Bright lights reflected on glossy, laminated menus. Fragrant steam wafting into the open night sky. The calls and gestures of vendors proudly touting their wares, regional specialties with exotic names. Bubbling earthenware cauldrons, sizzling grills, animal parts, juices, soups and broths. Here a stack of fresh cactus fruit, there a couple of sheep livers on display. A rainbow of marinated meats on skewers, deep red and brown sauces to soak up with bread. Oh the thrill of a night market, cradle of real street food…
You’ll find it at Jemaa el-Fnaa, the bustling main square of Marrakech, which drew me like a moth to the flame on the first night of our trip to the Red City. This enormous open-air public square seems to live a life of its own, changing completely several times per day. It’s been doing so for around 1,000 years now. It comes to life around 9 am with the first jet-lagged and juicy tourists in search of coffee and pastry, and the local “guides” that pray on them. By the afternoon, the place fills up with the randomest motley crew of performers and sellers, peddling everything from cobra charming to selfies with diapered macaques, overpriced water to unwanted henna, souvenirs, bric-à-brac, scorpion venom (?), denim and spices.
Around 5 p.m. the first food vendors arrive, trundling in their food stalls on wheels. Latticework, awnings, iron frames, string lights, brightly colored signage, metal counters, benches, seat covers, pots and pans are unloaded and assembled with the ease and expertise that comes from doing something daily. All this stuff is transformed into a well-lit foodie labyrinth, which opens for business just before sunset. And there is a lot to choose from. The first five or six of the numbered stalls are dedicated to that beloved local specialty called babbouche, land snails boiled in an aromatic broth. There’s also a row of vendors dedicated to juice – orange, watermelon, avocado and pomegranate.
But the meaty center of the market reveals myriad Moroccan specialties: bubbling tangia pots, fried fish, pots of harira, stacks of flaky bastilla, all sorts of entrails, sauges and brochettes, eggplant fritters, crunchy biwats, chebakia and orange-blossom-scented cornes de gazelle. Menu-toting touts approach from every angle, passionately extoling the virtues of their stand. After dodging a few particularly persistent guys, we settled in at Cart No. 85, drawn to it by the attractive display of boiled sheep heads and bowls of olives. They were also one of the only carts that did not send a tenacious foot-soldier out to recruit us and the dining area was full of all kinds of folks, which we took as a pretty good sign.
We ordered a few meats and what arrived was a feast, some things that came for free with our order and some which did not. But we were hungry so we didn’t really care. There was head meat, a whole sheep head poached in a very large pressure cooker and then chopped into bits and sprinkled with toasted cumin salt. An exciting mixture of tender, chewy, crunchy and smooth textures, and absolutely delicious. There was also lamb méchoui, the rest of the animal, also cooked in the pot and served with spices. A bowl of spicy, red-hot harissa came on the side to sprinkle over the meat, adding a tantalizing peppery and smoky flavor. But my favorite was the brain, poached as well, and served with the same toasted cumin salt. The jiggly lobes revealed a creamy, smooth texture and a very mild, slightly irony flavor, complimented perfectly by the nutty, earthy cumin.
There was also a little bowl of mixed olives (which, in Morocco, are truly to die for), along with a fresh side salad made with tomatoes, onions, parsley, cilantro and (as always) a sprinkle of cumin. A traditional Moroccan bread called khobz was perfect to soak up the leftover harissa or to use as a kind of fork to pick up stray pieces of head meat. We each also got a generous portion of veg, tender fried eggplant (yum), some fried peppers and ma’quda, which is a kind of Maghrebi fritter made from a batter of puréed potato, garlic, hot pepper and (I think) some cheese.
We left Stall No. 8 very satisfied, with just enough place for a little chebakia on the walk home. Perhaps the only thing that could have made this dinner better would have been an ice cold Casablanca lager, but we would have to wait until we got back to our riad to cheers with beers to a wonderful first day. If it weren’t for the list of restaurants that I promised myself I’d visit, I would’ve gone back every night – back to the blaring lights, the constant noise and the hypnotizing vibe of Jemaa el-Fnaa.