Marrakesh. Everything you’ve heard about this legendary red city at the foot of the Atlas Mountains lives up to its reputation: the splendor, the squalor, the stately mosques, the labyrinthine souks, the kaleidoscopically colorful markets bursting with everything from robes to rugs to rosewater.
As for the food, well, it’s easy to see why chefs from all over the world take inspiration from Morocco. The cuisine of this Arab kingdom combines the refinement of France (its former colonial ruler) with the exoticism of Africa and the Middle East. Moroccan cooking is exotic enough to challenge your taste buds, but familiar enough to be comfort food. It’s a cuisine of intense flavors, built on a lavish use of spices and an intricate interplay of textures and tastes.
This is certainly the case of the kebabs, sausages, chops, roasts, organ meats, and seafood that constitute the Moroccan grill. Grilling occupies a central position in Morocco’s culinary life, practiced in public squares and crowded markets, at sidewalk cafés and waterfront restaurants. Almost anywhere you turn, you will smell the sweet scent of lamb roasting over charcoal. Look skyward at dusk and the sky will be filled with plumes of smoke rising from a thousand cook shacks and pushcart grills.
Interestingly, Moroccan haute cuisine relies mainly on wet cooking methods such as stewing, steaming, and deep-frying. Think of Morocco’s most famous dishes: couscous, tagine, bisteeya. None are cooked on a grill. Grilled fare is the popular food of Morocco, what people eat when they’re in a hurry, on a budget, or in the mood for casual dining. And they eat it with gusto.
This quickly became apparent my first day in Marrakesh, at my first stop, the Jema al-Fna. This fabled piazza, the entryway to the old city, offers a total immersion in everything that is exotic and wondrous about Morocco: the shrill trumpets of the snake charmers (those are real cobras coiled on the blankets), the singsong shouts of the story-tellers, the cries of the hustlers and beggars. The din is positively cacophonous, and it continues from morning to midnight.
Come nightfall, the Jema al-Fna fills with open-air cook stalls, like the immaculate Stall #26, run by a ruggedly handsome man in a crisp white paper cap named Muhammad Moutawakel. Each evening, around 5 o’clock, he sets out white enamel trays piled high with couscous, hand-cut french fries, and shiny salads of peppers, carrots, and other vegetables. But the star attraction here is the lamb chops and kebabs sizzling away on his grill.
The secret to a great kebab, explained Muhammad, is to intersperse the cubes of meat with pieces of lamb tail fat. The fat melts during grilling, basting the lamb, keeping it moist and tender. Unlike many American backyard grillers, Muhammad is not afraid of the flare-ups that explode when drops of melting fat hit the fire. "Flare-ups are the best way to give the meat a charred, smoky flavor," he said.
Muhammad seasons his lamb with a mixture of cumin, salt, and garlic powder. The accompaniments, variations of which I experienced throughout Morocco, include a spicy fresh tomato sauce, a tangy shallot and parsley relish, and a wedge of a crusty flat Moroccan bread called chobs. You dine under the stars, surrounded by the circus-like swirl of activity in the Jema al-Fna. Barbecue just doesn’t get any better.
Bani Marine Street
Well, actually, it’s not half bad on Bani Marine Street, a few blocks away from the Jema, either. Bani Marine Street is one of the many "barbecue lanes" found in the newer quarters of Marrakesh. The crowded street is lined with simple storefront grill restaurants. You don’t really need a menu, since the bill of fare is displayed in the window: stacks of lamb chops, trays of liver, coils of merguez sausage (reddened with paprika and cayenne), and decoratively sculpted mounds of koefta (ground spiced lamb).
There are plenty of items Americans would relish, like the lamb steaks, chops, and shish kebabs. To combat the toughness of Moroccan beef, cooks cut the meat for kebabs into cubes as small as your thumbnail. There are also plenty of items most Americans wouldn’t eat, like lamb’s brains, testicles, and spleen. The latter comes stuffed with chopped onions and parsley and tastes like tough, spongy, strong-flavored liver. In the interest of science, I tried it, but it seems to be one of those foods you have to have been brought up on to enjoy.
