Adventure, Food, Travel

The Primal Power of Street Food

Pots of beans and beef tangia, a Marrakesh specialty.

The Medina, the old city of Marrakech, is filled with narrow food stalls and people who cook on the streets and pack up their kitchens at the end of a day. The city also has its share of upscale eateries and typical restaurants, yet street food exerts an irresistible, almost magnetic force on me. While I’ve enjoyed some lovely meals here with members of the group I’ve been with, with food that’s served beautifully at a table with napkins and a full set of utensils, that kind of experience doesn’t satisfy my pent-up need for adventure, to experience spontaneous culinary surprises and be surrounded by locals to get a window into their world. Indeed the lure of street food is so powerful that early in the trip I peeled away from the group to begin exploring what’s cooking close to the ground in Marrakech, using my senses and curiosity as a guide. My first meal? Fried sardines with chopped onions and tomatoes on the side. I hadn’t yet figured out that locals scoop the food with bread (which I don’t eat). I had to ask the vendor for a fork.

Chicken with lemon. Yes, he’s using his hands.

Later the first week, while wandering in the souk (market), I spotted a young man served chicken with lemon out of a large pot. He brought me a plate of it and a piece of bread, along with a fork. At the back of the stall, another guy washed dishes. I asked him for a knife, which no other customer was using. He rinsed off a paring knife and grinned as he lifted it and pretended to slit his throat. I reacted with mock horror. He handed it to me with the blade facing toward me; I gestured for him to turn it around. He did. That he accommodated my Western sensibility with humor made me smile.

* * * * *

Cutting meat with scissors while it’s on the grill.

My nose led me to a partially covered stall near my riad, where a tall, slender man grilled various meats. He patiently answered  my questions about his offerings. He sold merguez (sausage), kebabs of various meats, including organs, and a local specialty, stuffed spleen. Normally he served merguez in a pocket sandwich with onions and fried potatoes but he honored my request for three small links since I just wanted a taste. He charged me 30 cents. Several days later I returned to try his other dishes. People on mopeds and bicycles congregated around the stall and waited for their food, which he made to order on a clean grill. Like other street cooks here, he used scissors to cut the meat into small pieces to hasten the process. A few cats loitered nearby for handouts and dropped food. I ordered the spleen and discovered it’s surprisingly good.

Sardine meatballs with carrots and potatoes. Note that the pot lid is missing a handle.

One day I stopped in front a sliver of a food stall, a literal hole in the wall, where men squeezed onto tiny stools by a narrow counter. I asked the vendor to show me what he had. He lifted the lid from a pot. Tripe? No thanks. Bean stew? Not tempted. But when he raised the lid on a large pot of sardine meatballs with carrots and potatoes, I knew I’d struck gold. I maneuvered passed a stack of crates to enter his stall and sat on a stool. He put a piece of paper in front of me as a place mat. It’s a tiny courtesy that made me feel welcome in his corner of the world. His was one of the better versions of sardine meatballs I’ve had. He said his mother made it. Perhaps she cooked everything else he sold, too.

Sheep feet, the only street food “fail”.

I returned a few days later for more sardine meatballs except he didn’t have them. On offer were tripe and sheep feet. He said the sheep feet were good. Trusting him and feeling daring, I asked for a serving, just $2. While it’s commendable that Moroccans waste little of the animals they consume, I quickly learned there really isn’t much to sheep feet except bone and gristle. I nibbled some out of courtesy, then walked a few hundred feet and found some delicious fried sardines with eggplant. By the time I retraced my steps, the sardine meatballs had arrived, the freshly prepared pot full of the colorful, layered dish. Even though I no longer had an appetite, I did not wish to waste an opportunity. I bought some as “take out”, which meant the vendor put the food in a plastic bag and twisted the top closed. I carried my sack of sardines back to the riad.

Inside the hole in the wall.

My final time at this stall, I waded through a cluster of women who stood with plastic containers for take out. A young man dramatically slapped his hand on a stool and said “Pour vous, madame“. I took a seat and waited as the vendor filled orders. He then turned and apologized to me for the crumbs and food scraps on the counter. He wiped it clean. I asked if had tea and he put the kettle on. Sometimes a hole in the wall offers the comforts of home.

