When faced with unfamiliar foods in foreign lands, apprehensive travelers often stick with the usual to save testing their intestinal fortitude. But here's the punchline: those specially sauced American patties are probably going to taste worse and make you sicker than any market–fresh pigeon pie ever would. What's more, the Big Mac tourist is missing out on the best part of travel: sampling another nation's cuisine and ergo heritage. So it was that I set out to Morocco for a taste of its North African bounty. And to find out if extreme eating is actually good eating.
© Amy Rosen
Dinners That Slither
As the sun dips behind the 12th century Koutoubia that dominates the skyline in Marrakech, the night air fills with smoke while portable restaurants set up shop in the middle of boisterous Jemaa el Fna Square. Bald light bulbs glare at locals and tourists explore food stalls manned by purveyors seemingly entombed by honeyed pastries and pyramids of olives. We stroll through the network of cantinas over shouts of "Beef kebab!" "Moroccan orange juice!" Appealing, but hardly adventurous eats. I'm a little disappointed, until I spot my mark: steaming bowls of glistening snails.
We wait for stools to open up then slap down a buck for a soup bowl filled with a couple dozen snails. Doused with a caramel–coloured broth, they're hit with "special Arabic spices," offers one white–capped snail cook. We're handed toothpicks for extracting the meat and squares of paper to wipe our hands when we're done. You toss the empties into the Rubbermaid troughs in front of you. The snails are hot and peppery and really quite good, so they only rate a three out of 10 on the scary foods scale.
Foods that Go Bump in the Night
I'm not going to lie to you. Sometimes the intrepid traveler is faced with the task of measuring her gag reflexes against the will of the locals. A kindly Moroccan will coax: "Try it, it's delicious!" So, not wanting to insult another's culture by refusing blood and vein–streaked "flesh spread with hardboiled egg in special bread," you put on your game face, you eat, and you suffer.
However, there are tricks to successful market eating, the best one being to frequent the busiest stalls. They've usually earned a good rep so their food is fresher because the turnover is that much faster. And when you get up the nerve to eat lamb face, you're going to want to get it while it's hot.
© Amy Rosen
On a thick wooden board just behind a BBQ grill sits three cooked lamb heads. Eyeballs in, teeth intact and looking very reminiscent of that Raiders of the Lost Ark scene when that Nazi asshole with the round eyeglasses opens the Ark and that biblical power surge melts his evil mug. Nevertheless, I pay my dollar and order a plate of face.
The "chef" takes a cooked lamb face, peels off the charred skin, tears the jaw apart, pops out the eyeballs, and hands the shredded meat to me with a piece of traditional Moroccan bread, which is like thick pita. The meat looks like lamb, and smells and tastes like lamb, albeit fattier and with more gristle and sinew. Also on offer are lamb nads and brains. The testicles aren't bad when sprinkled with a pinch of salt and cumin. But just a gentle pinch. Rating on the scary foods scale: a solid eight owing to the graphic nature of the dish's preparation.
Scariest National Dish
For a quick lunch stop while shopping in Jemaa el Fna Square, we decide to partake of Morocco's special occasion dish, bastila (pronounced basteela). The name comes from the Spanish word for pastry, pastilla, but after translation, the "p" turns into a "b" that is specific to the Arabic language. If, like me, you consider pigeons to be rats with wings, this will be the most challenging meal of your culinary trip.
These personal sized pies are encased in a very thin pastry called warqa (which means, "leaf") which is a lot like phyllo dough. They're filled with a healthy portion of chopped cooked pigeon and almonds, pan–fried and topped with a dusting of cinnamon and icing sugar. The sugar and fowl thing seems like an odd mix, but so is the culinary history of contemporary Moroccan cuisine. It's basically an Arab and Hispano–Muslim diet based on an older and simpler Berber sustenance diet, with some sub–Saharan West Africa and colonial–era French influences thrown into the mix.
We lunched on the bastila, good kebab, fries, and vegetable tagine at restaurant Nzaha in the market, where $4 a person will fill you up. Rating on the scary foods scale: nine out of 10, but only because of the whole rats with wings thing.
Ye Olde Fish
In the coastal town of Agadir, in a port that lies in the shadow of the Casbah, just beyond a ship building yard and right next to a fish auction warehouse, is a scene right out of Shakespeare. Fishermen, boat builders, captains, beggars, they're all here taking part in this colorful jumbled mess of humanity. And it's lunchtime.
Falafel is frying in a cast iron pan thats black patina is thick from decades of use. Grilled sardines, 10 for a dollar, have charred skin and are heavily salted. We're taught to peel back the blackness and pinch off pieces of the moist flesh within. They're like a nibble of the Atlantic Ocean. But they also rate a seven out of 10 on the scary foods scale because I didn't trust the guy who sold them to us: I think they were intended for his cats before he saw us coming.
Amy Rosen writes about food, travel, spas, and basically anything else that interests her, for a host of national and international publications including Fodor's and Food & Wine magazine. She has three books under her belt, including Spatopia: unique spa experiences from around the globe, with two more coming down the pipeline. As of last count Amy had visited 32 different countries, but Canada remains her favorite.
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