The Joys of Moroccan Food

Moroccan food is scrumptious, and I think we only hit the tip of the iceberg during our short visit. This is the kind of place where you want to eat more than three meals a day.

An essential element of Berber cuisine, the tajine is always a satisfying meal.  The tajine is a dish of meat, spices and vegetables baked in an earthenware pot of the same name.

[ptcFlickr id=”6912789074″]

Common combinations include chicken with olives and lamb with prunes. After they bake for a long time, they come out with the moist, delicious falling-off-the-bone meat and perfectly cooked vegetables. I especially like it when they’re garnished with almonds and a hard-boiled egg.

[ptcFlickr id=”6912789974″]

Moroccan olives are to die for. They have a wide variety of fresh, fruity flavors that have been cured with herbs and spices or packed in oil. These savory little fruits are grown all over the countryside and sell for under 1USD/pound. Even olive-averse Eric liked them.

[ptcFlickr id=”7040147973″]

Strawberry tree fruit has an alien gelatinous center and a spiny, almost crunchy exterior. The sweet flavor is good, even if texture leaves something to be desired.

[ptcFlickr id=”6894047852″]

Pastilla is a Moroccan dish that is made of thin, flaky layers of dough along with various sweet and salty flavors. Most of what we tried contained pistachios, egg, chicken (although traditionally made with pigeon), and a layer of powdered sugar and cinnamon on top. The unusual flavor combinations in this dish make it highly addictive.

[ptcFlickr id=”6912789548″]

One of our favorite things about Morocco was cup after cup of hot mint tea. They mix the mint, sugar and tea with boiling water and let it steep until the flavors have fully developed. This staple is often complementary, and it can be had just about everywhere. And, it’s one of the few things we can recreate at home.

[ptcFlickr id=”6906157316″]

While we were in Paris, we stopped by L’Escargot for dinner. The escargot there was yummy and came with schmancy forks for digging the little guys out of their shells. But at 1 euro per snail we had to limit our indulgence. Enter the Marrakesh snail guy.

[ptcFlickr id=”7052242987″]

He serves up small bowls of our mollusky friends in a warm, inviting, peppery broth. We didn’t want to stop eating these, and at $6USD for two bowls, we didn’t have to. What sweetened this deal was that when we finished, another guy came over and refilled our bowls. For free! Unlimited escargot for 6 bucks…budget backpacker jubilee.

[ptcFlickr id=”6906154426″]

And finally, real sugar Coca Cola tastes the same everywhere. But these bottles were just neat.

[ptcFlickr id=”6912698452″]

Outside the Medinas of Fes and Marrakesh

If you’ve tired of shopping, there are tons of other fun activities in and around Fes and Marrakesh.

Despite our voyeuristic sleeping arrangements, the Funky Fes did deliver on a nice day trip to the Roman ruins of Volubilis. The ruins of this first century Roman town are only partially excavated, but they’re still pretty extensive, with an aqueduct and several olive presses.
[ptcFlickr id=”7055325547″ size=”medium” position=”left”]
The Romans left the city sometime in the fourth century after an earthquake destroyed it. Nowadays it seems to be a little-known tourist attraction, judging by the lack of crowds. We went with a group from the hostel and hired a local farmer/tour guide who showed us around. For around $2USD, we were able to walk all over the ruins (save for the mosaics, which have been partially restored). Definitely a nice reprieve from the medina.

Included on our Volubilis tour was a visit to the city of Meknes. We had a nice lunch in the town square and visited the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, who was a Moroccan ruler in the 17th century. This was a treat, since it was the closest we got to a mosque.
[ptcFlickr id=”7055325877″ size=”small” position=”right”]

Moroccans won’t let us heathen non-Muslims enter mosques, except for the Hassan II in Casablanca and the Tin Mal in the High Atlas.

In Marrakesh, we journeyed out of the medina into the Ville Nouvelle (new city) in search of something a bit stronger than mint tea. Morocco poses an interesting challenge for people who enjoy drinking. Alcohol can’t be sold within view of a mosque, which is pretty much everywhere. A tip for people visiting Marrakesh: there is a smaller market outside of the medina called Marche Central. There are three liquor stalls there. It’s a 20-minute walk, and a 25CL beer will run you around 20 dirhams. However, the Jardin Majorelle is also in this neighborhood, and it’s worth visiting. This is an extremely diverse garden with Moroccan architecture painted in cobalt blue. Fun fact: Yves Saint Laurent owned it until his death in 2008. It costs 40 dirhams each to get in, but it was a beautiful oasis in the city (and a good place to sneak in a drink!).
[ptcFlickr id=”7040152411″]

We can’t wait to visit again when we have more time to spend in the High Atlas.
[ptcFlickr id=”7055325103″ size=”medium” position=”right”]

Marche Central
Rue Ibn Toummert
Jardin Majorelle
Rue Yves Saint Laurent‬
Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail
Opposite the Koubbat as-Sufara’

The Riads of Morocco

From very basic hostel dorms to full service five star hotels, Morocco has a great variety of accommodation options for every budget and style. On our whirlwind tour of Morocco we stayed almost exclusively in Moroccan riads which are traditional Moroccan homes that have been converted into hotels and hostels.

[ptcFlickr id=”7055232691″ size=”medium” position=”right”]

While some people claim that staying at riads is not within a backpacker budget, we found a variety of riads that were affordable, full of character, and well located (or at least one of the three).  While sometimes quirky, we wouldn’t trade our nights at the riads for any boring hotel.

