Friday, June 26, 2009

Eating & drinking or AKA the simple pleasures

I’m taking full advantage of the freshly-squeezed orange juice season at hand here. At the very least my day starts and ends with a bottle of freshly squeezed orange juice from the Djemaa el-Fna, 6 DH/0,5l bottle (less than 9 EEK!). And i don’t want to hear any lip about the dangers of drinking/eating fresh juices/foods in Morocco. Of course everything within reason, but avoiding them completely is just too big of a trade off - you just miss out on too much great stuff and it's not worth it. I know some people who visited Morocco and avoided drinking and eating anything fresh, including that very same tasty orange juice. And i dare to say that they also didn’t get to see the Morocco as it is intended to be seen. How can you? if you only do what a hysterical guide-book allows you to do. In any case, for those who avoid drinking fresh orange juice out of fear of it being mixed with unhealthy local tap water, you can always choose a vendor who provides 100% pure juice. Ask about it or if the language barrier is too high, climb into the booth to see how he’s squeezing it.

Kaidi last year posing with an orange juice vendor on Djemaa el-Fna

Eating with hands is very common in Morocco, bread is often used as means to get the sauce, soup or other food into your mouth. That of course means that almost every food is served with fresh bread, which does not do any favours to my figure.

The other day i was having lunch with the hotel’s cleaning ladies and the reception guy Abdul - we all sat around a big plate of steaming cous-cous. I ate with a fork, because getting something so small as pieces of cous-cous into my mouth with just two fingers seemed a bit of an impossible task. But it was interesting to observe how they were doing it – they took a big chunk of that flaky cous-cous, squeezed it in their palm tight until it formed a sort of a solid piece which could then easily be put into the mouth. I think i will prefer to eat cous-cous in the future also with a fork or spoon, it’s just too messy business to eat it with hands.

Few days ago I was walking aimlessly deep in the medina when I suddenly stumbled on a nice little street, which was filled with different street-food vendors. The clientele was 100% locals and prices also very nice. This is pretty much valid for all southern countries I’ve ever been to and also goes for Morocco – the tastiest and also most affordable food is usually the street-food, because it's simple and without alterations to meet the palette of tourists. This little food street I found was a nice gem and I took great care afterwards to remember my way out of there – which was not easy as anybody who’s ever been lost in medina can tell. As much as I like the food on the nightly Djemaa el-Fna, the choice there is still rather limited. Most food-stalls offer the same stuff and after you’ve eaten there for a week, you’ve pretty much exhausted the choice in the menu. Finding this little food street brought some fresh selection on my plate. And being able to buy fresh strawberries afterwards for dessert from the nearby market sealed the deal for me. I will definitely return there. If i can find it that is.

There's also a big variety of sweet snacks sold on the street. I personally don't appreciate sweet food particularly, so i might be a bit biased when it comes to liking/disliking it, but they all seem to be kind of same for me: very sweet and overly greasy. Last time when me and Kaidi were in Fes, we went on a mission to go around in medina and try all kinds of different sweets. We didn't get very far with our testing, the sugar levels alone threatened to give us diabetes. But if you're into properly fried sweets, Morocco is definitely your country. On the Djemaa el-Fna nightly market, there are usually guys walking around with carts loaded with sweets (as on the photo ->), so if you're done stuffing yourself with tajine's, it's time to overdose on sugar.

I do want to make a recommendation though. After the sunset, when the culinary chaos of Djemaa el-Fna is on full blast, there are women and girls walking around with trays on the main square and nearby streets selling very tasty coconut cookies. Around 9pm they are starting to leave already, so shop early :). Though also a serious sugar blast, those cookies are still very tasty - soft and light. If you ask for the price, they will say 2-3 DH/each. In reality don't even ask, just give them 1 DH per cookie and be confident. Maybe locals get away with paying less, but 1 DH was as low as i could get away with.

I would like to take this moment here and say big “thank you” to Vantaa, Heathrow and Stansted airports for supplying me with perfect size zip-lock bags. Well .. , maybe supplying isn’t the right word, it’s more like they created a chance for me to stock up on those neat bags on my way to security check :). These bags are perfect for traveling. Among other things, perfect also for keeping food fresh. I already have a bit of a routine - i buy few of those cookies, eat some in the evening and the rest will be just as fluffy and soft in the morning, with the help of my zip-lock bag. But if you leave them in the open air for the night, they turn into stone-hard sugar blocks.

The cookies in question, a typical selling style

Truly, recommend

Another very very sweet staple part of the Moroccan menu is the mint tea. And absolutely delicious, if brewed properly. Also surpisingly refreshing on a hot summer day. There are many different ways of making it, but whatever the approach, it always consists a generous amount of fresh peppermint, simple chinese gunpowder green tea and lot's of sugar. When visiting somebody's home, making the tea can turn into a bit of a ceremony. As a rule, the tea is prepared into a metallic pot. When the tea is ready, the first cup is always poured back into the pot. It helps the sugar to blend with the water better. They also like to pour the tea with great precision into the cups from very high up, which sometimes results in tea splashing all around.
Photo: the guys at Djemaa el-Fna are very skilled in pouring the tea without a single drop going to waste. And you would not believe the speed they do it at.

