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Eating in Morocco, Part 2: The Cheap Stuff

14 Jul

Abandoned fruit... for the taking?

I have just over a week left in Morocco, and I feel like I’ve run the gamut of restaurant types. I’ve eaten everywhere from a stand in the middle of a crazy, smoky square in Marrakesh to restaurants in opulent old houses that suddenly appears at the end of a dark alley in the medina of Fez. I’ve also

Pistachio nougat

eaten at all the in between places—restaurants in gas stations, which is apparently a big thing, and the little places scattered across the town I’m in. I’ve found that my most memorable meals have come at the extremes of the spectrum. Donuts fried in front of you at a sweet stand, sprinkled with sugar and eaten standing up in a split second. Tables groaning under plate upon plate of different vegetables, and that’s just the first course. The stuff in between tends to blend together into one big tagine. That’s not to say that you can’t get great food at the mid-range restaurants, it’s just harder to tell if the lemon chicken tagine is going to be sublime or just mediocre.

Super decadent chebakia

Unusually, these sweets were actually behind glass!

Let’s start with the cheap stuff. We’ve walked through a whole bunch of medinas (the old section of Moroccan cities) at this point, and every time we pass a food stall (usually either dried fruits or sweets), I crane my neck and sometimes succumb to the temptation to dig in. In Marrakesh there were carts everywhere selling different kinds of nut paste/nougat thing. I got some pistachio, which was delicious—very sweet, I think sweetened with honey, but the pistachio flavor shined. In all the medinas you’ll also find pyramids of honey-soaked sweets, often covered in flies and bees. The most ridiculously indulgent (in the best way possible) are the chebakia, made from dough that is deep fried and then doused in honey and orange blossom water. Also delicious are little envelopes of pastry, coated in honey, filled with almond or peanut

Almost like a peanut butter sandwich...

paste. And while we’re on the topic of peanuts, one of my friends bought what she described as a “Moroccan whoopee pie” from a vendor in the Fez medina. It was two puffy almond-meal cakes sandwiched around a peanut butter filling—utterly delicious, and an excellent breakfast. Freshly squeezed orange juice also abounds in markets, but I was drawn instead to the tea stalls in Jma al Fna in Marrakesh. Instead of the ubiquitous Moroccan mint tea, this was a heavily spiced cinnamon—I had to buy some, it was so delicious. Everything you want American chai to be.

And I almost forgot all the fruit! Watermelon cut off the “tasting melon” at a souk and given to us for free with the toast “to your health.” Piles of dried dates and figs in every market you come across. Being forced to eat prickly pear after prickly pear from a cart before finally convincing the owner that we actually want to buy some to go. I may be lacking for fruit on campus, but there’s certainly tons to be found on the streets.

Dates, dates, dates

But on to the real food. We had dinner one night in Jma al Fna, the square in Marrakesh that turns into a crazy, smoke-filled riot of the senses at night. Food stalls crop up out of nowhere starting around five o’clock. Our group of ten sat down at one and I think just ordered everything on the menu… the food just kept coming, long after we had eaten our fill. It seemed pretty typical street

I'm going vegetarian when I get home...

food—lots of skewers of meat, though the spicy red sauce we requested was an excellent accompaniment, and one of the few actually spicy things I’ve encountered in Morocco. The price tag, however, was close to those at upscale restaurants outside Marrakesh, a sad sign that Jma al Fna is more a tourist than local attraction at this point. Cheap food does abound, however. At a souk in Azrou a couple days later I finally tried a merguez sausage sandwich for about a buck—though tasty, I found the flavor a little too distinctive for my taste. Distinctive of what, I could not tell you… perhaps too lamb-y, it just wasn’t my favorite. The brochette (kebab) at the same stall were extremely fatty, salty, and delicious, however. I’m going to have to stop here because I am off tomorrow morning on my next culinary adventure, to an oasis in the Sahara. Who knows what they eat out there! So you will have to hold on just a little longer for tales of opulent lunches that left us practically comatose.

