On our first night in Marrakech we had one of those meals I’ll always remember as excellent.
A traditional Moroccan dinner is a lengthy affair that will send you to bed with a stomach close to bursting. A typical dinner starts with something small to nibble on, some olives or peanuts in tiny plates. Then come “mixed Moroccan salads,” which have nothing to do with salads as we know them, but consist of close to magical spreads of equally magical bright colors: tomato, carrot, olive, eggplant, cucumber, beetroot. There is a zucchini dip that tastes like jam, an olive and green onion one that reminded me of a dish my grandmother makes on Christmas Eve and a lentil dish that no one noticed because it was the least colorful. You dip piece after piece of soft white bread in these heavenly dips and are already satiated but your meal hasn’t even begun!
When my first lamb tagine in Morocco arrived I thought they were kidding. Four of us had ordered it and it came in one large turret-covered pot, the meat nested between sauces, tomatoes and pieces of veggies. The waiter proceeded to serve out the tagine on our plates, taking his time, solemnly arranging pieces of lamb under of a sort of fan of green vegetables and covering the whole thing with sauce and bits of tomatoes. There is no need for me to tell you that the lamb was heaven – the fact that I am describing it in writing alone should speak to that.
Well, there was a lot of lamb in that pot, and after we had all stuffed ourselves full with its goodness, there was still more left. We quickly learned that Moroccan meals are extremely generous.
A tagine dinner would usually include couscous and one of us did order some, but the lamb took center-stage so prominently all night that I don’t think anyone paid any attention to poor couscous, although it was also very good.
Dessert is a treacherous thing in Morocco. First of all, Moroccan food is fundamentally sweet. Breakfast is made up almost entirely of sugar and carbs: toasted bread and jam, honey pancakes, sugary cakes, coffee cakes, syrup cakes, tiny cups of yogurt with a sugary syrup as decoration and very sweet mint tea. You can have tea at any point during the day and it usually comes with some sort of Moroccan cookies, which taste like candle wax mixed with almond flavors and sugar. But even so, after every meal, you are pleasantly encouraged to order dessert. And, forgetting about the impending tea and cookies, and remembering that you are on vacation, you say, “Let’s go for it!,” and end up with a double dessert and some sweet mint tea on top. Tough life.
Overall, this magnificent dinner experience aside, I think food was a struggle for everyone. We ate too much and not enough of the right things (I think the only time I saw a fresh vegetable was when it was drawn by a donkey down the streets of the souk, and Svetla wouldn’t let me buy it, because she said all the guidebooks advise exactly against buying fresh fruit and vegetables. When I said that a lot of the stuff we buy from Saintsbury’s comes from Morocco she wasn’t convinced and I had to step away from the donkey). But that first dinner of exquisite lamb tagine will remain in my memory as one of the best meals in my life to date, along with the four sets of mixed Moroccan salads I had in the span of two days.