* * * * *

Turkey street food caps a day of fine eating.

Our group traveled one day to a small village about 40 minutes from Marrakesh for a cooking class at a farm-to-table outfit. Under a thatched pavilion and the chef’s precise directions, we chopped vegetables, mixed spices and prepared three varieties of tagine (food cooked in a clay pot) and three side dishes. The staff served us an appetizer of freshly baked bread, goat cheese and olive oil. They made couscous and dessert to accompany the meal. Even though I returned stuffed and somewhat sleepy from an amazing and beautifully presented feast, which we ate in a traditionally decorated tent, my day didn’t seem complete without a dose of street food.

Like a nocturnal hunter, I headed out just before sunset to find something near Moukef Place, a jumble of an intersection about five minutes from our riad. After maneuvering around mopeds, wide fruit carts and throngs of people, I wandered over to a small stall I hadn’t noticed before in the fray. I peeked inside the pot. It had small pieces of darkish meat and bone I didn’t recognize.

Que-est que ce?” I asked, pointing to the contents. What is it?

Poulet,” said a man standing nearby. Chicken. Except it didn’t look like it.

Non, ce n’est pas poulet,” I said. I asked the man running the stall what it was.

Dinde,” he said. Turkey.

I hadn’t tried turkey before so I asked how much it was. He asked if I wanted beans with it, too (no). The turkey was about $1 for a small plate. He handed me a portion, with half a round piece of bread, and one spicy red pepper in a tiny dish on the side. I carried them to the back and placed the food on a counter. Before I sat down, I raised my hand to my mouth to gesture that I wanted a glass of mint tea; that seemed easier than talking over other people. He poured me a glass out of a large pot, lifting the pot high in the air in order to create foam on the top, and handed it to me.

I was the only foreigner and woman in the eatery. Groups of men used the bread as a utensil to scoop the food. I decided to do the same rather than continue to be a dork and ask for a fork. After 10 days here, I realized I didn’t need or even want one. Getting my fingers dirty and dropping the veneer of sophistication felt liberating. As I chewed, I discovered that the meat tasted more like duck (canard) than turkey, so perhaps his French was just as rudimentary as mine, or my tastebuds were off. No matter. The small amount of food hit the spot. Afterwards, I asked the owner if I could wash my hands in a nearby sink. He said yes and then handed me a piece of thin paper with which to dry them. When I went to pay, he told me the tea was a gift.

* * * * *

Bessara, fava bean soup drizzled with olive oil.

On a chilly February morning I skipped breakfast at my riad and explored the neighborhood near Marrakesh’s oldest synagogue. I noticed a group of people on the street drinking out of bowls. In pre-caffeinated and therefore poor French, I asked the vendor what he ladled from his pot. He didn’t understand me so another man explained it was bessara, a soup made from fava beans and drizzled with olive oil, a typical winter morning meal. One of the people in my group, a French man of Moroccan origins, had mentioned this dish to me. The vendor gave me some to try. Just one sip of the rich soup warmed me instantly so I asked for a serving, plus a tea. Since I didn’t want bread, the vendor gave me a spoon, although I ended up drinking it directly from the bowl. To stand with others on a cool morning and share the same nourishment offered deep, perhaps even a primal, satisfaction, the urban equivalent of huddling around a campfire.

* * * * *

For some, even familiar-looking street food can be a source of anxiety or discomfort, never mind more exotic offerings such as boiled sheep’s head (I didn’t try it). There are usually no posted menus or prices, utensils or even a place to sit. Yet, the absence of these familiar props both sets the stage for adventure and eliminates some of the stress I associate with eating. Street food is unmediated. There is little to no waiting for a table or for a server to take an order and bring the food. Choices are limited, simplifying decisions. While sampling Marrakesh street food, I’ve experienced genuine human-to-human hospitality but no pretension or indifference. That the people who eat at these places are just eating, not multitasking with smartphones, creates an atmosphere of presence. I am not overly concerned about cleanliness or food safety because the people feeding their neighbors can’t risk making their customers sick. They are selling this food so that they, too, can eat and live. I eat it because it connects me to a deeper sense of aliveness when I do.


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About ilona fried

Writer, Feldenkrais champion, Aikidoka and explorer of internal and external landscapes.

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