At 10 AM sharp we met Gemma, a Dutch native, in front of a cafe in the Medina’s main square. She was carrying an armful of empty shopping bags and chatting with a couple of Belgian women. We introduced ourselves, were joined by a lovely British couple, and were ready to get started on our local culinary tour.
She started by distributing the bags, shopping lists, and small change purses with local currency. We’d be making an array of traditional Moroccan dishes, all family recipes from the local women who assisted her. Our list had mint, cumin, icing sugar, eggs, vegetable oil, and a couple other miscellaneous items. The other pairs had other items, making it feel like we each had our own little treasure hunts.
She led us through the bustling alleys of the souk, stopping first in front of some stands heaped with olives jars of preserved lemons. While the other people procured items from their list, Gemma showed me the two kinds of Moroccan mint. She snapped a leaf off both varieties and let me taste the difference. One was distinctly more bitter, so I chose the other and purchased a neat little bunch, which the vendor wrapped in paper for us.
We trekked on, deeper into the souks, stopping here and there for items. My favorite stop was the spice shop. Gemma explained that there are many vendors for each type of good, and that they’re all essentially the same but that locals always return to the same one. They value the relationship, especially since these spice vendors are also herbalists of sorts, who can be consulted when an illness or ailment strikes.
Her “spice guy” was a real delight. He let us smell each spice and made us guess what they were. I don’t think we got a single one right, but learned a whole heck of a lot in the process. He also showed us how to distinguish real saffron from fake, how Moroccan women use crushed minerals for eyeliner, and a wealth of other informative gems.
One of our last stops was the baker, who prepares bread in an oven that somewhat resembles a massive version of an Italian pizza oven. The bread here is unleavened, like a biali or thick pita. It’s a bit bland, but the perfect canvas to soak up the juices from a tangine.
With all our goods in hand, we snuck through a door so small that even I had to duck to squeeze through. We were guided into the courtyard of a small riad, where local women washed our groceries and created cooking stations while we relaxed in front of a fan with some tea.
Once everything was prepped, recipes were distributed and we all got to work. I paired up with the British woman and we got to work chopping, peeling, and chopping some more. The local women could barely conceal their disdain at our barbaric knife skills. What we thought was “finely diced” must have looked like glaciers of onion to them, and they continually pantomimed the additional chopping we needed to do.
Together, she and I made a sweet carrot salad, a Moroccan salad, and Courgette (zucchini) salad. The Belgian women made a mashed aubergine (eggplant) dish, and a pan of filleted anchovies covered in tomatoes and peppers. The men handled the meatballs, cooked in a tangine, and once everything was cooking we all chipped in on some cookies that turned out much like a shortbread from home.
Once everything was thoroughly cooked, we all sat down to enjoy the meal with some nicely chilled wine. It tasted just as good as it smelled, the local flavors creating a delicious bouquet of fragrances. To my surprise, the carrot salad was a favorite.
I didn’t care much for the anchovy dish (not a huge surprise) but no matter because moments later the meatballs stole the show. Simmered in a tomato sauce in a large tangine, they were robust with flavor and utterly divine. Just before they were done, four eggs were cracked on top and poached in the sauce, balancing out the whole dish and providing even more protein. This is something I would definitely make again at home, and now that I have the recipe, I can!
Last came the mint tea and cookies. Although I was a bit nauseated by the amount of vegetable oil required by the recipe, my skepticism waned when I took my first bite. They were really good. Just like a shortbread, with an essence of orange.
With our bellies full, we sat and swapped stories from our travels. We learned that Gemma had moved to Morocco over 9 years ago. She imparted wisdom and helped us gain a better understanding of the local culture. Other tourists recommended restaurants to try (and to avoid) and of course, we discussed the inevitable shopping we all planned to do.
If you ever find yourself in Marrakech, I highly recommend this experience. You can find Gemma online- her tour is called Souk Cuisine and it’s an excellent introduction to Moroccan food and culture. The whole experience is so enjoyable, I’d say that the delicious meal is just (I can’t resist a food cliche here…) “the icing on the cake”.