A common saying in Morocco is that the best cuisine is prepared in the home. Although Westerners may baulk at fish for sale on the quayside displayed in a pallet without any ice, or meat hanging in the open air at a butcher’s stall, Moroccans know that the best way to prepare food is when it is fresh and that cooking it a high heat for longer periods kills bacteria. If you buy, cook and eat your protein on the day it was caught or killed, you don’t need to refrigerate it for long periods as we are accustomed to in the West. (And just as well, as sardines don’t leave the ocean with a sell-by date!)
The tradition of home-cooking of fresh, local, seasonal produce, which is still prevalent in Morocco, means that the locals have a healthy distrust of eating out. A 12-3pm lunch hour plus siesta is still widespread and so many people travel home from work to eat at lunchtime. All of these factors mean there is not the restaurant culture in Morocco that we might know from home. Restaurants are for transient people, ie travellers, tourists and migrant workers.
This does not mean that there aren’t good restaurants in Morocco – there are many, and the best are not always the fanciest or the most expensive. In Essaouira, I regularly eat couscous on a Friday for less than 25 dh (less than £2) in very basic, but adequately hygienic, street cafes. However, when you don’t know the city, you haven’t made a reservation and/or you don’t want to slavishly follow your guidebook , it can be tricky to find a decent bite to eat. In my experience, nowhere is this truer than the tourism Mecca of Marrakech.
My thesis is: It is difficult as a tourist to find healthy, good value, authentic food in Marrakech. Therefore, a visitor might need some assistance and/or forward planning.
On a recent visit, a non-Marrakchi Moroccan friend and I tried to eat traditional Moroccan dinner in the medina at non-tourist prices. Initially, we avoided Place Jmaa el Fna, having eaten there before and hoping to find something less touristy. However, by the end of our long weekend we returned to the Square, concluding that the volume of trade means that dishes are prepared daily and that the spectacle and the atmosphere of the stalls contributes to the value of a meal eaten there. And at least here, you can see Moroccans eating – you don’t find many of them in the tourist restaurants around the Place.
For the record: tajine and couscous are two different dishes with different cooking methods. If someone serves you a bunch of vegetables which have been steamed or boiled and then reheated in a ceramic tajine dish, this does not constitute a tajine – those vegetables were destined to be served on top of a mound of fluffy couscous. (I have actually pointed this out to a stallholder on Place Jmaa el Fna, who then offered to prepare ‘real’ tajine for me the next day). Fresh produce in Morocco is very cheap and although this is only one component of the value chain, there is no reason for a successful restaurant to cut corners passing one dish off as two and/or overcharging for something they would not serve their own family. (Chez Abdou, on the square off Derb Dabachi, I mean you!)
You can’t always rely on your guidebook, either. Staff come and go and service improves and deteriorates (normally the latter). Chez Chegrouni offers great views over the Square and is mentioned all over the place. The food is pretty decent and the novelty is that you write your own order. However, the role of the waiter is so limited and the service has become so grumpy that the staff – ironically – seem to think it appropriate to ask for a tip!
Some of the best value (ie fairly-priced and authentic) food I have eaten in Marrakech at midday is in locations where there is a lot of passing Moroccan trade, eg near markets and bus/taxi stands. The service is generally brisk and the food continually freshly prepared. If, like we did, you find yourself hanging around in the Kasbah area waiting for the Saadian Tombs or Bahia Palace to re-open after lunch, I recommend eating at one of the restaurants near the Grand Taxis stand on Rue Ibn Rochd – the one with the large covered terrace and queues of bubbling tajines was clean and excellent value. Vegetarians can always request an omelette or mixed salad (most of the vegetables will be cooked) if the tajines are all meaty.
In the medina, Café des épices (rahba Lakdima) and new addition, Le Jardin (souk el Jeld Sis Abdelaziz, near the Madrasa, Museum and Photography Museum) are great for a coffee stop or a snack at lunchtime. Le Jardin is a leafy oasis of calm and a great retreat when the haggling gets too hard. Another tranquil spot is Le Bouganvillier at the T-junction of Rue El Mouassine – it’s great to listen to the tweeting birds over a mint tea.
In the evening, I think it is worth getting organised. You can eat spontaneously on the Square once, but you probably want a bit of variety. Everyone knows Trip Advisor is a good source of ideas, so book in advance to avoid disappointment. Restaurants rely on repeat business: they know you are unlikely to come back, so they cultivate hotels and riad staff. Therefore, your concierge may well have more luck getting you a table than if you call yourself.
For me, Pepe Nero still scores highly on atmosphere, service and quality. I recently ate at Al Fassia, a long-standing establishment in Guéliz, run by women. The setting was under-stated but traditional and the dishes were excellently prepared and presented. I don’t eat meat and any Swiri (native of Essaouira) advises against eating fish in Marrakech, so my only option was the vegetable couscous. As it was prepared to order, our waitress recommended a selection of Moroccan salads to start. When they came, we were served with around 15 exquisite mezze served in hand-crafted ceramic dishes and all were incredible. I thought I could happily have done without the couscous – until it came and was among the best I have ever tasted! It had a decent range of vegetables (not just the perennial carrots and potatoes) and was served with sultanas and nuts. The semoule was as light as driven snow. My companion likes the place so much it was his third visit (he lives in Scotland!) and he always has the same dish: meatball tajine with an egg. It’s a Moroccan favourite and the ladies do it well. 300dh per head including a bottle of wine and one of water (around £20) is expensive for a Moroccan, but for a European tourist it’s an excellent deal. (NB: El Fassia also have a branch out of town in Aguedal. The one in Guéliz is at 55, Blvd. Mohammed Zerktouni near the junction of Blvd Mohammed V.)
So, to conclude as I said I would, it can be difficult to find healthy, good value, authentic cuisine in Marrakech. And by good value, I don’t necessarily mean cheap. However, with a spirit of adventure (for the day time) and a little pre-planning (in the evenings), the culinary experience is significantly improved. I’m off to Marrakech again tomorrow, so I will report back on any new discoveries. In the meantime, all tips and suggestions are welcome via the comments box below or the Facebook page.