandering aimlessly around the medina’s maze-like alleyways trying to find. This is not to tarnish all of the restaurants in Marrakech with the same brush. There are some restaurants which are excellent - Al Fassia or Le Tobsil to name a few, and certainly worth making a reservation for. And there are some restaurants that are beautiful, such as Le Jardin, which exudes Moroccan charm and serenity, and is worth a visit as much if not more for how it makes you feel as for its food. There are also some riads serving brilliant home-style food, too many to get to all of them, in spite of my best efforts, that shouldn’t be overlooked. Often some of the best food you’ll eat in Morocco can be found right under your nose, in your accommodation, without even knowing it.
But, as a general rule of thumb, it is my belief that to really experience Moroccan gastronomy to its fullest, and to experience Morocco at its fullest through its gastronomy, you need to be brave, and dare to eat in places that might take you out of your comfort zone. Morocco has a reputation for doling out food poisoning to unknowing tourists. In truth, it’s a reputation that’s hard to refute. Spend more than just a couple of days in the country speaking to anyone other than just yourself and you’re bound to meet a weary traveller who’s spent their past 24 hours with their head buried in a toilet bowl. But with all that said and done, and with numerous visits to the country under my belt, during which I’ve eaten in some questionable establishments, I’m as yet to experience anything severe enough to declare myself poisoned.
There are a few commandments that I try to live by when I’m eating in Morocco which have thus far served me in good stead. Firstly, I tend to eat where I can see a good presence of locals. I let them be my guide. I also try, wherever possible, to avoid eating raw foods, specifically vegetables and salads, unless I’m in a reputable establishment that I can trust. Food is often contaminated when washed in dirty water, where food that has been cooked has had the opportunity to kill off harmful, lingering bacteria. Lastly, I ideally want to see my food being cooked from fresh. I won’t, for example, touch a sardine that’s already been fried and has been sitting out gently warming in Marrakech blistering midday sun for an unknown amount of time. I may be loose but I’ve got some standards.
Any tour of Marrakech’s street food scene must begin in mechoui Alley, a narrow strip just off the main square (Jemaa el Fnaa), where street vendors lovingly cook up to a dozen whole lamb on a spit over four to five hours, basted periodically in smen (a type of clarified butter), in a pit dug out underneath the shopfront, until it falls from the bone, the skin crunchy like crackling, and the fat melts in your mouth. The meat is served by the half-kilo until it sells out, which usually happens by no later than 3pm, and is served on paper with little more than some local bread, cumin salt and harissa (though don’t forget to ask for it). It remains to this day one of my enduring culinary highlights from anywhere in the world, and is, and will always be, my first pit-stop when I’m visiting Marrakech. There are several mechoui vendors to choose from, but I always go to Chez Lamine, because If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, as they say.
Bissara, a thick, sludgy soup made from fava beans may not be for everyone, but it is for me, and I urge you to try it at least once and judge for yourself. There are a handful of bissara hawkers dotted around the medina, some just off the main square, but they’re not always the easiest to find. Perhaps best to ask a local restaurant owner to point you in the direction of one. It’s served for breakfast, and is usually all gone by midday, with just a drizzle of oil, a dusting of pepper flakes and some fresh, warm bread for mopping it all up. As much as the soup itself, it is the process of sitting down on one of the two or three upside-down crates, next to locals stopping off before work to fuel themselves for the day which makes the experience all the richer.
Terrasse Bakchich, Chez Hassan and Monsieur Fromage form part of a cluster of establishments located in what can only be described as Marrakech’s answer to the food court. Picture the most modern, hygienic and beautiful food court you’ve ever been to and this is the exact opposite of that one. But if you’re looking for something real and are brave enough to seek the culinary reward that is often so closely aligned with risk, then this is some of the best food I’ve had in the city. Bakchich is an institution, a tiny hole-in-the-wall type joint serving all different kinds of tagine. Chez Hassan is for grilled food, specifically sardines, beef kefta and chicken brochettes, but they also make some lentils and beans that are well worth devouring. Monsieur Fromage specialises in grilled lamb skewers, typically kidneys or chops. It’s not for the faint of heart, none of these places are, but it pays to hold your nerve and venture into the unknown.
No trip to Marrakech would be complete without at least one meal in Jemaa el Fnaa, the main square around which the medina’s alleyways converge. It is true that the vendors are aggressive almost to point of being unmanageable, and that the vast majority of these stalls serve unremarkable tourist food that all tastes the same, but there is something I find alluring and magical about eating in the main square at night. It’s a combination of the cacophony of different noises emanating from every direction, the smell of food as it’s grilled in front of you, and the sight of snake charmers, magicians and monkey-handlers that feels so intrinsically Moroccan, an assault on your senses quite like any other. It’s a show not to be a missed, and one that I never do. It can be difficult to know which stall to choose amidst the unrelenting chaos of it all, but I always head to stall 14 Chez Krita, identifiable by the fact it serves only seafood and no meat, and is frequented almost entirely by locals.