“I think someone just nicked my phone…!”
Ugh! Another day, another incident. This time though the unfortunate recipient wasn’t me, but instead one of the women on the Marrakech food tour I was with. Not wanting her cell phone to get in the way while she sampled new and exotic tasty treats, she had placed it inside one of her purse pockets. Apparently ineffective, as it had been lifted in one of the more crowded walkways without her even realizing it. Not exactly the way you want to start things off…
Having already spent some time exploring the walkways of the Marrakech markets, I had come across a ton of different food that I wanted to try. The thing is, I knew that there was even more out there, tucked away in the narrow little alleyways of the old medina and impossible to find by myself. Turning to the internet to research my options, I came across Marrakech Food Tours. It’s operated by a husband and wife duo who are locals, it has small groups, and they always ensure you’re with a knowledgeable and English speaking guide. This all sounded perfect to me, so I went ahead and booked one of their evening tours.
When the day came, I made my way over to Jemaa el Fnaa square, where I met up with the guide Mustafa and a group of 6 other foreigners. After a brief round of introductions, we set off on our Marrakech food trail.
Khodanjal Tea (Spiced Tea)
We started our culinary adventure off with a sip of tea. Unlike the mint tea that’s served just about everywhere throughout Morocco, khodanjal is much less sweet but heavier spiced and served as an apéritif. All in all, 8 different spices are included: cinnamon, galanga (a type of mild ginger), traditional ginger, clove, cardamon, massis, (a more aromatic type of nutmeg), traditional nutmeg, and finally star anise.
The end result can best be described as a very complex spiced cider, though using ginger rather than apples. Perfect for a cool night in Marrakech!
Directly next to the tea stall is a line of 5-6 carts, each with big metal bowls of steaming snails. For only $1 USD, the merchant will ladle a spoonful into a small bowl, complete with a rich and well spiced broth that is supposed to be slurped up at the end. I’m not the biggest fan of escargot, but the broth that the snails are cooked in was fantastic. They wouldn’t give up exactly what was used to make this, but I could definitely detect hints of anise, thyme, and some kind of tea leaves.
Goat Head, Tanjia & Mint Tea
From here we moved onto something more substantial and stopped into one of the local meat shops. As if there was any question of what exactly we would be sampling or where we were supposed to go, a roasted goat head was there to greet us at the entrance. Appetizing.? Not so much…
Once we got settled at our table inside, the food began to come out. Things started mildly with bread and assorted olives, but before too long a perfect slice of goat head was placed in the center of the table. Falling off the bone would be an understatement here, as pieces of meat, skin, and unidentified gristle barely clung to the sliver of skull.
It honestly wasn’t all that bad, especially when eating a rich chunk of fatty meat between a piece of bread.
While we were still poking away at the head, out came our next bit of local food – a steaming hot clay pot filled with tanjia. Not to be confused with the similarly prepared Moroccan tagine, which is essentially a stew of meat and veggies, a tanjia is made up only of spiced meat that is slow cooked in a clay pot over coals for 6-8 hours.
This shop in particular had their ovens built into the ground, where they would nestle their tajine pots, along with other roasted meats for that day.
After the 6-8 hours is up, you’re left with some seriously tender and juicy meat. The best part though was the delicious pool of juices left at the bottom that was just asking to be mopped up with some bread. This ended up being my favorite Marrakech food stop by far and I easily could have taken one whole pot for myself.
We finished this stop off the way that everyone in Morocco ends a meal, with a nice cup of hot mint tea.
Leaving the restaurant, we now headed back out into the walkways to sample some more of the local street food. Our next stop was in the middle of a busy intersection, where a vendor sat over a vat containing two large loaves filled with a mysterious blackish ground meat. It didn’t look particularly appetizing, and learning that this was in fact cow spleen didn’t help much.
The preparation of this meat isn’t all that much different than haggis – ground spleen mixed with various spices, a bit of flour, and stuffed inside a stomach, where it cooks away. The meat mixture is then scooped up into a pocket of fluffy bread and topped with harissa sauce.