Riads are rectangular buildings with a plain brick or stucco exterior but a shockingly exotic interior.  The house is built with a large rectangular courtyard in the center completely open to the sky.  Few if any windows look out to the outside of the building; instead each room has windows and doors that open into the center courtyard.  This design gives the family that lives there a large outdoor area that is completely private. We enjoyed many of our meals and spent much of our time socializing with other guests in this common area.  As is the Moroccan style, the interiors are ornately decorated with detailed carvings, tile work, and bold colors.

[ptcFlickr id=”7052240751″ size=”medium” position=”left”]

Riads come in all sizes and styles and owners have converted them to suit the needs of tourists of every income level. Being on a backpacker-level budget we were surprised with the level of accommodation we could get at such a low price. The first riad we stayed in was a friendly backpacker hostel called Funky Fes. While the location wasn’t the greatest and water pressure was abysmal at times, the price could not be beat at roughly $12 a night per person for a 10 bed dorm. The real surprise came when we saw the configuration of the room we would be staying in. A large 4 post bed was in the center with bunk beds surrounding. Seeing as we were the first couple to arrive that morning we had the luxury of being on center stage for the duration of our visit!

The riad that we stayed at in Marrakesh was probably the best find of the trip. Due to a pricing mistake, we were able to reserve a beautiful suite at the Dar Balthazar for well under a third of the going rate.

[ptcFlickr id=”7052241891″ size=”small” position=”right”]

The suite included a nice bed, our own heat/ac controls, a large sitting room, and an Eric-sized bathtub with the best water pressure we had in Morocco. Unlimited mint tea and full breakfast (as opposed to jam and bread) made this place a real winner.

[ptcFlickr id=”7055213077″ size=”small” position=”left”]

When the Balthazar fixed their pricing mistake, we decided that it would be better to move to a less expensive room for the final night in Marrakesh. So, where can you find a room in Marrakesh for around $20 less than 24 hours in advance? The center of it all, the Djemaa el Fna of course! While most places in this neighborhood were far over our budget, we scored a basic room at the Hotel Cecil (also a riad), only 20 feet from the Fna. While the chairs were tiny and the reception desk laughed at us when we asked if there was heat in the riad, the location could not be beat.

Funky Fes Hostel
60, Arset Lamdelssi
Bab Jdid – Fes Medina

Dar Balthazar Riad
32 Derb El Halfaoui

Hotel Cecil
Derb Sidi Bouloukate
Djemaa El Fna
Marrakesh Medina

The Art of Haggling in Marrakesh

[ptcFlickr id=”6837729016″ size=”medium” position=”left”]

By the time we left Marrakesh our bags were twice as heavy as they were when we arrived.

It’s easy to shop there. Matter of fact, it’s nearly impossible not to buy something in the souks, since you can’t even take pictures without parting with a few dirhams. The Rough Guide told us to start at the Ensemble Artisanal, just across from the large mosque near the square. This is a government-run establishment where the prices are more or less fixed and apparently slightly higher than the best deals in the souks. Some of the shops were closed on Friday when we went, but we were able to see how much the more common items (tajines, wallets, jewelry, paintings, etc.) should cost. Armed with some idea of where to begin our haggling, we set out into the maze of souks that Marrakesh has to offer.

Fellow travelers in Fes had told us that the sellers in Marrakesh were much more aggressive and pushy, although we didn’t find this to be the case. Yes, there were many more of them but there are also tons of tourists, so while they will try to get you into their shops, they won’t follow you down the road for twenty minutes like they do in Fes. We also found that in general, the shopkeepers in Marrakesh were more pleasant and courteous.

[ptcFlickr id=”7040146519″ size=”medium” position=”right”]

The souks are slower on Fridays since it’s the Muslim Sabbath. Many will open up later, but I think we may have done better since there was less foot traffic on our main shopping day. We ended up taking a few things home, including:

1 tajine – Be aware that the beautifully colored and decorated tajines are not meant for cooking. Some sellers won’t tell you this, and will try to sell you a more ornate (and expensive) tajine that will be ruined if you put it in the oven. We ended up with a basic brown tajine that we can actually use. It is glazed with simple decorations around the top. The bidding began around 300 and Eric was able to get it down to 80 dirhams.

1 leather purse – Leather shops are everywhere, and it’s hard to resist picking up something that’s handmade and quickly customized. I found a purse for my mom, and the haggling for this item started at 500 dirhams. I easily got him down to 150, and he even shortened the strap and added holes, which only took a minute. The purse is made of camel leather, and I only feel a little bad about it.

Spices – This was our big purchase, and unfortunately it was our first or we would have bargained more. The price started at 40 dirhams for 100 grams, ended up paying 25 (1000 dirhams for 5 kilos). He did throw in a couple of free perfumes to make us feel like we were getting a great deal. [Note: Once we got the spices through customs and back to Denver, we found BUGS!! in them. After all that they went in the trash, but at least we didn’t grind them up and feed them to everyone we know at the wedding. You’re welcome.]

[ptcFlickr id=”6906153550″ size=”medium” position=”left”]

Marrakesh is a great place to find handmade crafts and delicious foods. And the deals, if you have the patience to bargain, can be amazing!

The Ensemble Artisanal
Ave Mohammed V across from Cyber Park
Tel: 525 443503
Hours: Mon-Sat 9.30am-12.30pm & 3-7pm