Merguez sandwich in the perfect setting, a souk (photo by David Wong)


Eating in Morocco, Part 1

3 Jul

The aftermath at Dar Naji in Rabat

Somehow I blinked and I have been in Morocco for a little over a week already! I am studying abroad here for four weeks, and will hopefully be writing a few posts about the (so far delicious) food I encounter. My program is based at a university in a small town in the Atlas mountains. We have a generous meal plan, but unfortunately the food is pretty bad, which probably makes everything I taste outside the walls seem infinitely better. Thankfully, we have a lot of trips built into our schedule (and the program gives us a food budget for them!), so I have already been able to try quite a few Moroccan specialties.

Kefta tagine

The first thing I wanted to try, of course, was a tagine– the ubiquitous stew-like dish named after the clay pot in which they are cooked. (I bought a tagine for about 2.50 yesterday, and am excited to try cooking with it, if it makes it back to the States in one piece!) One of the most common tagines is kefta, which is usually beef (I believe) meatballs in a tomato sauce, with an egg on top. Though delicious, this seemed pretty similar to something I could get back in the US to me, and I probably won’t order it too often if there’s something more interesting on the menu.
There definitely were lots of interesting things at the first proper restaurant I went to, Dar Naji in Rabat. We arrived in Rabat pretty late after a 3 hour bus ride, and our professor pretty much just ordered the entire menu for our group of ten. This was excellent for my food-reporting, as I got to try just about everything, and discovered what I will definitely order again.

Beef and prune tagine

My favorite (which was also my request) was the tagine of beef aux pruneaux. I guess this would translate as “with prunes,” though I think English needs a better word to convey how the prunes become one with the beef and make it slightly sweet, while the prunes themselves took on savory flavors from the beef. (On a side note, I’ve found most menus so far to be in French, with no Arabic at all. Being the only one in the group who speaks French, this means I am quickly brushing up on my food vocabulary.)
Someone else in the group also noticed that brain tagine was on the menu, and requested that we order one to give it a shot. Not being one to pass up a new food experience, I tried it as well. The brain was in a tomato-y sauce, and I really didn’t think it had a strong flavor in itself. The texture reminded me of scrambled eggs– not at all off-putting, but I wouldn’t feel the need to order it again.
The other tagines included chicken with lemon, beef with vegetables, fish, and kefta. I loved the lemon sauce with the chicken, but found the meat itself a bit dry… I think my next tagine will have to be chicken so I can see if this is a common problem. The setting of Dar Naji was also beautiful… we were seated at a low table on the terrace, which had a canopy covering and overlooked the medina (old city) walls. And it was all reasonably priced, at about $5 per tagine.

Beautiful vegetables...

The other memorable restaurant we visited was in Meknes, but I am a terrible reporter and failed to take down the name. This was also opulently decorated, with the walls lined with tons of cushions that we quickly sank on to, exhausted by the 107 degree heat outside. Our professor ordered us some mixed vegetables to start… although for once they came with serving spoons, everyone was so hungry that we did it the traditional Moroccan way, using bread to transport the food most efficiently from

...were quickly devoured

serving plate straight to mouth. The vegetable were all cooked in various spiced sauces, and served cold. The green marinated peppers were probably my favorite, though the carrots were also unexpectedly sweet and delicious.
I ordered cous cous as a main course, which is another Moroccan specialty usually served on special occassions, and though it usually comes with meat I requested it be left off because I just didn’t feel the need for it. The resulting tower of cous cous covered in vegetables was excellent. The vegetables had some sort of sauce on it that tasted faintly buttery, but I couldn’t really pin down what was in it. But it seeped down into the cous cous and made a delicious dish that was perfect for lunch, not nearly as heavy as a tagine.
I have so much more I could say but I think I will leave it there in order to save some things for another post! Bislaama.

