We wanted to taste the Medina in all its forms…
…especially food that the locals would eat but without the risk of running into trouble…or bathrooms.
Prior to travelling to Marrakech our Twitter feed popped up with a lady called Amanda of Marrakech Food Tours. We contacted her to find out more as we intended to spend a good deal of time in the Souks and thought it would be good to combine our meanderings with a culinary expedition.
Amanda, originally from America and her husband Youssef have established Marrakech Food Tours to take the fear out of foreign food for those who would love to be adventurous but …
As we corresponded about our own particular wishes, as we generally have tummies like Rhinos and eat virtually anything, we saw on their website that the criteria Amanda and Youssef employ are simply:
1) Would Youssef’s Moroccan mother eat the food?
2) Would Amanda’s American parents love the food but likely be unsure how to order, what to order, or simply be unsure of the experience in general?
We meet Youssef in front of the Post Office at Jemaa=el-Fna square, in the centre of the Medina, and immediately take to his cheerful and personable nature. He’s so obviously enthusiastic about his tours, Morrocan food and the country as a whole that it’s infectious – and fortunately it’s the only thing on the tour that is!
It’s a walking tour and no sooner have we entered the narrow Souk alleyways than we stop by an open stall with a number of clay pots topped by sheep’s heads. Not a good start, we think! Whilst we’re still contemplating what we’ve let ourselves in for we’re lead around behind the counter and shown a hole in the ground – an oven, or ‘Faran’ – which is a deep clay lined pit capable of cooking three whole sheep at a time. Everyone, including those present from the four generations who have run this restaurant, seem really enthused about it but from sheep’s head to hole in the ground doesn’t seem to be a positive step to us.
We’re now ushered upstairs to a small terrace overlooking the stall and without delay are presented with three plates of food. One is tipped from a clay-pot Tanja (different from the conical Tajine in that food is cooked fully enclosed and sealed within the pot in a bed of hot ashes) and is a mix of six ingredients that include lamb, garlic, lemon, saffron, olive oil and cumin – and is delicious. The second is a Mechoui – basically a simple roasted leg of lamb cooked for about six hours; and the third dish, a less than attractive half a sheep’s head. Youssef explains the preparation of each of these dishes and how to pinch pieces of meat from the tongue and cheek of the head. I don’t know why we all become squeamish at this stage but none of us (there are five on this tour) feel inclined to insert a finger into the eye socket and extract the eyeball – professing to want to pace ourselves for what lies ahead.
As we wander towards our next culinary experience we pause at an Olive Vendor who offers us samples of numerous variations on a theme of olive – spiced with harissa, dusted with coriander or aged to unbelievable dryness – all of them provide an insight into olive preparation that is hard to find at home.
Our next stop is Drab Bachi, a street side eatery with a handful of tables and plastic chairs, where we enjoy Hoat Kourti – an unusual blend of sardines, onions, olives, tomato and salty butter blended into a mix and encased within a small bread pocket. We wouldn’t have known that this tasty and filling preparation is fish based unless told and judging from the activity within the little restaurant it’s a popular choice of locals who also eat the mix as fish balls with a sauce instead of bread.
It’s impossible not to be side-tracked as we wander through the Souks and could quite easily have delayed the whole tour by going off at tangents into the various areas that specialise in lighting, leather, jewellery, carpets, materials and myriad other temptations. The overriding impression is that far from being junk, most of what is on display is of a high quality and we frequently come across other seasoned travellers specifying sizes, colours and patterns for all sorts of fine craftsmanship to order. We’re in Marrakech for four nights but could easily double this and spend far more time in the Souks if we had a specific mission to furnish a home, or a shop, as are one couple that we meet.
Our next visit is a small restaurant seemingly recessed into the walls of the city and dominated by an open kitchen where three cheerful ladies tend to steaming pots. We’re first presented with a small ramekins of cooked salad, similar to a ratatouille, followed by a piece of colourful catering art in the form of a large couscous decorated with carrots, aubergine and pumpkin; accompanied by caramelised onion and sesame seeds. We’re starting to flag somewhat as the tour progresses and anxious not to offend by leaving too much, persevere, much to the delight of the exceptionally happy ladies who bring us mint tea to help digest our meal.
We’re really relieved to be side-tracked by Youssef into a hole in the wall that opens out into a warm room racked out with flat breads, each individually identified by colourful cloth or message, together with a sunken oven at one end where a man tends his fire. Local people mix their dough for their breads and bring them to this communal oven where they’re baked and shelved again for collection. We’re not quite sure how anyone will really know if the baked breads don’t find the correct markers.
From here we delve into another narrow doorway and look down into a hole in the ground where another stoker labours to keep the fires of the community Hammam (or Moroccan Turkish Bath) flaming throughout the day to heat the huge water tanks that are suspended above them.
Our stoker revels in the attention as he describes in rapid Arabic (that we have no comprehension of) about his duties and we finally twig why we’re here when he reveals a batch of sealed Tanja clay pots that are buried in the pile of hot ash beside the fires. Here is another community side-line where cooks bring their family Tanja to be prepared rather than tend them at home.
Grateful for the respite from eating, we’re almost reluctant to indulge in the array of sweets and desserts that Youssef presents to us outside a colourful confectioner at the conclusion of our tour. Seated outside at small tables its plain to see that our presence gives confidence for other travellers to visit who would perhaps otherwise just walk past in doubt.
Not being great lovers of overly sweet preparations we’re pleasantly surprised by the sticky almond creations accompanied by yoghurt, fruit juice or milk ‘smoothies’ that gently settle our stomachs after the highly pleasurable onslaught on them that has taken nearly four hours.
If you love food and enjoying new experiences, spending time with local people who enthuse about their skills and recipes, if not their country as a whole; then you must contact Youssef and Amanda for a fascinating insight into the ingredients that make the Medina so marvellous.
Although you can always find your own way around in the Medina – eventually – (you’re not trying hard enough if you don’t get lost), next time we go we may well try one of Youssef and Amanda’s ‘Artisan Tours’ or their ‘Street Food’ evening tour, as there’s no substitute for getting into the fabric of a country rather than just seeing the tourist haunts that you’ll inevitably otherwise end up in.
We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, met another really fun couple who were wine and food aficionados and the only after effects of the tour was feeling pleasantly replete for the rest of the day.
Whilst exploring on your own is always the greatest fun, taking a guided tour around the Medina in order to discover places that you’d never consider stopping at normally, means that you’ll enjoy things that only the locals, rather than tourists, participate in.
If you’d like to learn more about Amanda & Youssef’s tours then click on Marrakech Food Tours for more information.