Chicken Tagine Is the Soylent of Moroccan Tourist Cuisine
Photo by Matthew Zuras

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Chicken Tagine Is the Soylent of Moroccan Tourist Cuisine

The spices, the death-reeking tanneries, and the windy sea fortress of Essouira are the things that most tourists want to see in Morocco. For most who visit here, it's nothing but chicken tagines, a.k.a the Soylent for tourists. I set out on an...
June 3, 2014, 3:12pm

Stuffed spleen was high on my priority list.

The thousand-year-old Kairaouine Mosque, the death-reeking tanneries, and the windy sea fortress of Essouira are the things that most tourists want to see in Morocco. But I wanted street food, "exotic" food, "real" food. Tongues, brains, bladders, vestigial organs—whatever. Anyone who's read Claudia Roden knows that North Africa, like much of the non-Western world, isn't squeamish about odd bits. I wanted some kind of macho twist on the orientalist fantasy that colonialism created and the government of Morocco reinforces with ad campaigns that reeled in over ten million tourists last year.

Photo by Matthew Zuras

Street meats in Marrakech, including chicken, kofte, and calf's liver that's threaded with chucks of fat on kebabs, grilled over coal, and stuffed into sandwiches.

But you won't find Morocco's sheep heads, stuffed spleen, and snail soup featured in those campaigns. For the tourists, it's nothing but tagines.

And that is a goddamned travesty. Unless you've been personally invited to dine with a family of Moroccans in their home— which, in my brief experience, is not as uncommon as you might think—don't eat the couscous served at dusty, terraced restaurants. Look askance at the pastilla—a pie of thin pastry, pigeon, almonds, and eggs, dusted with sugar and cinnamon—unless it's been personally vouched for by someone other than a paid guide.

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And do not, under any circumstances, spend $18 on a goddamned chicken tagine and a floor show of belly dancers, because you'll get the same thing everywhere. It's the tourists' Soylent: a thoroughly bland stew of chicken and green beans that looks postcard-perfect when it's set on the table bubbling and golden from the overdose of turmeric, but perplexingly simple on tongue—under-salted, under-spiced, and overpriced.

Photo by Matthew Zuras

The medina of Fez, where you can buy pointy slippers, dates, and live chickens, all within a few feet of one another.

Hubris, more than experience, told me this. I figured I could handle Morocco easily: More than a decade living in New York taught me to avoid the gazes of touts and to walk determinedly, like I owned the joint. I've spent the last year studying Arabic, and had enough of a grasp of it to conduct basic conversations, read, and write. My boyfriend and I had visited pre- and post-revolution Cairo a half-dozen times, and dropped into Beirut between the bombings of an embassy and a Hezbollah stronghold, both of which were within walking distance of our hotel. We were well-equipped, we told ourselves, to handle what we assumed was some kind of North African Disneyland that had, in our minds, simply slept through the Arab Spring.

And plenty of our experiences there were Disneylandish, or at least ripped straight from the guidebook. Our bus stopped, like dozens of buses before and after it, at a grove of argan trees that held about eight goats in their branches like barnyard Christmas ornaments. We met the backpacked stoners who make pilgrimages to the mountains, where Berber farmers grow marijuana plantations while the government looks the other way.

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And then there's the Djemma El Fnaa, the main plaza in the medina of Marrakech—a Times Square of snake charmers, fortune tellers, men selling stolen cell phones and putting monkeys (unsolicited) on tourists' heads. During the day, the Djemma is a parked caravan of wagons with vendors selling orange juice, dates, and nuts. In the late afternoon, however, the cooks start rolling in, setting up state fair-style tents and picnic tables, where they will physically drag foreigners into their stalls for cheap kebabs and tagines. It's close quarters all around, and a quick glance might suggest that they're all cooking the same thing. As such, they all have numbers and corresponding mnemonic jingles so that tourists can remember to come back the next night. "One-eleven takes you to heaven!" said one. "Twenty-five: still alive," said another, before promising that I wouldn't get diarrhea from eating at his stall.

Photo by Matthew Zuras

Some of the sheep heads and tongues available at Chez Abdeljabar.

I went, instead, for the sheep's heads. There were a handful of stalls selling them, but Lucky 13 — properly called Chez Abdeljabar, founded in 1976 — won out with its total lack of Westerners. (In the sea of tourists nearby, a British girl in a tube top was screaming at a vendor: "Fish and chips? DO? YOU? UNDERSTAND?") I was given the head of the table, with three leathery-looking têtes de mouton laid out before me amid disembodied tongues and a few other chunks of viscera.

