Sunday, 24 January 2010

They only eat five things

Worthing, West Sussex, England

So I'm back now and as always happens, the Morocco experience seems suddenly distant. I set out with the intention of discovering their food, but it all got washed over by the people and the place. Not that I'm complaining!

Back at the start of the Morocco trip we were having breakfast in Tangier. There was a Danish guy and his wife there, and he was moaning about Moroccan cuisine. They only eat five things, he arrogantly pronounced. We immediately racked our brains thinking of what his five would be;

1. Couscous
2. Tagines
3. Kebabs
4. Pastilla
5. Everything else

His argument was clearly flawed. There was no room for Harira (Moroccan soup). And what about the vegetable salads? And the patisserie? The wonderful array of cakes and biscuits? The macaroons that housewives sell in the squares of Marrakech?

Cakes on a market stall in Meknes

Worst of all though, he'd forgotten about the doughnuts. From my first doughnut in Chefchaouen, where they fried them fresh each morning with breakfast, I pursued them in true Homer Simpson style, tongue lolling, stomach rumbling and brain repeating dough-nuts over and over again. They were somehow elusive. Find a guy who sells them, go back the next morning - he's gone.

Doughnut seller in Meknes - the best dirham you'll ever spend

But I can't wholly defend Moroccan cuisine on the strength of its doughnuts. And after a week or so, I began to see where he was coming from. Pretty much everywhere you eat, you sit down, open the menu and see the same things. Your choices are severely restricted. It is extremely rare to find anything unique - a new interpretation of an old favourite or something out of leftfield. The weird guy outside Chefchaouen with his octopus salad, that was the biggest curveball of them all. Thankfully, it was brilliantly executed.

As a single dish it was the finest thing I ate on the trip. The best dining experience was the first course of vegetable salads at Riad Tanja back in Tangier on my second night. The range of flavours and textures was incredible. Each individual taste was carefully balanced and delicately seasoned, and when taken as an ensemble, the whole thing just worked. We ate some good meals aside from this, but rarely was I blown away. And the revelation that pretty much every tagine you eat was cooked in a pressure cooker, though completely understandable was still disappointing in a romantic sense.

Stunning vegetable displays everywhere - this one in a market in Tangier

The couscous is incredible. I've always poured hot water on instant couscous. Literally. The difference between this and the twice or three times steamed semolina these guys eat is too great to even attempt to describe. They're just not the same thing. It's a lot more work and incredibly time consuming, but there's no such thing as a free lunch. You can survive on instant couscous I guess, and it's not as though I'm never going to touch the stuff again, but you can't beat the real thing.

The bread at Casa Hassan in Chefchaouen

The bread was good pretty much everywhere we went. Baked in big public bakeries, extremely fresh, very cheap and sold all over the place. Where ever you are in a Moroccan city, within fifty yards of you, someone is selling bread for a couple of dirhams. The bread in Chefchaouen was the best we had, though I remain convinced they put something in it. I'll never know, but I'll try and work it out for myself.

Good food then, but not brilliant food, really. A couple of days in kitchens - in Fes and Marrakech - were interesting but not life changing. I like the pastilla, but it is very sweet, and you wouldn't want to eat it every day. Some of the tagines are good, but the main thing to take away for me are the salads. I can see a first course of them nestling quietly in the corner of my menu one day, insh'allah.

Not quite just the five things then, but not a whole lot more either. But you know what? Who cares? A simple bowl of harira in Djemaa el-Fna costs you 3 dirhams and you get to spend the evening in one of the craziest places on Earth. That'll do for me.

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