The souk kitchen

Wander the streets of Marrakesh and soak up the sights and sounds of the marketplace... With help from the cooks in the djema, Fiona Matthias savours some irresistibly exotic aromas and flavours
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The narrow, winding streets of Marrakesh's souk are crammed full of small shops, lit mainly by flickering strip lights and bare bulbs. It's the kind of place where you can buy almost anything you can think of, short of a harem girl or two.

The narrow, winding streets of Marrakesh's souk are crammed full of small shops, lit mainly by flickering strip lights and bare bulbs. It's the kind of place where you can buy almost anything you can think of, short of a harem girl or two.

Choose from heavy Berber necklaces made of silver or a pair of snakeskin babouches; a tiny pinch of sunset-coloured strands of saffron; a bag bursting to the seams with cinnamon, cumin, coriander or ras-el-hanout; or a pot of thick, oily face cream reeking of sickly-sweet rose essence.

As you emerge from the gloom of the souk, the light of the Moroccan sunshine is blinding - and, after the relative quiet of the market, the din is almost deafening.

The large square, from which the streets of the souk radiate like the spokes of a bicycle wheel, is packed full of itinerant vendors, wheedling beggars and performing troupes, all chasing the tourist dollar. This is the djema el fnaa, marketplace, circus and village fîte, all rolled into one.

The place to enjoy the chaos from one remove, is high above the cacophony, on a terrace of one of the cafés that line the square. There you can order a pot of mint tea, which will be poured in a single amber-coloured stream into your filigreed glass from an almost unbelievable height.

To a Western palate, it seems very sweet, so this is definitely best sipped slowly - which is fine, because it allows you to linger and watch the changes that take place in the djema as dusk falls.

As day becomes night, delicious aromas begin to waft upwards, and an initial trickle of diners becomes a flood. By the time the stars are out, you have to queue for a seat at the most popular cooking areas, each one surrounded by tidy rows of tables and benches. Tourists and locals alike eat here every night, irresistibly attracted to the stalls in the same way that the moths that flicker overhead are drawn to the stalls' bright lights. Prices are cheap, which makes the djema the ideal place to acquaint yourself with many of Morocco's traditional dishes.

Most of us in the West are already familiar with couscous and tagine, and here, in the market, you can sample them in a number of their more popular incarnations.

Couscous is most likely to come adorned with a vegetable stew, which might feature chickpeas, carrots, onions and pumpkin - or, if the dish contains meat, it's likely to be that most North African of meats, mutton, and, if you're lucky, a nugget or two of spicy merguez sausage.

Tagines come in an almost bewildering range of flavours. These slow-cooked stews are named after the conical-lidded earthenware pots in which they are cooked.

The main ingredient can be meat, fish, chicken or vegetables, frequently sweetened with dried or preserved fruit and nuts, and flavoured with a blend of spices. Among the most popular is chicken, cooked with preserved lemons and olives, which give the dish an interesting, slightly bitter sharpness.

Lamb and prune, sweetened further with honey, is another favourite - an altogether richer, fuller dish than the chicken version.

Or you can opt for a fish tagine, which will include whatever happens to be fresh off the boat that day, cooked to tender perfection in a mildly spiced tomato sauce.

If you prefer your fish without sauce, you can choose to have yours fried. Sardines, hake and red mullet are filleted, then two fillets are sandwiched together with the near-ubiquitous chermoula - a punchy, flavoursome blend of coriander, parsley, garlic, cumin, olive oil and lemon juice - then dipped in egg and flour before being immersed in a bubbling cauldron of oil. Dished up with little ceremony and a squeeze of lemon, this simple dish bursts with flavour.

Chickens are roasted on spits, and spiked with an acid splash of lemon juice, or skewered and grilled over an open flame. Other meats - lamb, beef and various cuts of offal best left to the more adventurous eater - are marinated, often in chermoula, for several hours before being grilled on skewers and served with salads and a chunk of chewy Moroccan bread.

The same bread accompanies a range of traditional salads - the selection might include za'alouk, a soft purée of aubergine mixed with chermoula, tiny cubes of potatoes that have been sautéed with onions and coriander, juicy slices of tomatoes and chunks of cucumber doused in olive oil or mechouia, a colourful plateful of roasted peppers and tomatoes.

There's no menu, of course, so you just point at whatever catches your eye and a generous serving will be ladled onto your plate.

Don't miss the opportunity to try harira, a hearty, saffron-spiked broth full of lentils and vegetables cooked in a meaty lamb or beef stock. It's so satisfying that a bowlful is traditionally served at sunset during ramadan to break the fast.

Whatever you end up choosing - and eating - there's little doubt that an evening spent wandering round the djema el fnaa is the best way to get a taste of Morocco.

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