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Food & Travel

A hungry adventurer explores Marrakech

At night in the ancient medina, the large plaza in Marrakech, Morocco, the Djemaa el-Fna glitters with about 100 food stalls. At night in the ancient medina, the large plaza in Marrakech, Morocco, the Djemaa el-Fna glitters with about 100 food stalls. (Istockphoto)
By Luke Pyenson
Globe Correspondent / November 17, 2010

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MARRAKECH, Morocco — The Djemaa el-Fna emerges like a living, breathing organism from the labyrinth that is the ancient medina, a large, open plaza framed by nearby minarets and the more distant and dramatic Atlas Mountains. Relatively sleepy during the day, with a few snake charmers and monkey handlers roaming around, the Djemaa transforms itself every evening into a truly unique jumble of makeshift restaurants — roughly 100.

The sight of all these illuminated food stalls is both startling and daunting. There is a number system, but stalls 23 and 48 might be next to each other, for example, and stall 62 might also have the number 5 written all over it. Enter the Djemaa from the periphery at night and waiters will beckon you to their stalls. They look you over quickly and start to speak the language they guess you speak. They are equally adept at invitations in French and Spanish, and have practiced their Cockney accents, too.

Begin a meal here with a bowl of Morocco’s beloved national soup, harira. Though traditionally eaten to break the fast during Ramadan, Moroccans make it year-round. Recipes vary from region to region, and even cook to cook, but it is almost always tomato-based and contains any combination of chickpeas, lentils, celery, parsley, noodles, and meat. The spices tend to be relatively mellow, usually cumin, saffron, and black pepper. Stall 67 makes a wonderful version, thick and laden with chickpeas, lentils, noodles, and dried mint, an uncommon but welcome addition. A plate of sweet, sticky dates and an accompanying glass of ultra-sweet mint tea ties it all together. The soup costs about 37 cents, the tea and dates about $1.

Next, follow the plumes of smoke to stall 32, which sits under an impossible-to-miss illuminated red and yellow sign that says both “32’’ and “HASSAN.’’ Hassan, the cook, grills spicy little merguez sausages, which he serves with a simple sauce of crushed fresh tomatoes and parsley, and a six-inch disc of dense Moroccan bread. The cooks pour oil over the sausages, resulting in giant flames and smoke. An order comes with six to eight, best enjoyed in hollowed-out bread halves and drenched in sauce.

It’s time to plunge into the thick of the stalls, past the hawkers. Go straight to stall 53 — yes, one of the ones with sheep’s heads out front. Chopped up unidentifiable bits of singed, boiled sheep’s heads are absolutely not the best thing to eat in the Djemaa, nor are they aesthetically appealing, but they’re worth a try. Order a quarter-head as a noncommittal start, and graduate to a half- or whole head if that seems appropriate.

Though the cross-cultural and multilingual vibe of tourists and locals eating together is part of what makes the Djemaa special, the best stalls are those patronized solely by Moroccans. This is the case at number 47. Two large, clay jugs that look like they’ve been plucked from an archeological dig signal the presence of one of Marrakech’s culinary specialties, tanjia. Traditionally, beef or lamb is put into one of these jugs, along with a little water, garlic, cumin, saffron, and other spices, and taken to the hammam (bathhouse) to simmer for several hours under the same fire that heats the hammam’s water supply. The result is moist, tender meat that evaporates in your mouth, not unlike a good slow-cooked barbecue brisket. The bread serves triple duty as starch, utensil, and napkin. The cooks will also drench a disc of bread in the tanjia cooking liquid on request to create an au jus effect, which is messy but delicious.

Before dessert, a palate cleanser is essential. Marrakech is said to have the best orange juice in the country, and a row of carts dedicated to just that seems to challenge travelers to try it for themselves. At stall 28, 50 cents buys a glass of the transcendent orange nectar; this could be the best-tasting thing in the whole square.

Finally, another row of thematically arranged carts concludes the multicourse frenzy. Four or five in a row all sell the one dessert option: ginseng tea and brown sugar-almond-sesame cakes (s’loo or s’foof in Arabic). Stall 72 lists every ingredient in the complex tea on a sign: ginseng, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, mace, black pepper, nigella seeds, and star anise. It’s quite strong, both sweet and spicy, and though it’s good with the sweet little morsels of cake, it would be a fine ending on its own.

Dishes most often associated with Moroccan cuisine — couscous, tajine, and brochettes — can be found anywhere in the country, and often in versions better than what hawkers in the square try to sell. The key to enjoying the Djemaa is being adventurous. Fears inherent in eating “street food’’ should not discourage a visitor; everything is thoroughly cooked. In the ancient square, the main worry is the possibility that you might eat a sheep’s head and like it.

Djemaa el-Fna is bordered by Rue Bab Agnaou to the south; Rue Fehl Chidmi leads to it from the north. Ask any resident for directions; some will accompany you and expect a small monetary compensation.

Luke Pyenson can be reached at luke.pyenson@tufts.edu.