As long as I didn’t think about what exactly I was eating, it was pretty tasty. Kind of like really heavily seasoned ground beef. Kind of…
Rghaif (Fry Bread)
Now moving over to a nearby stall, we got to sample some freshly made rghaifa – a thin crispy layered fry bread that’s most often served during breakfast time. During the evening though, you can choose from all sorts of different savory ingredients to be folded in. I ended up going with a mixture of thinned tomato sauce, garlic, and onion, which was delicious and tasted like a very thin crispy pizza, minus the cheese.
Hout Quari (Sardine Meatball Sandwich)
This was probably my biggest surprise of the day. When we pulled up to a small sit-down Marrakech food stall and Mustafa asked who wanted a sardine meatball sandwich, I expected the worst. Salty, fishy, oily… Just not what I was in the mood for. But I had already eaten spleen, head, and snails, so I raised my hand anyway.
Much to my surprise, these weren’t anything like what I was bracing myself for. The ground sardine meat was well seasoned and then stuffed into a bread pocket with tomato sauce, raw onions, harissa, chopped olives, and drizzled with clarified butter. After all of this is mixed together, I honestly wouldn’t have been able to guess that this was sardines. There was absolutely zero hint of fishiness and the entire sandwich was just perfectly balanced. YUM.
Svenge (Unsweetened Donut)
As if I wasn’t already experiencing carb overload, our next stop was for svenge, which is basically a deep fried donut without any type of sweetener. Crispy on the outside and nice and soft on the inside – it’s exactly what you’d expect a nice fried hunk of dough to be.
I could really only get through half though, as I knew that we still had a few more stops that I needed to make room for.
Our last sit-down spot ended up being inside what appeared to be an unmarked building containing a small kitchen and three guest tables. As we walked in, we were introduced to the woman who owned the restaurant and who has been specializing in making couscous for decades. Traditionally, couscous in Morocco is only eaten on Fridays, as it requires hours of continuous steaming and mixing by hand to ensure a proper pillowy consistency.
Once the couscous is ready, it’s put in a wide serving dish and topped with fresh seasonal vegetables that have been cooked in broth, caramelized onions, raisins, and a sprinkle of sesame seeds. The finished product just absolutely melts in your mouth with a combination of sweet, salty, and savory flavors. Definitely a highlight of my Marrakech food romp.
Spa Furnace (Tanjia Oven)
Making our way back towards the Jemaa el Fnaa square, Mustafa popped his head into one of the doorways along the street and ushered all of us in. Inside is a dark tunnel leading down below ground, with only a single bright bulb lighting the area.
Before too long it’s hard not to notice a dry heat emanating from below. It’s explained that this heat is actually from a furnace at the bottom of the tunnel that’s used to heat the baths that are directly above us.
Still to this day, the locals will pay whoever is in charge of keeping the furnace hot a few dirhams so that they can cook their tanjia pots inside.
We ended the night in a small shop directly off of Jemaa el Fnaa square. Inside were wide shelves stacked with all different types of fruits. Our group grabbed seats outside and we were each asked what type of fruits we wanted mixed together for a fresh dessert smoothie.
Per Mustafa’s recommendation, I ended up going with peach orange, which sounded pretty delicious to me. Others got a bit more adventurous and began mixing in avocado and grapefruit. We all ended up with nice big glasses of thick pureed fruit, perfectly sweet and a great way to end our Marrakech food excursion.
After slurping up the last of our smoothies, we waddled back up to our initial meeting place, said our goodbyes, and then all went our separate ways.
As I slowly headed back to my Riad, I couldn’t help but look back on all the different flavors I had consumed over the last few hours. There’s definitely no way I would have found most of these places on my own, so this food tour was perfect.
Learning about Marrakech food culture while stuffing myself silly with delicious local eats? Totally worth it.