I was brought a plate of mixed meats in under two minutes, served with slightly stale wedges of ubiquitous khubz — a sort of bastard of pita and pain de mie — that arrived pre-soaked with warm animal fat. It was excellent, but I couldn't place exactly what I was eating: One piece was spongy but dense, sort of like a pound cake made from meat. I found out it was the udder of a cow, beaten into tender submission after a long session in a pressure cooker, seasoned with parsley, coriander, garlic, salt, cumin, and sweet paprika.

Photo by Matthew Zuras

A mixed plate at Chez Abdeljabar, including face meat, tongue, and udders.

Many meats in Morocco apparently benefit from the pressure cooker. A few days earlier I was in Fez, jammed into the corner of a restaurant the size of a small walk-in closet, where I was served a "steamed" sheep's tongue that had been melting away in the pressure cooker all morning. It's eaten simply with bread, chopped tomatoes and onions, and sprinkled with a blend of coarse salt and cumin. And it's fucking delicious—like pulled pork, but sheep-y.

Photo by Matthew Zuras

Pieces of steamed sheep's tongue in Fez, which are sprinkled with cumin and coarse salt.

Back in Marrakech, I made a second trip to Chez Abdeljabar, whose titular owner, once again cleaving faces and organs, handed me another mixed plate of tongue and udder—along with a serving of creamy sheep's brains. A bonus, I figured, for returning to this edible Giallo flick.

Photo by Matthew Zuras

Street breads often eaten for breakfast. Clockwise from top: bghrir, a spongy pancake; harsha, a dense cake made from semolina; and mlaoui (AKA msemen), a layered dough that uses a ton of butter.

I'm not much of a brain-eater, but it got me thinking: The adventurous aspect of all of this wasn't in the eating itself – just in the will to eat. I had bought into Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern's macho eating philosophies, but it didn't steer me wrong because this stuff was, regardless of its anatomical provence, absolutely amazing to eat. A long-cooked sheep's face wouldn't be out of place in many of Brooklyn's meat-heavy hipster eateries. And tongue (the only offal served at Danny Bowien's Mission Cantina on the Lower East Side) is now practically passé.

The spectacle is, of course, a part of the experience. You can ignore the snakes and the monkeys and squawking Brits, but you can't quite ignore the base note of horse piss from the nearby carriages, or being mistaken for a "fucking German" by a food stall worker because you politely (and then not-so-politely) declined to eat their fly-swarmed kofte.

Photo by Matthew Zuras

A sheep's head at Chez Abdeljabar. He might not be pretty, but he was very tasty.

It did quickly dawn on me that I knew shit about Morocco and its culinary traditions, which are as complex as its political and ethnic history. I had no idea that the French left not only language, but also dainty patisseries that flank open-air butchers with sheep carcasses and camel heads hanging from hooks outside; or that the Spanish influence is just as strong in northern cities like Tangier and Chefchaouen, where churros, tuna-stuffed bocadillos, and a quiche called caliente reign as street food after hours spent smoking hash from foot-long sebsi pipes in dingy tea shops. There's also the Berbers, of course, who were responsible for the couscous and tagines.

Photo by Matthew Zuras

Offal, too, is only the beginning. The stuffed spleen known as tehane—an old Jewish dish found in Fez that's filled with ground meat, onions, and spices, sliced and grilled and packed into sandwiches—is the extreme of the Moroccan street food spectrum. On the other end, there's the simple blue-collar bowl of bissara, a fava bean soup eaten before work, and there are too many breads to name—from the buttery meloui and tripe-like baghrir pancakes to trid, a paper-thin pastry that's cooked on a giant metal egg. There's the deep-fried knots of chebakiya, drowned in honey and sesame seeds, to be eaten with a glass of that ubiquitous mint tea that's been properly spiked with a sprig of absinthe-y wormwood.

And then there's called khlii, the Moroccan answer to duck confit. It's made from beef that's been rubbed with salt and spices, and air-dried in the sun for several days until it becomes jerky-like. It's then packed in rendered cow's fat ("stomach fat," I was told) and can be kept at room temperature for up to two years. The flavor is intensely beefy, with the noticeable tang and funk of an aged cheese, and a tongue-shriveling twist of salt. Mine was scooped from a huge blue plastic barrel — the exact same kind that Jeffrey Dahmer stuffed his victims in, I noted to myself—and will be pan-fried with eggs for breakfast.

Photo by Matthew Zuras

Khlii — dried beef that's packed in fat — fresh out of the barrel in Fez.

All of this isn't to say that tagines and couscous are bad, or that they aren't an essential part of Moroccan cuisine, but that tourists are routinely but happily undersold by terraced restaurants offering a safe alternative to the food that the rest of the country eats. The only memorable tagine I ate—the classic chicken and green beans—was prepared by a woman named Um Klthum, who served as the maid and part-time cook of my four-room riad in Fez.

She brought it from home, of course, and it was incredible.