Msemen and Harcha for Breakfast in Marrakech

A smooch on the head good-bye to my gecko named Tokaji, a 6 a.m. flight out from Mérignac airport, a severely overpriced cab ride to our riad and it’s like we’re waking up in a completely different world: the bustling medina of Marrakech. We took a moment to catch our breath as we explored the breathtaking courtyards, rooftop lounge spaces, gardens and pool area we would call home for the week to come, and after leaving our bags with reception we set out to explore this city that was new to both of us, overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells after just a short walk through the street market of Rue de Bab Aylan.

Our hungry eyes took in so much life on these pastel pink hued, covered alleyways. Egg stands, crates of live chickens, thousands of multi-colored ceramic bowls and tagine pots, embroidered straw hats, off-brand Pringles, animal carcasses, soft leather babouches, silver teapots and lanters, mountains of spices, prickly pears (in season), dangling wires connected to very small TV sets, live chameleons in cages (decorations for your garden), Lionel Messi T-shirts, dust. The sound of a chainsaw, a crackling radio, a thousand small birds in cages somewhere out of sight, the sudden snap-crackle-pop of a scooter as it wizzes by within an inch of your face, a little plastic bag of dates or sticky sweet chebakia or wet lamb tripes danging from the handle. “Keep right!” “Are you looking for Jemaa el Fna?” “Need a guide?” “I”ll take you, my friend.” Our stunned “pigeon” eyes, nervous gait and overly polite smiles served as a green light for all those infamous medina scams. It took us two full days to get that confident Moroccon strut down, to say “No” with 0 guilt and “shukran” with pure sincerity.

On that first morning, after our very first exposure to the colorful chaos of the medina, we were looking for a place to sit and take it all in, ideally while munching on something delicious. At several restaurants on Passage Prince Moulay Rachid, near Jemaa el-Fna, we saw stalls where women were stretching a kind of pancake out over a sizzling hot grill. We sat and ordered some orange juice, “one of each” pointing to the two items on the grill and a mint tea. The first of many, many mint teas.

Oh this mint tea. It’s a whole thing. A metal tray, an ornate brass pot full of hot water, a small glass overflowing with fresh and fragrant mint leaves, a little ramekin with sugar cubes. Stuff the bouquet of mint into the pot, add the sugar, let steep for a minute or two, then poor the tea into the glass, raising the pot gradually so that the liquid falls from a certain height, creating a foamy layer of bubbles in the glass. Return the tea back into the pot and repeat three or four times. Why pour from a height? We heard several explanations, including: 1) to demonstrate the importance of your guests (the higher the pour, the more VIP your guest), 2) to aerate the water, integrating oxygen to replace what is lost during the boiling process, 3) to show off your mad skillz, 4) to form a layer of bubbles which, when in the dessert, traps unwanted particles of sand and insects. But who really knows… Point is, it looks cool.

Msemen is a square-shaped, laminated pastry made with flour, semolina, yeast and water. With a bit of oil, they are laid out over a sizzling hot, smooth griddle and turned often so that they cook evenly. The result is a golden brown pancake that is crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, if a bit chewy. It has a very delicate nutty flavor from the semolina but is otherwise quite mild. It’s served with a few triangles of La Vache Qui Rit creamy cheese or a generous drizzle of honey.

Harcha is a hockey-puck-shaped, quite dense semolina flatbread, native to the Middle Atlas region of Morocco. The cakes are made from a dough of fine semolina, butter milk and baking powder, and shaped into round cakes before they are cooked on the same hot griddle. The texture is quite grainy on the outside and crumbly on the interior, not unlike cornbread. It’s also usually served with honey, but I prefer a nice, fat smear of salted butter and maybe a spoonful of fig jam.

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