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Moroccan snails: from street food to upscale snack

Standing on the side of a road in a hectic north African capital may not be what most people would consider the ideal place to eat boiled snails.

Diners inclined to try 'escargots' may think of it as a dish best prepared by an expert chef and reserved for special occasions, like a visit to a French restaurant.

But in Morocco, snails are street food and have been for decades.

"We sell snails all year. There is always demand, everywhere in Morocco. I've been doing this work for 25 years," said Abderrahim, a snail-seller drowsily working under the sun near the central plaza in Rabat, the Moroccan capital.

In Rabat, on the country's west coast, escargots - called boubouch or b'bouch - are served at roadside stalls and in the souks, the traditional open-air markets.

The snails on offer are low in fat and high in protein and magnesium, similar to those found in Spain or in the south of France, but the preparation - and presentation - is not what you'd find at a French bistro where a garlic butter sauce is the norm.

In Morocco, snails are simmered in a broth seasoned with aniseed, licorice root, thyme, sweet and spicy pepper, mint, bitter orange peel, and crushed gum arabic, an ingredient taken from acacia trees.

When the stewed molluscs are ready, they're scooped out of the pot by the roadside vendor with a large wooden ladle.

Tourists walking by regularly take note of the dish but rarely sample the contents, vendors said.

-'Everyone is eating them' -

But one Moroccan entrepreneur recently launched an upscale version of the cherished snack for those queasy about buying escargots from roadside vendors, where they may feel cleanliness is an issue.

Mohamed Alaoui Abdallaoui's specially designed truck tours Rabat's trendier neighbourhoods and delivers the spicy simmered snails to clients right at their front door.

"I hope that other (competitors) will follow, so that we can offer Moroccan clientele a range of choices that are safe, clean and high-quality," Abdallaoui explained, speaking French, the language of the country's former colonial power.

Though long a domestic delicacy, most Moroccan snails - which are handpicked mainly by women and children - are exported, notably to Spain. In fact, the government's social development agency, ADS, said between 80 to 85 percent of some 10,000 tonnes of snails harvested each year are shipped abroad.

The ADS has tried to promote increased food production as one its projects designed to help the millions of Moroccans mired in poverty, like many of the women and children who collect the snails.

Abdallaoui's customers, at any rate, are thrilled.

"We got used to eating these with our parents when we were small," said Youssef, a regular client of the mobile escargot truck. "But this is clean, it's well organised, and there is no need to worry about the hygiene."

Sihan is another client now hooked on snail home delivery.

"It's the real, traditional snail we used to have at home. It's delicious, we love it. Look, everyone is eating them," he said.