byÂ Nadia Arandjelovic
I have my first traditional Moroccan meal in one of the sitting rooms at the Riad Dar Baraka Karam, a charming bed and breakfast in the Old Medina. I sit on a low, amber stool in a room aglow by candlelight, a crisp white napkin folded in my lap. After bread and wine, dinner arrives on the table. “What’s this,” I hear someone ask, pointing to a pastry resembling minced pie. “It’s pastilla, pigeon pie,” our hostess says. I immediately cringe at the thought, trying to ignore the growing grumble at the pit of my stomach. I watch as everyone else is enjoying the dish, then reservedly give in, block out the image of squawking pigeons in Victoria Park, and dive in one spoonful at a time. The shredded meat is tender, a little sweet, a little savoury; while the pastry is flaky and melts in your mouth. It’s more like dessert than anything else so I shovel down as much as my conscience will allow.
There are many cuisine choices in Marrakech that a Westerner would have to think twice about. In the city, amidst pleasant cafes and restaurants, you are bound to find a range of stalls selling everything from liver on a stick to mystery meat. Some of these dishes are only for the most adventurous at heart, those with a strong stomach or flailing budget, while other choices are a lot less of a gamble.At the stalls at Djemma el Fna, believed to be the busiest square in the African continent, you can find an array of these unconventional food choices. I visit the landmark on a Friday night, a religious day for locals, when the streets are bustling with vehicles, donkeys and pedestrians and everyone appears to be out and about. There are dozens of stalls in the area selling the same items, freshly squeezed orange juice, barrels of pungent spices or plump fruit and nuts. To the left there are men selling local handicrafts, a rainbow of fabrics and wooden toys; to the back there are local performers entertaining the crowds to a hypnotic beat, while young men search pockets for hidden coins.
It is easy to get lost, so much to see and do and very little time, but if you’re planning to taste what the vibrant square has to offer it’s best to spend a few minutes shopping around first. Let the enchanting square guide you, but listen closely to your senses, they can tell you a lot about a dish, even before taking your first bite. As I pass through the centre stalls I can hear the grills roaring; and a symphony of smells stop me in my tracks. Young men with impeccable English do their best to lure tourists into their stall. ‘Sheep’s brain, sheep’s gut, sheep’s bullocks,” I hear one boy say, urging me to choose his more conventional stall instead of the competitor next door.I feel like a contestant in the reality show Fear Factor when I finally settle on a stall for the night.
Thin blue papers serve as the only buffer between a table and my meal and an encrusted fork needs to be given a once over with my sleeve before deemed usable. I start off a little weary, slowly taking bites out of a chicken skewer; until I spot a local girl with amber skin and pinch-worthy cheeks settled nearby, searching for spare food left behind by tourists. She stuffs her mouth with shards of chicken and bread, never hesitating, filling her mouth like a squirrel saving up for the winter months. There has to be more to this feast placed in front of me, I tell myself, as more and more dishes are laid out on the table. I slowly grow more trusting, chewing through heavily boned fish and greasy cutlets of what appear to be sausage, wolfing down plates of cucumbers, olives and tomatoes; but choosing to pass on the lamb skewers, which seem to take more energy to chew through than worth. I watch the little girl closely, as she gathers up extra food and silently goes her own way, belly full and more in hand for later and finally understand why she eats with such fervor.
Marrakech is a place that requires every ounce of your five senses, from the sight of colorful scarves in the markets, sound of Arabic guitars in the square and taste of new cuisines around every corner. And it is a shame to have to miss out on any of the magical parts of the city.After a three-hour plane ride back to Heathrow, I arrive safely back in London where I smell more fragrant wafts on a walk through Kingston’s cobbled side streets. I let my senses guide me one last time, a sniff of salted potatoes or slow roasted beef fill my nostrils as I turn the corner. I think back to the wonderfully prepared meals in Morocco and all the hospitality shown during my short stay there and finally stumble upon the object of my affection a two storey building with yellow M displayed above the front door. I approach the young hostess and hear her grumble an automatic line, before I am finally jolted back to reality and leave through the same doors as I entered; dreaming only of the moment I can experience the sweet taste of pigeon pie again.