Saturday, 2 May 2009

Out of Essex - Marrakech. Part 1.

I've just arrived home from a trip to Marrakesh. I've never been there before, but had heard quite a bit about the food. I own all three Moro cook books - and a lot of their recipes are Moroccan influenced so I thought I knew what to expect. I'd heard that 'street food' was the way to go, the large majority of the restaurants being either 'touristy' or poor International style Pizza jobbies. Basically, as always when I'm abroad....I wanted to eat what the locals eat (within reason of course).

So, bearing this in mind, and getting over the initial culture shock of leaving London and arriving three hours later in what to my mind looked like a cross between downtown Baghdad and Mogadishu as seen in BlackHawk Down, we made an initial foray into the maze of alleyways and streets looking for some lunch.
After much wandering (and getting lost...a lot). We happened upon a....I want to say 'cafe' but cafe is quite a generous description. It looked more like a shop space devoid of any frontage (when I say frontage I mean doors, windows....walls!) and filled with dirty plastic tables and benches, with an ancient chiller cabinet containing meat and a couple of cooks scurrying around some kind of charcoal grill. Basically it looked like a garage....all it was missing was an inspection pit. The place was packed with locals (evidenced by the profusion of mopeds parked on the street).....not a tourist in sight....I reasoned therefore that the food must be good, it certainly smelt good - the smell of grilled meat filled the air.
After a bit of hesitation, (It's hard to walk into somewhere packed with locals when your so obviously a tourist and don't speak the lingo). We stepped over the threshold and I asked in my best English "Hello, what can we get to eat in here then?" - I jabbed a finger at the meat in the chiller cabinet hopefully.

The reply was "Kebab, Merguez, grilled and skewered lamb, beef and quite worryingly 'Cock' (presumably Chicken - but who knows).

Deciding, perhaps wisely to give grilled 'Cock' a miss, Merguez sounded good to me - so that's what I went for. Taking a seat at an empty bench, our host brought some flatbread (The bread in Marrakesh is excellent) and some chopped tomato salad, which had a bit of a chili and coriander kick (I don't know what it's called - but we were served it everywhere). Not long after this, up came up a plate of merguez sausages....and despite the surroundings - it was all good. The little sausages were tasty and combined with the bread and the tomato salad went down well. I stuffed the lot. The Price? 40 Dirhams for two people (that's about £3-30). Bargain I thought as I strode back into the street, to return to the touristic pursuits of avoiding mopeds/donkey carts/bikes/cars and of course, getting lost.....but I've got to admit, I did wonder whether I'd pay for it with a dodgy stomach later.
After a full day of getting lost, our thoughts turned to Dinner.....The Main square in Marrakesh is called Jemma El-Fna, and as the sun goes down it fills with food stalls - it's basically a massive open air restaurant. I was really looking forward to this, so we made our way there in the gathering dark and it was sight to behold. Jam packed with people, stall after stall selling mostly various grilled meats....I wanted to have a good look, see what they sold, possibly pick one packed with the locals (always a wise move)......and that's when the problem with wandering around the square looking a) like a tourist, and b) hungry became apparent.
Nearly all the food stalls employ 'reps' in white coats who home in on you waving menus in your face trying to persuade you to eat at their stall. Now this is fine some of the time, most are quite funny - when they realise your from the UK, throwing in awful puns and British references "English? I'm Jamie Oliver's Cousin - Abdul Oliver.....come and eat here." But some are downright pushy, blocking your way and refusing to take No for an answer. It can get quite tiring and makes it hard to have a really good look, as your constantly fending these guys off.

Finally we decided to eat at Abdul Oliver's stall - if only for the reason he'd made us laugh - we sat at the packed communal benches next to where a profusion of white smoke was rising from the busy grill. We both decided to go for a selection of skewers - Beef, Lamb, and Chicken. The obligatory Flat bread and tomato salad arrived.....then a load of other dishes, chips, olives, grilled pepper and aubergines, some tagine, merguez sausages- all sorts. We hadn't ordered any of it, but presumed it came with the skewers. It was only later when we saw a far more savvy French couple waving away proffered dishes that we realised what the scam was. Too late. In any case, it all tasted good - I ate most of it. My personal maxim being - if your being taken advantage of, you may as well sit back and enjoy it. After that lot instead of the bill being 75 Dirhams each for skewers (£6 or so) - it was 120 Dirhams each, (£10) so we basically ended up paying £8 extra for food we never ordered......but......bloody hell what a bargain! It's not everyday you get fleeced and come away with a smile on your face. Dinner for two twenty quid.

So ended Day One in Marrakesh as we wandered away, full and happy into the warm night air for more dodging vehicles and getting lost. The unanswered question still hung in the air - (perhaps not the best choice of words there)......would eating all this local food from street stalls give us dodgy stomachs? Find out dear blog reader in Part 2.


The Ample Cook said...

Really good post Dan. I love the sound of the food and my God how cheap! Good photos. Would you go back there?

Can't wait for part 2!

Food Urchin said...

I'm a big fan of speaking english loudly and pointing when abroad (me being the ignoramus that I am). The market feast looks great even if they did do you out of 8 quid, what a liberty!

Dan said...

Thanks Jan. I'm not sure if I'd go back there to be honest - it feels like I covered the place pretty comprehensively, it was a great experience though.

Food Urchin - hahaha - well, I always try to speak some of the lingo, (Which in this case would be either Arabic or French) I speak a little half remembered schoolboy French....but the problem with that is as follows..

Me- "Bonjour, Cava?" (holding up purchasable object) "C'est Combien Siv vous plais?"

Shopkeeper "some unintelligible reply stating a French number I can't remember"

So - I can ask the right questions - but hilariously can't understand the given answers!

Anonymous said...

This just makes me want to get on a plane straight over there! The food looks awesome - what a bargain. Hilarious about the grilled erm "cock". And "Abdul Oliver" - Genius. I love it!

Unknown said...

Dan - Brilliant to read about your adventures and you have really evoked the crazy spirit of Marrakesh. Abdul Oliver I love it - we ate at a stall that told us they had airconditioning and five hundred stars!