A mountain of cous cous, covered in veggies

Eating in Andalusia: Desserts and Drinks

18 Mar

One thing I did not eat: The bitter Seville oranges lining the street

Ok, I know it might seem from my last post that I could not possibly have eaten any more during my short week in Spain. But oh, I did. See, my excuse is that it rained almost every day I was there (I know, I was not expecting this either). And it turns out there are very few public spaces in southern Spain that are indoors– people tend to congregate in outdoor plazas, and lots of smaller cafes have only outdoor seating. Even a lot of the tourist attractions were outside. So when we wanted to take refuge from the rain (and couldn’t contemplate another tapas), we were obliged to duck into a bar or bakery for an hour or so.
At least, that’s what I kept telling myself.
We can start with the drinks. There were two drinks on seemingly every menu in Seville: Cruzcampo beer and tinto de verano. Cruzcampo brewery was founded in Seville, which I guess explains its huge popularity there– it is the only or primary beer in a lot of places. I took one sip of Brett’s, and that was enough for me. I’m not a beer-lover, and it tasted pretty much like Budweiser or something to me– not something I would seek out, though I’m sure some people would like it.
Tinto de verano was much more up my ally. This seems to be the south of Spain’s version of sangria (which I hardly ever saw offered). It’s a mix of red wine and a carbonated lemon-y drink, served cold. It’s very refreshing, and I found it a good drink for those times when we really were just sitting somewhere to take a break, and I didn’t want anything strong.

A lady's portion of tinto de verano

The day that it rained the hardest, by the way, happened to be a Wednesday, which is apparently long-awaited all over Spain due to the deal that a chain called “100 Montaditos” (100 little sandwiches) has. On Wednesdays, all of their sandwiches (which are, as the title implies, little) are 1 euro, and if you buy it with a sandwich a big mug of beer or tinto is only 2 euros. The sandwiches are mediocre, but if you’re getting the ones that are normally 2 euros they’re a pretty good deal, and the place was certainly packed all day long.

Two montaditos and a beer: 4 euro

On the stronger side of things, I was informed by Mother Spice that I had to try sherry while I was in Andalusia, as this fortified wine is only made in the region. This proved a little difficult at first, not because places didn’t carry it, but because I had no idea what it was called in Spanish– it turns out it’s “Jerez,” the name of the area where it is produced. The Spaniard I finally got this out of was completely bewildered as to why we English-speakers would change this to “sherry.” In any case, the sherry I tried was much drier than those I’ve had before, and so could be drunk with a meal rather than as a dessert.
It was perhaps not the wisest decision, however, to follow our sherry-tasting with agua de sevilla, but we happened to be going straight from that restaurant to a flamenco show at La Carboneria. This is the venue advertised everywhere as the best for flamenco in Seville, though we actually enjoyed a more amateur show on Calle Betis in Triana even more. Either way, “agua de sevilla” was advertised heavily in La Carboneria, and Brett’s Spanish friend informed us that it was “very local,” and we had to try it. Far from being water, Brett’s report of it being made was “a third champagne, a third pineapple juice, and a third mystery mixture.” A wikipedia search shows that the “mystery mixture” was probably a combination of whiskey and cointreau. In any case, this delicious combination was topped off with whipped cream and cinnamon– and while a whole pitcher may have been slightly ambitious, it was certainly delicious.

Dessert or drink? Agua de sevilla

Thankfully, however, there were some days when our rain-breaks came in the form of baked goods rather than beverages. My favorite of these, hands down, was churros y chocolate. Though fairly common, it took us a little while to find somewhere serving this combination, but it was well worth the wait. The churros in Spain are not covered in cinnamon sugar, but are simply long pieces of fried dough. When ordered “y chocolate,” they come with hot chocolate that is intensely rich and thick and, blissfully, you are encouraged to dip your churro into the chocolate. One would be hard pressed to find a better combination.

Take your churro...

... and give it a dip!

We also tried some other local pastries, many of which were excellent. I unfortunately didn’t catch the name of the honey-soaked flaky pastries in every window, but they were surprisingly good– I thought they would be overly sweet, but they turned out to have a delicate aniseed flavor balancing out the honey. We had intended to search out one of the many convents that apparently sell nun-baked pastries from their windows, but unfortunately in this one mission the rain thwarted us. Brett did find them after I left, however, and snapped a picture of their traditional muffins for me.

Nun-baked muffin= nunfin.

And that, I believe, is the end of my culinary adventure in Spain. I am now back in Washington, and eating lots of vegetables to try to cancel out the effects of my indulgent week. (Let’s all pretend the brownie recipe coming later this week just didn’t happen.)