Despite the noise of scooters, the press of flesh, and throngs of curious travelers, the medina in Marrakech is home to many locals who work, shop, and eat there every day. As a result, the medina’s myriad open air markets, shops and bakeries are not just tourist fodder, they’re the lifeblood of the community. In this whirlwind of food culture, it helps to have a local guide. And that’s precisely the thing that makes the Evening Food Tour from Marrakech Food Tours such a great way for curious cooks to find out what’s on Marrakech’s plate.
Marrakech Food Tours is run by an American food writer/blogger and her Moroccan husband. A few years back they moved back to Morocco (from the U.S.), and now use their local knowledge/family connections, and passion for food to show off the city they call home. While they don’t lead most tours themselves (there are simply too many of them), their guiding influence and attention to detail are felt at every step.
The guides at Marrakech Food Tours seem to be equal parts local historians, lovers of good food, and conversationalists. From the minute I began corresponding with them, I was confident that our tour would come off with style. My emails were always answered promptly with more information than I’d asked for (tips on seeing Marrakech, or offers to make our trip a bit easier in some small way). And their directions were always logical and got us where we needed to be at the right time. So, it was with great expectations that we headed out from our AirBnB for a night of culinary exploration in Marrakech.
Starting in a quiet corner of the Djemaa el-Fna (“the Djemaa”), Marrakech’s famous massive public square (complete with food stalls, acrobats, snake charmers, and a battalion of tourists and locals all looking to find their evening meal), our guide, Noura, led us (my wife and I, and five other travelers) into the fray, and helped us decipher the food stall offerings before leading us into the medina souk (market shops).
In the medina, we stopped first at a local favorite restaurant that specializes in tanjia/tangia (not the iconic tajine/tagine), a communal feast of slow-cooked lamb/sheep and beef. Tanjia is cooked in a tall clay pot (a bit like a squat amphora, and not the more conical tagine), and is served with an assortment of sides and condiments. Our tanjia meat was so succulent and tender as to all but melt in our mouths. We sat around a communal table, hands slathered in juices as we passed platters back and forth, offering each other, “you must try this” encouragements. Until….
It should be noted that the sheep brains on offer were a bit of a stretch for those of us who are not texturally adventurous. But we were duly warned, and were all glad to have had the chance to try them.
After the tanjia, we explored the food stalls (olives, dates, greens, sweets, etc.) of the souk, and then continued by way of a side street filled with craft shops and street food vendors. Here we were formally introduced to msemen/malawi. I’d been admiring these flaky, golden, crepe-like folded breads since we’d arrived in Marrakech, and was thrilled when Noura gave us the opportunity to sample them with both sweet and spicy condiments. Hands greasy from the effort, I roughly pulled the bread apart and marveled at its simultaneous resilience and tenderness.
At this same stop we sampled lamb pancreas, which, as with the sheep brains, left a few of us at a loss. The flavor, while not exactly “bad”, definitely takes a bit of getting use to. Again, we all agreed we were thankful for the experience and the adventure of it, but….
Our next stop brought us a traditional pocket bread filled with olives and fish. It was tasty, but quite a large portion. And, at this point, I think we were all starting to feel a bit full, and were grateful for the chance to sit at a table and watch the locals pass through the medina on a quiet weeknight. After this short break, and with Noura’s gentle encouragement, we mustered the inner resources to move a few steps onward, to our first dessert stop.
Sfenj are a kind of Moroccan donut eaten with or without a sweet topping like honey or sugar. These light and flaky dough hits pack a mild nutty flavor that make them almost (but not quite) more fritter than donut. And, fresh from the oil and topped (or not) to order, what’s not to like?
Now quite full, but growing comfortable with each other, we pestered Noura with questions about life in the medina, which she duly answered, rousing our interests still further.
To burn off a few calories, prepare us for the remaining food stops, and continue our discussion about local history and culture, Noura led us on a brisk walk-and-talk through several neighborhoods in the medina. She informed us that the various small squares in the medina each tend to focus on a particular craft or product, and the neighborhoods surrounding each square form a kind of micro-community. Essentially the medina consists of a number of these little craft-commerce centered villages that each have a distinct character. And, to be honest, while I love Moroccan food culture, it’s this sense of community and charming local character that always hangs with me and makes me long for a return to Morocco after I leave.
On my first trip to Morocco in 2001, I was particularly taken with khobz, the round “everyday” bread that is seen on the streets and in the markets throughout Morocco. But I was even more taken with the notion that these breads are mostly baked in large community ovens scattered around towns and villages. This is the case in the Marrakech medina as well.
So, I was thrilled when Noura took us to visit one of these communal bakeries, where hundreds (if not thousands) of loaves a day are dropped off by families and businesses, and later picked up after their time in the oven.
Typically, each family or business will mark their bread in some way. But the bakers know their customers’ dough so well that they do an amazing job of keeping even seemingly unmarked batches separate as they slide the loaves into the ovens on 2-3 meter wooden peels, and retrieve them at just the right doughy and golden moment.
At another point in our tour we learned that, to conserve energy (ancient medina style), the same fires used to heat communal baking ovens are often used to heat water for the hammams (Morocco’s bath houses). Or the coals from the hammam boilers might be used to cook tanjias or bake bread.
Unfortunately, the bakery and hammam boiler parts of the Evening Food Tour from Marrakech Food Tours can’t be guaranteed as they depend on the opening and closing hours of the hammams and bakeries, which vary according to season and the flow of business.
Our last ”entree” stop was a neighborhood couscouserie run entirely by women. While their primary business is providing couscous and tea to local shops and businesses, they welcomed us with open arms, and a series of nibbles, treats, and tea, before delivering steaming plates of couscous with vegetables and lamb. Then, after a leisurely chat, and more tea, we regrettably took our leave of the ladies at the coucouserie and headed out into the now mostly deserted medina streets.
The medina is quite a different place at night. And, though we never felt unsafe (as we night late at night in a large North American or European city), it was nice to see the medina neighborhoods after dark (in the glow and hiss of gas lanterns), and have a guide to help us avoid getting lost in the maze of darkened streets.
Finally, after a leisurely stroll through the back streets of the medina, and tales of life in the crowded streets, we wound up at a small shop serving Moroccan sweets and fruit shakes. Here, we each indulged in the sticky sesame seed-encrusted sweets (chebakia), and the fruit (or avocado) shake of our choice, as we sat at outside tables and watched the evening passersby headed toward the Djemaa.
And then, we ourselves made our way the last few meters back to the massive square, said goodbye to our new friends and comrades in food, and all went our separate ways, sated, filled with stories, and primed with culinary inspiration.———————————————————————
The subject of food in Morocco (or even just Marrakech) is too big, too varied, and too important to be covered “completely” in one evening. But, taken early in our trip, we found the Evening Food Tour from Marrakech Food Tours to be a great introduction to Moroccan food and medina life and culture. It helped us to enjoy not just our stay in Marrakech, but it also gave us a solid foundation for the rest of our food adventures throughout Morocco.
Text and photos by Glenn D. Kaufmann
Marrakech Food Tours
The author/editor is indebted to others for the content in this article. While the final product on this page is ours, and we claim full ownership and responsibility for same, what you read here is based on our research, which led us to the following sources of information:
1. Personal Interviews and experiences