Sunday, September 8, 2013

Burning Pasta Travel Guide: جامع الفناء (Jemma el-Fna), Marrakech, Morocco

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You notice the glow first.  Walking into Jemma el-Fna, the main square of Marrakech, Morocco, a sea of incandescent light bulbs -- thousands of them, create a deep, alive, orange halo.  

The light is particularly striking in contrast to the rest of the darkened city and the desert beyond, as if all life had been drawn into a single, swirling, swarming nucleus.

And then you arrive.

Tents proliferate like lilypads, nearly a half-mile in each direction.  Families, three or four generations together, walk from stand to stand, each with a local specialty -- fresh-squeezed citron juice; dried fruit; soap; lanterns.

Other tents provide entertainment; storytellers and comedians, snake and monkey handlers, the spectacle holding local children in delight.  Over it all, far at the end of the square, the Koutoubia Mosque stands as a solemn sentry.


In the very center of the square, thick, redolent, fatty smoke rises from the local barbecues.  This is why we are here.

There are about 24 or 25 stands, each with their own barker, each advertising their specialty -- merguez sausage, glowing red; goat, both shanks and brains; Berber tagine, with local root vegetables; fish stands, chicken stands, and, of course, lamb -- in every cut, form, or preparation you might imagine.

Competition is fierce -- menus are jabbed in faces, elbows pulled, mellifluous descriptions of charred meats are offered.  Eventually, a stand catches your eye, and you settle in.


Our first night, bone-tired from the plane, we wandered into a stand with a wide diversity of delectable dishes to offer.  We were not disappointed.

There was a little bit of everything, including a wide selection of cold Moroccan salads (the recipes for some of which I'll be sharing with you in a future post), which piqued our interest after traveling all day in 110 degree heat.

In the end, though, the lure of charred meat won out, directing our fingers to items which were promptly skewered, butchered, and placed onto hot glowing coals.  We ended up with (from the top, clockwise) roasted aubergine, a Berber tagine, a loaf of Khobz dyal Zraa' (a half-wheat, half-cornmeal bread ubiquitous in the city), skewers of chicken, kafta, and beef, roasted lamb chops, and a cold plate of green and yellow olives, dressed with fresh oregano, dried herbs, and orange zest.  On the side, two dishes of tomato sauce arrived as well, one sweet and mellow, the other piquant and vinegary.

Ravenous, we dove right in, our lips quickly slick with lamb fat.  Everything played off each other brilliantly; the spice and smoke of the skewers, the creamy, mellow aubergine, the citrusy snap of the green olives.  It was brilliant, and we wiped the plates clean.

Don't believe me?  Just look at the expression on the Pasta Burner's face.

Another night.  Steps off the square, we went up a narrow staircase to whet our appetites with a few cold Flag Spéciale beers, and then plunged down into the fray.

This time, we headed straight for the row of snail stands lining the edge of the food bazaar, drawn in by the universally-alluring perfume of roasted garlic.

Young men, each with their own cauldron, stew mountains of snails braised in their own juices.  A good-sized bowl sells for 5 dirham (50 cents US).

We dove right in.  Succulent, tender, and with a subtle nuttiness, the simple preparation was perfect, right down to the garlicky broth.

I could go on and on about the tastes, the textures, the sounds and sights.  But the most striking element of Jemma el-Fna is the sense of community.  It is a place of congregation, a place to meet with family, with old friends, and to break bread with them.

As the evening grows long, and the grills begin to wane, sated diners wander, inevitably making their way to the mint tea and egg stands that sit on the square's eastern border.  The tea is hot, strong, and tooth-rattlingly sweet, providing an instantly narcoleptic effect.

Time slows.  The tea glass drains, and the square begins to imperceptibly thin.

Sweet carts arrive, weighed down with date rolls, honey cake, and dried fig tarts.  A few peckish souls swoop in to find something to nibble on during the walk home.

The walk back to our riad is quiet, the sensory overload over.  An occasional motorbike shoots by, seamlessly weaving through pedestrians before whipping down a side alley.

We travel further and further into the darkness, a turn here, a turn there, looking for a heavy wooden door, and our comfortable bed within.

Tomorrow night, we'll do it again.

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