A meal at one of the Bani Marine Street restaurants is a simple but soul-satisfying experience: a dish of olives, a plate of kebabs, served with fire-toasted bread, shallot relish, and fiery harissa, the North African hot sauce made with cayenne pepper and puréed tomatoes. The shallot relish is a rather ingenious concoction: The parsley in it is a natural mouthwash that neutralizes the pungency of the shallots. You also get a tiny dish of salt and ground cumin.
The Mechouie Mystique
At least one Moroccan grilled meat dish has made the leap from street food to the stratosphere of haute cuisine: mechouie. Like American barbecue or Brazilian churrasco, mechouie refers simultaneously to a single dish, a style of cooking, and a kind of meal. The original mechouie was a whole lamb, stuffed with herbs, rubbed with butter and spices, and roasted on a spit over an open pit fire. You can still find this style of mechouie in villages in the countryside.
As mechouie moved from the country to the city, cooks abandoned the open fire for a wood-fired underground oven. My next stop took me to the heart of the souk, that Ali Babanesque labyrinth of shops and alleyways that constitutes the main market of Marrakesh. My destination was the mechouie shop of Housseine Admov. A wiry man with a salt and pepper mustache, wearing a black djellaba, Housseine has owned this tiny shop, in the center of the souk, for 40 years. He proudly showed me his trade license-#E67830-qualifying him as a "master rôtisseur."
Actually, when I arrived, there wasn’t much to look at. Four white-tile walls. A bare earthenware floor from which rose a rickety cast-iron stovepipe. It turned out that the action at a mechouie parlor takes place not above ground, but beneath it. Under the floor is an urn-shaped clay oven, 9 feet deep, 5 feet across, and tapering to an opening perhaps 14 inches wide in the center of the floor. The mechouie pit resembles a giant underground tandoor (Indian barbecue oven).
Twice a day Housseine builds a roaring fire in the underground oven, letting the logs burn down to embers. Twice a day he spits whole, freshly slaughtered lambs on thick wooden poles and lowers them into the oven. The lambs are seasoned with salt, pepper, and cumin, then smoke-roasted in the underground oven for two to three hours. The meat that emerges is fall-off-the-bone tender, with buttery-crisp skin and a subtle smoky flavor that made me think of American barbecue. It is nothing short of sublime.
Over the next two days I spent a fair amount of time at Housseine’s shop. I watched him build the fires: one at 5:00 a.m. (for the noon lambs), one at 2:30 p.m. (for the night lambs), using discarded cardboard boxes for kindling. I watched him lower the lambs into the oven, haul them out, and line them up, like soldiers, against the white-tile wall, to be packaged in plastic garbage bags and sent home with their owners.
Housseine collects 50 dirham (about $6) for each lamb. He doesn’t actually sell the lambs he levies a fee for roasting them. The pit can accommodate up to 10 lambs, so when it’s full for both the noon and night shifts, he turns a tidy profit. Of course, the pit requires regular maintenance. Once a month, Housseine hires a dwarf to climb down into the oven and clean it. Once every 20 years, he digs the oven up and replaces it with a new one.
Owning a mechouie pit is an upbeat occupation. Because mechouie is a rich man’s dish or a ceremonial treat served on happy occasions, such as birthdays and weddings, people who order mechouie from Housseine generally have something to celebrate. Even the shop next door benefits from his commerce. It specializes in roasted sheep heads-a much-prized delicacy in these parts.
Not that you need an underground pit to make great mechouie. Restaurants in Marrakesh roast them on rotisseries or in the oven. A North Americann style kettle grill produces a great mechouie. Leg of lamb gives you the spirit of the dish in proportions that don’t require a whole community to enjoy.
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