I arrived in Marrakech with a long list of foods to try: tagine, tangia and couscous, harira and bessara, chebakia, méchoui… It’d been far too long since I’d visited somewhere new; a continent, a langage, a religion and a cuisine that were completely foreign to me. It’d also been far too long since I’d visited somewhere with real street food culture, and I’m not talking about the kebab shops and take-away boulangeries peddling over-the-counter jambon beurre for the Saturday afternoon shopping crowd on Rue Sainte Catherine. I’m talking bright lights, sizzling grills, laminated menus, steam billowing forth from bubbling pots, vendors calling out the exotic names of their specialities.
In Marrakech, you find all that at Jemaa al Fna, which is why at dinnertime on Day 1 of our trip, I made a beeline through the labyrinth of the medina, straight to that bustling main square. But as we crossed the spice market at Rahba Kedima Square, something caught my eye: a beautifully decorated stand with large plates overflowing with snails and one large metal pot in the center manned by a guy who seemed to have quite a following. All eight-or-so stools around his stand were occupied, save for two. We grabbed them and asked for “un bol, s’il vous plaît.”
The specialty here? Babbouche (a.k.a. ghlal), white-and-brown-striped land snails that are slowly cooked in a rich and fragrant broth and served as a kind of soup in a little bowl, sprinkled with a mixture of spices. Apparently, this beloved street food snack is especially popular in the winter, as a kind of cultural equivalent to roasted chestnuts, so we were lucky to find them in early September. They normally cost around 5 dirham or a little over 1 euro.
The snails were delicious. The tender little lumps of mollusk flesh were very soft, with just a touch of elasticity, similar in texture to clams or squid, though perhaps a bit softer. Having been purged and cleaned thoroughly, they had a mildly sweet flavor and none of that earthy grit I was hoping to avoid. Instead, they took on the sensational flavors of the broth in which they were cooked, the real star of the show. In fact, the snails came with a side bowl of just that broth for dipping and then gulping down at the end. I actually almost missed out on this but – luckily – as I got up, the guy looked at me very seriously and did the universal gesture for “Drink the broth, you idiot, it’s the best part!” so I did. And damn was it good.
This savory broth, remarkably rich and layered in flavor, is made from a combination of over 15 ingredients, including licorice root, thyme, tea leaves, caraway, mint and something sweet like cinnamon or cloves. All these aromatic herbs and spices combine with the natural juices of the snails to form something truly exquisite. Babbouche is actually also considered to have a slew of health benefits, including alleviating arthritis and muscle pains, as well as healing colds. Honestly, I don’t doubt it. The only thing I regret is not having this dish a dozen more times during our trip.