Marrakech, Morocco – Wandering the twisting, narrow streets of the Medina, it’s impossible to get very far without hearing a familiar phrase, “The square is that way!” By daylight, I keep Jemaa el-Fnaa – Marrakech’s main square – at my back while walking the labyrinth of alleys, ducking through arched passageways and arriving at more than one dead end.
Marrakech compels me to explore. Every step is a new breath, and each breath tells an olfactory story from the city: intoxicating, saturated with freshly baked flatbread, musky amber oil, spice, sweat, and hints of rotting meat coupled with the sweet perfume of orange blossoms. Step, inhale. Step, inhale.
During the day, Jemaa el-Fnaa doubles as a market, somewhat of a chaotic Arabian Nights sideshow. Drums beat relentlessly, accompanied by clapping, dancing and the minor-key reels of snake charmers’ flutes. Stumble into the square looking lost, and you may have a serpent around your neck and a monkey in your arms before you can say “extortion.” Keep your wits about you, and you’ll have front row seats to the best free show in town.
“The square is that way.”
I hear them, but I simply smile, shake my head “no,” and continue on my haphazard trajectory, willing to lose myself somewhere off the map just because. Inevitably, shouts of “But there’s nothing that way!” follow, but I wander on through the Medina until the dust-colored buildings fade to orange with the setting sun.
Now is the time to go to the square.
Nearly one hundred food vendors descend upon Jemaa el-Fnaa at dusk, erecting tented stalls end-to-end that sprawl the length of the massive square. Some vendors dish a specialty over a small counter with a few stools; other stalls are set up like restaurants with laminated menus and whole sections of tables. Some sit empty while others are surrounded by a crowd three-deep, waiting for a spot to open.
This night market is like no other I’ve seen – it’s electric, pulsating – here you’ll find the heartbeat of Morocco’s extraordinary cuisine. Though the market appeals to tourists, this is not a tourist trap. You’ll see as many locals as foreigners enjoying everything from cous cous to escargot.
With so many choices available, vendors distinguish themselves (and their reputations) by their assigned stall number. Hired touts throw themselves in front of prospective diners like carnival barkers; their multi-lingual pleas – “G’day mate, stall 22!” “New York? Fuggedaboutit, 73 is best!” – demonstrate an extraordinary aptitude for colloquialism and sheer commitment to wrangling bodies into seats. It can be overwhelming when shouted at from every direction. “I’ve already eaten, maybe tomorrow” seems to be a somewhat effective response. Be prepared, not dissuaded; it’s absolutely worth it to plunge into every aisle of the night market to gape at the sizzling grills, steaming tajines and stacks of glistening offal.
Step, inhale. Step, inhale.
How does anyone know where to begin?
At Jemaa el-Fnaa, reputation goes a long way. The most crucial advice I can offer is to look for crowded stalls and a local clientele. For all intents and purposes, this is street food – something I genuinely believe to be the best, most authentic food you can find on any trip. Hence, “street food logic” applies. Use your eyes and brain. If something looks or smells great, and you can see it’s being properly cooked, eat it. If there’s a stall with zero clientele and touts are physically dragging you to a table (Stall 117 has this reputation), I would decline.
Ask locals their stall preferences, though you may not always get a favorable response. I queried the owner of my riad, a French expat who’s lived in Morocco for two decades. She used to frequent Stall 1, but when the ownership recently changed, she ceased, mainly for sanitary reasons. She explained there’s no running water in the square, so dishwashing methods are questionable. “If you do eat at the square,” she advises, “eat early, when the plates are still clean.”
When you sit down, make sure you’ve looked at the menu to get a clear idea of the prices. You may be up-charged. Bread is normally included with your meal, or it may carry a small fee of 5 dirhams. Tea is extra, and it may be served without asking, but the prices at Jemaa el-Fnaa are low; being coerced into a few sips of mint tea won’t break the bank.
All said, please do not be discouraged by my words of caution. Navigating Marrakech’s main square after dark is an unmissable culinary experience. It truly is a food lover’s paradise. Sometimes it’s just good to know where to begin. So, as a starting point for adventurous eaters, here are three of my recommendations:
Undoubtedly the most popular restaurant at Jemaa el-Fnaa, Stall 14 serves up some of the city’s freshest fried fish. There’s a constant crowd jockeying for a space at the counter, but the staff will find you a seat, even if you, like me, have to climb along a packed bench to those few empty stools in the kitchen, inches from a large boiling pot. I’m convinced by both locals and staff to order the eggplant spread and I’m glad I do. It’s the best aubergine I’ve tasted in Marrakech. A mixed fish platter contains an array of deep-fried fish bites (bone in) and tender circles of calamari, but the stall’s piece de resistance is whole fried hake; the flaky white meat falls straight off the bone. This fish & chips family has been in business for many years. A Spanish man sitting across from me compares the head chef to one of Japan’s renowned sushi masters, whispering, “He’s the Moroccan version of Jiro.” I take another bite of perfectly fried fish, smile and agree.
Sausages are the draw at Stall 32, specifically merguez – North African sausages made with lamb or a combination of lamb and beef. Dozens of merguez are piled on the central grill at this bustling stall; they’re being served as fast as they can be cooked. The sausages are thin, red and juicy, and make a satisfying ‘snap’ when I bite into one. The merguez are accompanied by warm khobz – soft rounds of Moroccan flatbread – as well as a spicy tomato sauce for dunking. Fresh tomatoes, onions, garlic, cumin and hot pepper are the main ingredients in this Moroccan-style pico di gallo. The combination of tangy salsa and greasy sausage soaking into freshly baked bread is Jemaa el-Fnaa’s answer to comfort food.
Rub shoulders with locals and gain serious street food cred at Stall 10, where offal is the main event. When I say I’m from New York, a chef gleefully informs me he’s a spitting image of Eddie Murphy while hoisting a whole lamb head into the air for a photo op. I’m at Stall 10 on word of mouth, because I want to experience no-frills, authentic Moroccan cuisine. I dig into a mutton tajine made with “bits and pieces” – assorted sheep meat, head and stomach included. The slow-cooked stew is deeply flavorful, with notes of saffron, cumin and turmeric. I even allow myself to be coerced into a small glass of mint tea. A bowl of dried spice – sea salt and cumin – is passed along the bench, family style. I can’t help but feel a sense of belonging here, as though I’ve been invited into someone’s home to share a meal.
FOOD & TRAVEL TIPS: How to Eat at Jemaa el-Fnaa after dark
- Look for specifically recommended stall numbers or find a crowded stall with plenty of local diners.
- Take note of the menu and prices on display. Some vendors will up-charge you.
- Look around and order the stall’s specialty. It’s the dish that most people are eating.
- Note that there’s no running water in the square and dishes are repeatedly washed in the same tub. Eat as soon as the market opens if you’re squeamish – you’ll be the first one to use the plate that night.
- Talk to the chefs and to other diners. There’s a great camaraderie at each stall, and you’ve already begun a dialogue simply by showing up to eat with locals.