Jeema El Fna is a street-snacker's heaven / Credit: Adobe Stock
A walk through Morocco’s most famous city is an assault on the senses. If you’re not being lured in by the toot of a snake charmer’s flute or attempting to dodge literal performing monkeys on leashes, your eyes will be packed full to the brim of hustling market traders, mountains of aromatic spices and sizzling things on roadside grills – and that’s just in the main Jeema El Fna square. If you’re after white linen and formal dining, you might be better off elsewhere: Marrakech’s food ethos is unshowy and authentic (with a heavy line in carbs). But if you’re willing to get stuck in and pull up a stool to one of the many, many street food vendors serving up the goods, there’s plenty to fill your belly with. Here's the lowdown on what's what.
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Essentially a Moroccan take on a pancake, these flaky, square flatbreads are ubiquitous and eaten throughout the day. Plain ones come by the bag, sold on the side of the road for a few dirhams. Or, if you’re after something a little more filling, head to one of the many traders frying them up on grills at the front of the shop. There, you can get these doughy treats filled with onions, cheese, egg and more – like something akin to a very flat calzone.
Pastilla (or bastilla) are deceptive things. Wrapped in filo pastry and more often than not coated with a dusting of icing sugar, all signs point to them being sweet. Pop a slice in your mouth however and be greeted with a forkful of chicken, fish or some other distinctly savoury goods. Poultry versions come mixed with almonds and eggs, while a traditional seafood pastilla contains vermicelli noodles; spiced with saffron, cinnamon and other Moroccan staple flavours, it’s a pie, but not as you know it.
If you don’t eat tagine while in Marrakech, did you even really go? The most famous of all Morocco’s culinary arsenal, this classic Berber dish is all about the pot: a clay, funnel-shaped thing from which the meal takes its name. Layered up from a base of fried onions and spices (turmeric, ginger, cumin and more), you can have variations in meat and veg but the key is long, slow cooking to let everything steam to perfection.
There are few pleasures in life purer than the joy of a fresh, hot doughnut, and sfinge are about as toothsome as they come. Golden, shaped into a pleasingly globulous ring (no uniform smoothness here, thank you very much) and dusted with lashings of sugar, the only thing better than the sweet treats themselves is the fact that one will set you back a grand total of around 15p.
Marrakech is not a city for the gluten-intolerant or the carb-shy; almost every meal comes served with bread either on the side or as its main vessel, so be ready – or should we say bready – to be rolling in dough. Come nighttime, vendors selling hefty sandwich pockets, fried up on the spot with fresh meat skewers and filled with spicy tomato relish, are everywhere. Get them filled with merguez – a small, lamb sausage traditional to northwest Africa – for the peak experience.
Found in sweet (almond, honey) or savoury (lamb kofta, chicken) forms and normally shaped in samosa-style triangles, these pastries are top of the pile in a city full of sugary treats. With a large French-speaking population, it’s perhaps unsurprising that you’ll find a lot of patisserie-style sweets around Marrakech but give your heart to briouat, and then maybe round it off with a Moroccan take on baklava. With almonds native to the country, it’d be rude not to.
Vegans and veggies, beware: the city’s souks and markets aren’t subtle about their butchery. Carcasses hang freely from stall fronts, and you’ll likely see more sheep heads in a week here than in the rest of your life combined. The latter makes for a local delicacy – boiled with spices and chickpeas, and served, brains and all, alongside a trusty loaf. It’s not for the faint hearted; there’s no way of sugar-coating what you’re tucking into here. But for true cultural immersion then there are few dishes that can give you the full badge of honour like this one.
Nicknamed 'Moroccan whiskey', the country's most omnipresent beverage might not get you hammered but it's just as moreish. Brewed with fresh mint, the trick is to mix it several times – pouring from kettle to cup and back again to really muddle the flavours. Drink it for breakfast, drink it with dinner but just don't make the mistake of thinking you're being healthy: there's about half a pound of sugar in each batch (that'll be why it tastes so good, then).
Marrakech knows what it’s doing when it comes to comfort food. Whether it’s tagines and tangias (a slower cooked, meatier version of the former), or simple but delicious bean-based breakfast soups, they’ve got the knack of a stew-adjacent dish firmly mastered. Enter into this category, the humble harira. A simple soup made from tomatoes, lentils and chickpeas, it shows that tasty, nourishing things don’t have to come in flash packages.
The idea of a brothy snail soup might not be one to immediately get the saliva glands humming, but give babbouche a chance. Cooked with a delicate balance of spices including thyme, aniseed and liquorice, locals believe that its heady mix is medicinal and can help prevent colds, rheumatism and even increase fertility. You’ll be able to spot a stall selling it with ease – just look for the place with the buckets of shells overflowing. And hey, even if the little critters aren’t up your street, at least you can entertain yourself with a rousing rendition of one of Kate Bush’s biggest hits when you pass by.