Food and Life in the Djemaa el Fna

Flag_of_Morocco There are no shortage of opinions on how, and what, to eat in the Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech’s biggest culinary attraction. A large open area at the southern end of the Medina’s major souks, by day the Djemaa is an open stream of performers, orange juice and fruit sellers, and wandering locals and tourists. The orange juice here is particularly tasty: at 4 dirhams (40 cents – and make sure you have correct change, or you will end up paying more) it is a steal. Just make sure it is pressed in front of you, otherwise you risk a watered-down product. Other highlights during the day include the row of dried fruit sellers near the orange juice stands.
We also highly recommend something that gets rarely mentioned on other blogs: Moroccan sweets, usually served with tea.

MoroccanCookiesA set of carts sells an awesome variety of small sweets on one end of Djemaa el Fna, with a typical going price of 30 dirhams (3.5 dollars) for a good-sized box. All of the treats are excellent – in particular we enjoyed a one that resembled a miniature pistachio-chocolate-sesame cupcake. Delightful. If you still have a sweet tooth during the daytime and want something healthier, head for the fruit stalls: Moroccan dates and figs in particular are excellent, and even made a believer out of L, who rarely enjoyed them before our trip to Morocco. We purchased a small bag of figs for less than 50 cents, and they were of considerably better quality than you can find here in the US. You can shop around with them as well: stall owners sit high above their offerings, calling to passers-by, but you can see the quality in the fruit for yourself before you make a purchase. Strolling through the sellers’ performances, and navigating your place within it, really is the experience of Djemaa.

But what to do at nightfall? You can find multitudes of opinions from other travelers on other blogs, and they tend to go like this: we went at night, we found a stall that looked good (numbered XX), we ate a lot of tasty food for relatively cheap, and we tried something crazy like sheep’s head or snails on top of it. This makes for a good story, and is all good advice, but we think this story misses something exciting, and perhaps more culturally valuable, about Djemaa. We’ll start by saying something readers of this blog will find shocking: we did not eat in the Djemaa el-Fna at night.

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We drank tea. Spectacular, wonderful tea mind you. At a stall whose number we won’t reveal, hidden at the edge of the square. We had walked by it the previous evening, and saw that this stall, unlike many of the others, had a curious, and most welcome clientele: it was the go-to spot for all the square’s performers to pack a power dinner before a night of work. It opens a good half hour before the other stalls, and in that time gets packed with not just locals, but the locals that tend to make their living in the square, performing for the very tourists who will flood the stalls later in the evening.

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This stall has only five options, all legibly written and hanging from a sign above the cooking area. Beans. Lentils. Tripe. Soup. Tea ( for 1.5 dirhams, or about 18 cents). There is no fancy food display, no energetic and admirably persistent front-man to draw you in. Just honest food, eaten by locals, for explicit prices that are well below the 10 dirhams we had paid for tea at a nearby stall just the evening before. To find this stall, of course, we abided by all the cardinal rules: do not go anywhere that has to advertise; do not go anywhere not frequented by locals; and do not go anywhere that does not list its prices on a sign. But, we also committed an apparently cardinal soon of food travel by not really eating anything. Instead, over three cups of tea, we sat in a huddled group of patrons, having a broken conversation in what little French, and far less Arabic, we could muster. In the over-touristed and relentlessly performative facade of the Djemaa el-Fna, itself an experience worth indulging, we may have tricked ourselves into believing we somehow got under that veneer, sitting and drinking the country’s national beverage with those who, after filling up on lentils and soup and Moroccan bread, will be running the greatest night show in Marrakech.

All this is to say that if you go into Djemaa el-Fna looking for only the food, you will be disappointed. You must go for the experience, and understand what that experience is when you sit down at a table, whether it be for a pot of tea with a small group of local men or the grandest platter of food at a stall packed with locals and tourists or a sheep’s head at the east end. We encourage everyone to find the stall that will make them happiest. For us, those three cups of tea – independently fantastic fresh mint tea, naturally sweetened and presented from a large communal golden teapot – were somehow made better by the calm company in the midst of the bustling, screaming square around us.

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