Follow the camel

zac o?yeah | Updated on March 01, 2019

Meat rack: Koftas, sausages, lamb chops and a tomato crush at Hadj Brek, Rue Bani Marine   -  IMAGES: ZAC O’YEAH

Nosing around for the Saharan variety — in the form of a burger patty — in Marrakech

A great spot from which to watch modern Marrakech walk by is Café l’Atlas in the Ville Nouvelle, the westernised part of the Moroccan city. The café is a stylish 1945 Art Deco diner right at the crossing of Avenue Mohammed V and Boulevard Mohamed Zerktouni. As I peruse the all-day breakfast menu, I spot a regional speciality known as bastilla (50 dirhams or ₹370). I recall writer Amitav Ghosh speaking of bastilla as an unforgettable food experience during his visit to Morocco in 1979, so I place my order. It turns out to be a massive flaky deep-fried phyllo dough pastry stuffed with shredded chicken and almond paste, topped with powdered sugar and cinnamon — an unusual mind-blasting combination of flavours, it is at the same time a main course and a dessert. (Apart from this restaurant version, bastilla is also available as a roadside snack with a fascinating stuffing of seafood, chilli and noodles, and shaped like a samosa.)

I’ve been doing an awful lot of sightseeing in the Old Medina: Museums, tombs, palaces, and spice markets where ‘curry powder’ retails at ₹6,000 a kilo. I’ve tracked down the restaurant which features in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1950s thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much. Although, in the film, James Stewart and Doris Day stayed at the opulent hotel La Mamounia, the protracted dinner, during which they are taught how to eat Moroccan-style by a British terrorist couple, was shot at Dar Essalam (170 Rue Riad Zitoun Kedim). It has cavernous subterranean dining halls where I take selfies at the table used in the film (indicated by movie stills on the wall). But I’m the only customer and, with no waiters showing up, I figure I’ll get better service and food elsewhere.

In another crooked bazaar I go looking for La Maison Arabe, the legendary Moroccan culinary temple started by a Frenchwoman in 1946. It attracted a clientèle of royalty and heads of State, and of which author Paul Bowles wrote, “Every gastronome who comes to Morocco will want the experience of tasting the most delectable samples of cuisine marocaine to be had anywhere, and he will find them at La Maison Arabe. And he must be so devoted to the art of eating that he is not disturbed by the almost monastic atmosphere.” Unfortunately I end up in the wrong place, Café Arabe (184 Rue Mouassine), where I make do with a coffee on the airy rooftop. In any case, it turns out that the actual La Maison Arabe shut down in 1983, but due to its ancient fame, it’s been revived as a pricey boutique hotel’s dining hall.

Another of my foodie objectives is to taste Saharan camels to see if they’re any better than in India, where the few camels I’ve eaten have been rather tough — maybe dehydrated by sunbathing in the desert. It’s hard to find cooked camel in Morocco; despite the meat being cheap, people don’t like to eat it except in the very poor southern provinces. After sustained googling, I come across Café Clock (www.cafeclock.com), run by a gourmet chef whose signature dish is camel meat burgers. Jackpot! Once I track down the appealing eatery in a narrow backstreet on the old town’s southern edge, the staff proudly shows me a camel’s cranium that decorates the kitchen. I look around and notice the guests are all foreigners. The burger looks promising, smothered as it is with cheese and tomato-ish sauce, but turns out to be totally dry — as if the camel had galloped all the way from Persia, forgetting to pick up Arabian flavours along the way. It’s served on an equally dry overfried sweetish bun along with tasteless finger chips. Not exactly a juicy gourmet experience worth 95 dirhams (₹705).

Not quite gourmet: The burger at Café Clock fails to impress   -  IMAGES: ZAC O’YEAH


It’s surprisingly complicated to satisfy my palate in Marrakech. The famous street food of the historical Jemaa el-Fnaa square comes with pushy waiter-touts monkeying about, pulling me into the stalls with the catchy marketing phrase, “It’s the same shit everywhere but our shit is less bad.” Plates of mixed brain, a ladleful of gravy with unidentifiable meat for 100 dirhams or ₹740, make me feel the bills are the only things well cooked here.

In the end it is better, cheaper and tastier to eat where Moroccans themselves go, and I do just that — immediately south of the Jemaa el-Fnaa square, in a backstreet called Rue Bani Marine, tidy canteens such as El Bahja and Hadj Brek have glass counters where meats and sausages are displayed hygienically. Once I order my lamb chops, the in-house butcher does his chopping before my eyes! A plate of crisp-grilled cotelette, or meaty merguez sausages, or a tagine (meat and veggie stew slow-cooked in a cone-shaped earthen pot), typically costs 24 dirhams (₹180), served with flat bread (khobz), Moroccan salad, harissa-marinated olives and a plate of spiced tomato crush.

So the universal rule of thumb applies in Marrakech too: Head for where no tourist sets foot and feast like the locals.


Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist;

Email: zacnet@email.com

Published on March 01, 2019

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