A Foodie on Tour: First Stop, Marrakech
Our resident foodie travels to Marrakech to discover the local food scene and learns to cook traditional dishes among the orange groves
Article by Sophie Aghdami
Plotting the getaway
I was in need of a short break that combined a good mixture of relaxation and, of course, some sort of food experience. Morocco has always been on my radar as somewhere mysterious, beautiful and rife with a strong food culture; when it twigged that Marrakech is also home to the mighty hammam, I overlooked the fact that I needed to fly with Sleazyjet and packed my bags ready for the short four-or-so hour flight. After a ginormous breakfast and obligatory glass of ‘airport bubbles’ at the airport I boarded the plane with anticipation of what was to come.
Arriving in Marrakech
After arriving at the gorgeous Riad Araba Felice that was to be home for the next three days I was greeted by owner Kamal who gave me the first taste of Moroccan tea. It was to be the first of many but that’s no complaint: very sweet but extremely fresh, it’s traditionally poured from a great height to create a ‘froth’ and Kamal didn’t disappoint: he’s obviously had a lot of practice and it tasted divine. After settling into the room it was time to start the adventure.
And so it begins…
The Riad opens up onto a dusty side road so I take a left onto one of the ‘main’ roads lined with market stalls, street food vendors, little doorways leading to goodness knows where (Narnia?), and a LOT of people, mostly walking but there is also an incredible number of motorcyclists going full speed through the crowds not to mention donkeys pulling carts. I think it’s a matter of confidence on the roads so may the strongest man win and, although I’m pleasantly surprised, I only saw one crash during my stay (lady’s skirt caught in wheel – nothing too serious).
I make my way through the sea of colour and interesting smells, resisting the urge to stop and look, feel and taste everything, and instead head towards the souks for my first experience of them. I could write a whole review of my experiences in Marrakech however the most important here is the food so I will try not to digress too much…
The air is thick in Marrakech and after a couple of hours of shop owners trying to lure me in to their shops I’ve had enough and need a break. With a rumbling tummy my eyes are peeled to find my first stop for some lunch. Wandering through the windy cobbled streets finds me at a courtyard corner where I see Terasse Bakchich. A tiny doorway of a restaurant where, for once, there isn’t someone there trying to convince me in, which has been happening a lot until now. Met with a friendly welcome and my confidence building after seeing it look pretty busy with locals, I venture in and am taken upstairs to the rooftop where I choose a selection of what seem to be some of the most traditional dishes – chicken tagine with carrot, green beans, saffron broth, onion, sliced potato and vegetable tagine with courgette, carrot, aubergine and tomato broth. Both are divine and bursting with earthy flavours synonymous with slow cooking in the tagine, and come with oh-so-fluffy cous cous. Craving something fresh I‘ve also ordered the ‘shlada nationale’ (national salad), a simple and fresh blend of chopped cucumber, tomato, mint and coriander.
That evening I explore the night market and, although excited to try one of the pop up restaurants packed with locals, am unfortunately bullied into one of the tourist trap places by two very good salesman who didn’t really give me a choice. Although what I order (mixed grill skewers) is cooked on open barbecues the flavours are mediocre with low quality meat, leaving me wondering what ‘meat’ I’ve actually just eaten. A side dish of ‘shlada nationale’ (to become my staple side order for the rest of the trip) is good, although I’m not entirely sure how this could have gone wrong anyhow. Service is very friendly however eating in a crowd of westerners isn’t my idea of exploring the local authentic cuisine and it’s a lesson learned in fending off persuasive stall owners for the rest of the trip.
Before travelling anywhere I do tend to do extensive research on restaurants: mostly to mark what to avoid but also to find some treasures. Dar Cherifa sounds like one of those treasures so the search through the labyrinth of roads starts late morning after a delicious breakfast of msemen (a square shaped flattened layered pancake that is crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside) at the Riad. Three hours and dizzy eyes from trying to dissect a map two young boys playing football show me the way (for a hopeful fee). It’s closed. Thanks boys. Starving and fed up, I look up at the sky and see some people sitting atop a roof drinking tea. I find the doorway and head up, again greeted by a very friendly face and the smells of something yummy being cooked: I am soon to find out that Les KFE is to be my best find in Marrakech on this trip.
I order the beef tagine with prunes, which is the most delicious thing I ate that week. Rich beef, sticky sweet prunes and sticky sauce, it’s like I’ve just met a long lost best friend that I never knew I had. It’s mopped up with ‘krachel’ (a very dense sesame/anise bread and cous cous. Good old ‘shlada nationale’ doesn’t disappoint and I’m delighted to discover a new dish on my travels of blanched carrots mixed with olive oil and a secret rub. Despite trying to get the recipe it’s near impossible as it apparently contains 45 spices.
After a ‘luxury’ treat of coffee in a five star hotel and heavenly hammam at Koutoubia Spa (although not to be mixed up with the ‘Jardines de la Koutoubia, a deluxe hotel somewhere else in the city) I decide that life’s too short to risk never possibly having that beef with prunes dish again and return to my favourite eatery. I’m slightly disappointed as it’s oilier than yesterday but nonetheless it’s still delicious. Greed gets the better of me and I order the ‘shlada nationale’ and two carrot salads. Feeling guilty for not trying something new I also order (yes, I did hit the gym as soon as I got home) a traditional thick Moroccan soup of chickpeas, lentils and vegetables, which is great. Although I’m fit to burst, the owner also bring up some chicken tagine to try, slow cooked in a saffron sauce with sliced potatoes, similar to the one at Terasse Bakchich.
That evening, keen to see a final sunset before heading home the next day, I head to Zwin’ Zwin’. A slight tourist trap but with good reason: the sunset view is terrific. Food less so, with rather bland flavours in the tagines although the whole baked baby aubergines in tomato sauce is wonderful and light. Candied pumpkin mash is interesting although far too sweet for my liking.
Although it may seem like I only like eating I also love learning about food so the last day is blocked off to do a cookery course. Faim d’Espices, translating quite simply as ‘farm of spices’ is located just outside Marrakech in the midst of orange and lemon groves. Owned by French-born Michel and his Moroccan wife Nezha it’s an oasis away from the busy city centre. It’s an extremely well designed space with cooking stations for up to 20 guests and demonstration area for Nezha to teach from. We’re taught how to make beef tagine with pears and candied oranges, three traditional salads (‘shlada nationale’, aubergine with tomato, and a very sweet grated cucumber ‘soup’; the Moroccan equivalent to a gazpacho) and that lovely msemen. Lastly, we also go through the process of making the ‘krachel’ bread although, for reasons unbeknown to me as I follow the instructions meticulously, mine turns out to be more like some sort of frisbee biscuit. The course finishes perfectly with lunch in the sunshine sitting amongst the fruit groves.
What a trip! For a short getaway that feels gloriously far away I thoroughly recommend Marrakech. There are a few recommended tips:
- Do visit the souks but there’s probably no need to allocate more than a day.
- Do visit the night market but don’t get lured in by the touristy restaurants (generally along the outside section by the plaza).
- Definitely have a traditional hammam
- Do trust your instinct and be adventurous steering clear of westernised menus: as I experienced you’ll be handsomely rewarded.
Riad Araba Felice, Arset Laghzail Num 11, Medina, Marrakech 40000 www.booking.com/hotel/ma/riad-araba-felice.en-gb.html
Terasse Bakchich, Talaa 13 | intersection de la rue Azbezt, Marrakech 40000
Zwin’ Zwin’, rue Riad Zitoun El Kedim، Marrakesh 40000 / www.zwinzwin.net/