Monday, April 07, 2014

Honeymoon in Morocco: Eating and Drinking

I'm finally recapping the 3-week honeymoon we took to Morocco over Christmas and New Years. Expect many pictures and many, many words about Morocco in the next few weeks. You can find part one here and part two here.

We set out to eat fearlessly in Morocco. We did our homework, of course, and went to the doctor to get several vaccinations and prescriptions for preventing issues (like Typhoid) and to taking care of them after they arrived (like motion sickness patches and cipro). We also brought along a little of everything from our home pharmacy, including pepto bismol, antacids, and ibuprofen. Which is all to say: we were prepared for anything, and wanted to eat adventurously. And eat we did.

The guidebooks and online forums all said the same thing:  Morocco is not a vegetarian-friendly country. Moroccans consider a meal incomplete if it doesn’t have meat in it, and in a relatively poor nation meat is a luxury, a status symbol, and something to work toward affording, not something you avoid. So almost every meal we ate included meat. At times I found myself seriously craving a salad.

For breakfast, which was included at every place we stayed, it was customary to see lots of little tiny dishes, brought out a few at a time, with a variety of different foods in them. The French influence was there, in tiny flaky sweet pastries, but we also ate a lot of plain yogurt with fruit. The fruit was incredible--very sweet, ripe kiwi, strawberries, oranges, apples, you name it. We drank our weight in fresh, pulpy orange juice every morning, and had many, many cups of strong coffee with milk, another French influence. Breakfast also often consisted of several savory elements, from a soup called harira, a traditional Berber dish with a tomato base, to little pastries with shredded chicken in them, to plain little cornmeal cakes that D loved to douse in honey.Oh, we ate so, so much sweet, gold-hued honey. We also ate many little tiny oranges, which were piled by our plates at breakfast, arranged in overflowing baskets in hotel rooms and restaurants, and sold in bulk for pennies, which is how we ended up buying two kilos of them for about a dollar from a little donkey-drawn cart in the market in Fez.

We also ate many, many pastries and desserts, which, thanks again to the French influence in Morocco, were everywhere. I’m not much for Moroccan desserts, which all seemed to be both very sticky and almond-flavored, but I do love a good French pastry, and we took to stopping by a boulangerie/patisserie every day to pick out a few things to take back to the riad with us to snack on later that night. Everything was unbelievably inexpensive and so delicious, even if we didn’t know exactly what it was. We’d read in the guidebook about a uniquely Moroccan savory/sweet pastry called Pastilla, which is a little flaky pouch that can be filled with either chicken or pigeon meat, baked, and then covered with confectioner's sugar and cinnamon. The first pastilla we saw was in a little back alley bakery in the old town in Rabat, but in our excitement we bought it anyway (for something like 20 cents) and it was delicious. And then D spent about twenty minutes later that night trying to figure out (through a spotty wireless connection) if what we’d had was chicken or pigeon meat. We think it was chicken.
Many of the lunches and dinners we had in Morocco were some form of tajine, which is the name for both the Berber meal and the earthenware pot it’s cooked in. Tajine is basically a savory stew with a hunk of meat (beef, pork, or chicken) and some vegetables and olives in a sauce. Tajines are cooked in their pots for a long time on low heat, and the way the pot is constructed (a cone-shape) traps the condensation and returns the condensed liquid back into the dish. In this way a minimal amount of water is needed, say, if you’re in the desert, and the meat and vegetables end up so moist and succulent.

The thing about meat in Morocco is that you don’t know where it comes from so you hope that it’s well cooked. We walked through many, many open air market streets where huge slabs of raw meat were hanging from hooks or splayed out on bloody cutting boards, often accompanied by a haze of buzzing flies. Anything tasty that wasn’t covered by plastic or put into a case was covered, absolutely covered, with flies. We tried not to think about it. We also saw plenty of chickens, tied to the tops of crates by their feet, awaiting their fate. If you wanted poultry for dinner you’d go to the market, pick our your chicken, and then wait while they killed and de-feathered if for you on the spot. We also saw a lot of chickens just wandering around, into and out of market stalls and restaurants, and sometimes letting out agitated clucks or cockadoodle-doos as they were chased by some of the many, many stray cats that shopkeepers were surprisingly amenable to having around.

We also ate a lot of olives--they were often presented in a little bowl as an appetizer before each meal--and drank many cups of mint tea. The custom is to share a cup of tea when you arrive at a new place, and this was a practice that we quickly and gladly adopted. There's nothing like finally and gratefully arriving at your destination after following confusing directions in a language that is not your own and then being greeted with a smile, a handshake, and a nice hot cup of sweet, minty tea before getting down to the business of picking your room or settling a bill. Mint tea is also served in every restaurant, and almost every afternoon we rested our feet in a local cafe while enjoying a big pot of tea. It's always brewed in a big silver pot and then served in tiny clear glasses, and the technique of pouring it from a great height produces much-desired bubbles that are supposed to contribute to the overall flavor of the beverage.

The only time we had any digestive, erm, issues was from a meal we had in a little restaurant in Fez that was recommended by the guidebook. At this point we'd been in Morocco for over two weeks and had eaten meat from street vendors, pastries that had seen plenty of flies, fruit grown all over Africa, olives of every color of the rainbow, water that was not from a bottle nor boiled ahead of time, and many, many cups of mint tea. And it was all absolutely worth it.


Nilsa @ SoMi Speaks said...

I love that you chose to be adventurous with your meals in Morocco. Food is such an integral part of every community, so you haven't really lived and learned until you've filled your belly! So glad to hear that your belly was largely happy and not upset with all the new tasty treats you tried!

Amber said...

Wow! That sounds intense. I don't know if I could handle seeing the meat all covered with flies like that, that is just crazy!! But I guess cooking it would hopefully get rid of anything? Obviously it wasn't that big of a deal as you didn't have too many digestive issues, which I'm glad to hear about!

I'm really curious what made you guys decide to visit Morocco? Not sure if you've shared that yet or not. I am really enjoying these recaps!

Lisa from Lisa's Yarns said...

I'm also really enjoying these recaps. I think it is great that you guys were so adventurous with your eating. I guess in places like that you really have no choice but to be adventurous. The french pastries sound awesome. The mean in the markets? YIKES. But I am glad that for the most part, you didn't have tummy issues!

Alice said...

If only we had come as prepared as you.... the three of us all got QUITE ill on our trip there!! The worst part was that it meant I couldn't / didn't want to eat for the last few days, which is HEARTBREAKING for someone like me - I travel basically as an excuse to eat giant quantities of exciting new foods :)