Inside Marrakech's food scene with Marrakech Food Tours

Have you ever aimlessly wandered through the streets of Marrakech? It is exotic and a bit wild, with bicycle drivers, mopeds, pedestrians, donkey carts and hundreds of cats trying to move all at once and that on the tiniest of lanes. I came to Marrakech to have this little sexy adventure but also to find out how to prepare couscous. I am a big fan of couscous. You know, open a package, stir it in hot water, add a tiny amount of melted butter, stir again and happily yell "dinner is ready” after the few moments it takes to “cook” this dish.

When travelling
I want to make sure that I support the local community, and not some big organisation that fills their coffers and runs home with the money. I was delighted to find a local tour company that offers foodie tours in the medina. So far I have joined amazing food tours all over the world, and they were all during the day. This one is different, it was a night tour and in this particular case, it truly adds to the magic. Nothing beats Marrakech at night.

The group meets at Jemaa El Fna. The central square of the medina is a World Heritage Site and also where it all happens. Imagine a bustle of people, loud folk music and in parts a restricted view from the smoke near the open-air restaurants. It can even be hard to breathe. It is exotic as I said earlier.

Our first stop is a restaurant where they offer the Marrakech speciality Tanjia, you heard correctly, it is not the Tagine, but the Tanjia. There is also very slow-cooked meat on offer. I have been vegetarian ever since I have been (tempted to say born, but no) a grown-up, and I didn’t eat either of these meat choices but the story behind it is a rather fascinating one really. We all gather around a massive underground oven where they place whole goats on a long stick to cook them. The cooked meat falls apart when you eat it. What did the Moroccans think when guys “introduced” slow food to the world, whereas in reality they have been probably doing it for centuries?

Restaurant in the medina of Marrakech

But now to the lamb tanjia. The meat gets filled into a clay pot, the tanjia, together with only six other ingredients. And that is why it is called bachelors dish here in Morocco, even men can cook it. I wonder if I let Jamie Oliver know about this, he might pop in to talk to the male Moroccans about some of his easy recipes. Once all ingredients are in the clay pot it needs to get into an oven, but not in any oven. The tanjia is covered with greaseproof paper and will get delivered to a hammam. How very adventurous is this? You would never expect something like this to be done, right?

The guy who is in charge of the fire at the local hammam puts the tanjia dish into the coals of the so-called farnatchi, that is the oven, for approximately six hours until the meat is tender. During the tour, this guy welcomes us at his workplace. I would have never seen anything like this. How could I ever convince a local to take me into his furnace? I wouldn't even have known a thing like this exists. These are the moments when local guidance is needed. He burns literally everything in this oven, this is sort of the time to get a little bit of a culture shock.

Inside of a farnatchi (furnace) in the medina of Marrakech

At one point on this tour, we stop at a market stall and are allowed to eat as many olives as we can. It is a wise choice to leave room for what is to come after that.

We see how to kneel the dough, made from white flour and semolina, for rghaif. The pancake with onions gets than fried and folded in a square before it’s served. This folded style called msemen, is crispy from the outside but chewy on the inside, and it is very hard to stop eating them. They are addictive really.

At a café on a rather busy road, we eat Moroccan Sfenj. The beignets are made from yeast dough and are either sold early in the day or as a snack after work. They go particularly well with mint tea or nous nous (aka Café Latte).

Without expecting it, I am too engaged in a lively chat about the Muslim culture, we jump into a restaurant to eat vegetable couscous. The couscous apparently needs a long time for cooking, it gets rolled several times in the process, and it is not at all what I prepare at home. The atmosphere at the place we eat is infectious, everybody is full of laughter, and the couscous is as fluffy as fresh snow on New Year's Eve. I know at once that after trying the real stuff there is no going back for me. Before we eat the ripe juicy peaches for dessert we drink huge amounts of Lban. In Morocco, they often pour this fermented milk that tastes like buttermilk over leftover couscous for breakfast.

The best couscous in Marrakech: Made with love.

We walk on and while chatting once again, we nibble nuts from the Atlas cedar. Youssef buys them from a vendor with a cart that has a little lantern on the side. The nuts are harvested at this time of year and have a beneficial effect since they are (for example) full of vitamin A, B and E, magnesium, and calcium.

Life in Marrakech appears to be so very different from what I know. Community plays a vital role, as I can see from the concept of a community bakery. People would prepare their dough at home and drop it off at the neighbourhood oven in a joint bakery. Try to imagine this in any other place. I am secretly dying to see my neighbours faces when I hand over my dough and ask them to bake my bread. I mean they are too cool for school to chat with me when we meet in the hallway. If they mutter a tiny Good Day, that is a time for celebration. There is a queue of hundreds of breads and the baker pushes them skillfully into the oven, one after the other. While it gets quiet in this part of Marrakech, he is a very busy man.

On our way to the last café we are about to visit, we eat cactus figs sold again from a roadside cart. They are also called prickly pears, and the vendor is so friendly to cut them for us. This is a lovely refreshment in between stops. As we sit down for a bit and drink a freshly prepared almond smoothy together with Moroccan sweets we talk about everything that springs to mind. Youssef is an endless source of information about Morocco and Marrakech, and best of all he stays passionate till the very last second of our get together. 

Verdict: Join the tour to find out where we went to and which spices you'll need to cook the dishes. Albeit tired after four hours I don't want this to end, it is so interesting to talk to Youssef. I wonder where he gets this energy from. Is it all in the couscous?

From Berlin with love

Please note: Marrakech Food Tours sponsored my research trip, all feelings expressed are mine.