Friday, June 1, 2012

Essaouira – My Favorite Meal in Morocco

The Surf and Chill Hostel was a typical Moroccan Riad, which means a central, open-air courtyard with rings of rooms around the outside. The center of the courtyard was some 15 foot tall palm trees growing out of a 10ft by 10ft planter they shared with a little tortoise named Jeff.

The hostel was relatively small and run by a host named Semo. He was about 25 and spoke fluent English, Spanish, Arabic and probably some other languanges. Semo rallied the entire hostel together at eight o’clock to take us “out to dinner”. Four Australians, Leslie and I, our English roommate Paul and our Spanish buddy Javier all met up to go out to dinner.
We knew Paul a bit, but had become pretty good friends with Javier. He’d been in our group for the trip to the Sahara desert and we’d shared a mad dash to catch the bus from Marrakesh to Essouaria together as well as the hectic journey to the hostel. In fact, he’d loaned me his jacket because I left my Sounders jacket in the bus coming back from the Sahara.
Javier was the last to join as he’d run back to the room to grab me his jacket and the nine of us were off into the medina.
“Medina” is a term that means old-style central shopping district. Almost every Morroccan town has one. They’re often surrounded by walls and contain a central plaza. The plaza may have a Kasbah, which is a sort of castle. They can contain markets, houses, hotels and other bits generally thought of as the “old city”. The streets are usually too small for cars and too many donkey-carts can create a traffic jam. There’s no McDonalds in the medina. (Mickey-Ds is usually outside the medina in the “new city”).
The hostel was in a narrower alley a block inside the northern wall. Mounted cannons on the wall had once been used to defend the city against ships attacking from the Atlantic but are now used for picture opportunities. Immediately to our left were a half-dozen workmen who had picked up and stacked the cobblestone and then dug five feet down to repair a leaking pipe. We had to be careful getting around these guys for our entire stay in the sleepy little beach town.
Semo was very well educated, with a degree in Hotel Management although after about two minutes after leaving the hostel I thought he’d make a great summer camp councilor.
He ducked down little alleys, weaving in and out of tiny alleys, ducking around plentiful alley cats and warning the group not to slip into the holes the workmen had dug. After about a minute, we’d reached the fish market.
It hadn’t been a good day for the fisherman, he told us. There were about fifteen different tables all selling fish. Semo told us to look at the eyes. If they’re clear, then it’s good fish. If not, than leave it alone. We ended up getting some calimari and some shrimp. There wasn’t enough good fish for dinner though, said Semo. We needed some chicken.
Back through the alleys, ducking this way and that we followed the bouncing head of our fearless leader until we reached a main throughfare. Fruit, vegetables, baked goods and hanging sides of lamb and beef lined the dirt street. Flies buzzed around everything, donkey carts hauled goods up and down the street and two guys tried to sell me hash.
I had gotten caught up looking at the vast array of marinated olives for sale as I saw our group head down a side alley, so I followed.
Now, I’ve become quite accustomed to seeing hunks of red meat sitting in the open, especially in the developing world. It’s rarely an issue, as long as you cook the heck out of it, spice and age it properly or take some other appropriate step to make sure that bacteria doesn’t grow. Poultry’s another story.
I came up to the group gathered around a stall and looked in the back. About two dozen stark white chickens were running around the back of the cage and eating grain out of a central feeder. The butcher had grabbed one and was holding its wings back as he weighed it on the scale. Semo said something in Arabic and the butcher put that chicken back and picked up another one. Semo nodded approval and they began chatting about something.
The butcher grabbed the chicken’s head in one hand, neck in another and I heard a crack as half the group looked away. He then slit the chicken’s throat and drained the blood, never losing his train of thought in his conversation. Two minutes later, the bird had been cleaned, skinned, chopped up and we were following Semo back into the market.
Next we stopped for olives, with a plethora of samples for all. We got some onions, raisins, potatos, tomatoes and some other veggies before hitting up one of the spice shops to purchase bulk cumin, tumeric and other spices. Finally, we went to the “restaurant”.
It turns out that many people work in the Medina, but it’s quite expensive to live there. For shop keepers, bakers, butchers and whatnot it can be difficult to get a meal. This is especially true for the specialist shops. If one guy is making the shoes, and selling the shoes, he doesn’t have anyone to cover his lunch break. He doesn’t want to have to take down all his displays and lock up his shop, so the solution is the same “restaurant” we went to.
Instead of ordering food off the menu, you bring your own food from outside and they cook it up for you. Semo handed over all the raw ingredients and explained to the guy behind the counter how he wanted them. Then he took us to the pub.
Drinking is quite interesting in Morocco as Muslims do not drink. I’ve heard that a Moroccan with a bottle of wine in Essouria will have the bottle confiscated if he’s caught by the police. However, they like tourists, so liquor stores and bars exist. Restaurants will not sell you alcohol. Some will provide you with a corkscrew and glasses if you bring a bottle of wine… if you know where to go.
After an hour or so, we headed back to the restaurant.
They had made two tajines for us. A “tajine” is technically the clay dish the food is baked in, but usually refers to the food as well. One was a chicken and potato tajine and the other a sort of calamari and shrimp medley. Both were served communally in 16″ tajines. In this case, “communally” means no plates and you eat straight out of the tajine.
Bread is served with every meal. To eat properly, rip off a piece of the bread then use it to pick up food. Use your right hand only as the left is used after the meal. Even though it’s communal, there are still standards. Your section is in front of you and you should eat from your section. a.k.a. don’t put your greasy mitts all over my food!
The eight of us polished off the entire chicken, a half dozen squid and a couple dozen shrimp. It was the best thing I’d eaten in Morocco.

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