The tea is served from glass cups, but because cups get very quickly very hot, it might be somewhat problematic to drink. The trick is to hold the cup between the thumb and index finger, but so that the index finger is supporting the glass from the bottom and the thumb grasps the top edge of the glass.

Ready glasses with mint and sugar on the nightly Djemaa el-Fna food market, all you need now is a dash of boiling water

I've been eating on Djemaa el-Fna nightly food market on most evenings and i've kind of developed a favorite food-stall i go to. There are different types of food vendors on the market. Some specialize on grilled meats, some on lamb, some fish and so on. And some on reeling in the tourists, which as mentioned in some earlier post before, are the places you want to keep away from. I've tried the food in many different food-stalls, but i somehow kept coming back to one and the same and now i go there already knowingly. Every food-stall has a number and sometimes it takes me quite a time to find my stall no. 4. It's more of locals-oriented place, the guys working there are fluent only in Arabic with few French words to boot. But we manage just fine. By now they already know that i don't like onions, so they fish out from the tajine all the onions for me. I also always order the soup, which isn't even in the menu - one of the guys always runs to get it from a nearby soup guy. We know each other by name and every time i come, they already welcome from far: "Sofi! &%#¤=¤#%?`%#! (something in Arabic)". And they are also very protective when anybody shows too much interest in me. The chef was showing me photos of his wife and children the other day and was obviously expecting for me to share my photos with him. That part actually was too difficult to explain that i don't carry photos in the wallet, as a matter of fact, i don't even have a wallet.

In the beginning when i started going to the stall no. 4, the vendors around it were always trying to make me interested in their food. By now they are already used to that i only eat at the stall no. 4 and when they see me coming, they say things like: "Oh, number 4 girl!", "Every time it's number 4! Maybe today it's 6, yes?" or "Yes, Shakira, your table in number 4 is reserved" etc.

Milod and Ahmed, two guys from the food-stall no. 4


PS! Kaidi, Kaidi - i eat olives now! OK, i eat certain type of olives, but still, it's a progress nonetheless! I never quite got the handle on eating olives and since Moroccan food has plentiful of them, then the topic of i really should start to eat olives is every once in a while in discussion. Kaidi had this theory/urban legend/hearsay, that if you eat 11 olives in a row, no matter how disgusted you are, you will start liking them, or at least to tolerate. So we put it to the test, i think she made to the 6th one, i almost threw up already around 3rd. But now, having so much olives in my everyday food, that they come out of my ears already, i'm starting to differentiate between them. The black ones are still unbearably gross, the green ones are so-so, but they also have pink ones here. They marinate them somehow and i must admit that the result is very decent. Now i actually go to market and buy myself pink olives. On the top left side of Djemaa el-Fna is a small market court, where they sell fresh herbs and olives. I've tried the olives from all the vendors already, the number 12 is definitely the best. And he doesn't cheat when it comes to weighing me my 200 grams of olives.

During last couple if years i’ve traveled quite a lot. Partially in Europe, but mostly still to various southern countries. And every time i go to a country like India or China, something new is added to my list of vaccinations. A lot of people have been asking if i’m vaccinated and against what. Currently i’m vaccinated against AB hepatitis, typhoid, diphtheria, tetanus, encephalitis and poliomyelitis. Without those vaccinations I don’t think I would be so careless as I am now eating in absolutely random places absolutely random food. Of course there are many diseases you cannot vaccinate against, but seeing on every trip too many toilet-bound tourists battling with some avoidable stomach problems, I’m really glad that my vaccination book is as full as it is. I think that my peace of mind is worth more than saving money and traveling without even basic vaccinations. New and interesting experiences are always fun to have, but I think I’m ok with skipping the one of having explosive diarrhea while being surrounded by squat-toilets (on the photo ->) or a simple hole in the ground.

I have been sick few times, but nothing really worth mentioning, only some lightweight stuff. Those few times have however taught me the importance of not relying on local pharmacies, specially when there's a language barrier the size of an Eiffel tower to boot. Have you ever tried to pantomime that you have a diarrhea and you need some Loperamid tablets? Yeah, those were some fun and creative moments .. :)

Berber tajines cooking slowly. Berber tajines have round shape, whereas the usual tajine dish is more conical.

Lamb brains, Djemaa el-Fna nightly food market

Cheap and tasty bread, that accompanies most foods in Morocco. They sell them all day long on the street-shops or from carts just like the one on the photo, costs 1-1,5 DH/piece. I've had quite a few times a situation that i want to buy the bread, but when i start paying it turns out i have no coins and only some bigger bank notes. And so many times the vendor has just given me the bread, sometimes saying something like "Welcome to Marrakech" etc.

Nabil hiding behind the bread

Food sample of Djemaa el-Fna nightly food market

A girl carrying a pastry tray to the bakery

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