After the layover in Dubai I was off to take my first steps in the continent of Africa. Long overdue.
Let me introduce you to the Kingdom of Morocco. Alright, so maybe it's Africa 101 to the hardcore globetrotters but for me this North African country of 33 million was the proper entryway into this massive continent of intrigue and unknown. Once I earn my passing grade I'll have no problem signing up for the upper division Sub-Saharan curriculum. So Morocco; a little dusty, a little gruff, a whole lotta new. Lets get dirty.
Wake up. A hot cup of joe with plenty of rectangular sucrose cubes and a warm slice of pan griddled semolina cake known as harcha. Dense, filling and best eaten warm with a drizzle of local honey. When cold these cakes are more effective as paper weights than breakfast items. Get yours while the gettings good.
Snail Soup. Virility is overrated. This bowl was vile.
What I found both surprising and discouraging about dining in Morocco was the lack of an 'eating-out' culture. In Asia you're clearly spoiled for choices, and anyone who has stepped foot in that part of the world knows noodles and grilled meat and steamed surprises beckon on every corner. Even in the poorer areas there are cheap roadside stalls set up to feed the working class. In Morocco I found myself asking 'WHERE IS EVERYONE EATING? AND WHAT?' All the cities and towns were full of cafes serving Whiskey Morocaine (ultra-sweet mint tea- booze free) and coffee- but I didn't see anyone EATING anything. Just 100% dudes 100% of the time 100% kickin it with some cigarettes and a coffee. Paul Thomas Anderson would approve. It wasn't until after several conversations with locals that I found out most everyone cooks and eats their meals at home. Hows about an invite? Alright, until then I'll have to settle for food you actually have to pay for. Shit.
You can divide eating out in Morocco into three general categories-
*Formal Restaurants are a relatively new phenomenon brought about by tourism and recent wealth. These places are geared towards tourists and almost all have the same regurgitated menu of tagines, cous cous and salad marocaine. The food ranges from passable to downright embarrassing. Steer clear. But you know this.
*Local Food Stalls which usually specialize in a couple dishes. Maybe it's a lamb carcass hanging by hooks, ready for the grill [see below] or perhaps a place that sells one or two varieties of simmering tagines. Humble shacks with merguez sausage sandwiches and the like are also found throughout the country. The prices are more reasonable at these local eateries- but I've found the quality still varied widely. You're not guaranteed a good meal but the ambiance is exponentially more raw than you'd find in any restaurant. BYO pepto.
*Street Food- Morocco is no Asia when it comes to strictly street food eating options. No, No, No. Perhaps some donuts, fresh squeezed juice or charmoula stuffed sardines- but don't expect much in the way of push-cart dining.
I can't think of a country in which I had more difficulty finding good grub. Bold words, but frustrating it most definitely was. I came to realize that for all the romance and exoticism people equate with Moroccan cuisine, the reality was quite different. A stockpile of aromatic spices and incredible olive oils doesn't add up to a delicious meal if you can't put those ingredients together properly. But who am I to focus on the subpar in life? Let's highlight what kind of incredible you can wrap your lips around in Morocco.
One of the best dishes from the trip. Folks, they call this the berber omelet. Fry some diced tomatoes in buttery olive oil and crack a couple eggs in the pan. Top with olives, cilantro, chilis, preserved lemon and a heavy handful of cumin. Fragrant and spicy with fantastic fruity notes from the olive oil. Mop up all that goodness with a baguette, and don't you dare forget those crusty bits.
Some of the most memorable dining experiences are those that come completely unexpected. On a ride from Chefchaouen to Marrakech the bus stopped at a road-side grill serving one thing- lamb. Lamb is fantastic. I've always said it's beef to the power of 2. The problem is most places fuck it up. Either too tough or too dry or too pungent. A real shame. Give lamb the respect it deserves. Back to the story. Most pit-stop eateries on bus routes are mediocre and uninspiring- shoveling out average food to the masses. I wasn't planning on snacking here until I hopped off the bus and peeped the scene. Was I back in the cuts of Hanoi? Nah, but I'm liking what I'm seeing.
C'mon, at the very least this has to be good. Better than most of the watery, insipid tagines I was becoming used to. Let's order some and see what happens. I walked over to a man who seemed to be the master of the entire operation [blood stained shirt and handfuls of cash] and ordered a couple hundred grams of the good stuff. Behind him stood an enormous meat grinder overloaded with shallots, cilantro and chunks of meat. Ground fresh. Always a good sign. I paid for my lamb and brought it over to the Moroccan pit master for a proper kiss over hardwood. The rest is history.
I got hooked on this stellar dish of roast chicken during my time in the charming coastal town of Mohammedia. Little birds are rubbed with turmeric, ginger and garlic then spit roasted. The drippings are mixed with onions, herbs and olives then spooned right on top. I appreciate any establishment that properly utilizes rendered animal fat. Moroccan roast chicken shops are no exception. Be sure to ask for a side of fries with the spicy mustard-mayo dip. Brings that tingle straight to the nasal.
Lunch Time. Bread is served with almost every meal, so get used to it. The bean dish up top is Lubia, white beans stewed in a cumin-laced tomato sauce. Giddyup.
The f*cking French. They're never wrong, and have superior everything, but they're responsible for the birth of Bánh Mì in Vietnam so I give em a pass. These are 'Beignets' in Mohammedia. Chewy, eggy and quite stupendous. These fried rings became my go-to breakfast choice during the latter portion of my trip.