I put a spoonful of fatteh into my mouth and I swear I felt my tastebuds smile at the surprising combination of delicate flavours, each of whom whispered sensuously rather than shouted their presence. It was one of those dining moments where you have to put down your knife and fork and say something. So I did.
“Why wasn’t the food like this in Morocco?”
The fatteh (a mix of chickpeas, lamb, sliced garlic and herby natural yoghurt) was in a Lebanese restaurant and part of a team of dishes that were vying for my favouritism.
This was the type of North African/Middle Eastern cooking whose mix of exotic spices and herbs have you dreaming of saddling up your camel and setting off on a culinary adventure through North Africa and the Middle East.
So, why did I never have that reaction to a dish in Morocco, a North African country famed for its spices and lauded by some for its cuisine? Surely we must have got it wrong?
I must have completely missed that part of the menu in various Marrakech restaurants which included the the sort of seductive and inventive dishes you find in Lebanese cuisine. Somehow I’d been blinkered and only ever read the section with tajines, pastillas and couscous?
It was time for a bit of online research to see where and how I’d gone wrong.
Marrakech Cuisine by the Newspapers & Magazines
Condé Nast Traveller had too many suggestions for swish looking places which served up ‘international’ fare. That was no good. I wanted to know about the authentic local stuff. Eventually they came up with Chez Chegrouni of which they wrote: “… even Michelin-star-winning chef Richard Neat has stood in line and forgone the pleasures of the bottle to enjoy the simplest of classic Moroccan cuisine.” Yup, I’d eaten there. It was tajines and couscous.
Time Out had a glowing recommendation for eating in fabulous surroundings. Sounded very nice, but it was a Thai restaurant.
The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian came up with Al Fassia, which is a guidebook favourite… because of its lamb tajine and pigeon pastilla. The Telegraph also suggested Terrasse de Épices which also does a nice line in, wait for it, tajines and pastillas.
Another Telegraph choice was Gastro MK which is also the number 1 restaurant in Marrakech for Tripadvisor users. In a city where you can get a tasty tajine for a couple of quid, I shirk at forking out £55 for a fusion of French Moroccan dishes, especially as I’ll probably end up with couscous and tajine anyway.
The New York Times favoured Le Tobsil where, for £60 ahead, I’d get a feast that included not one but two tajines. The NY Times also suggested Kosybar; it’s in a great position overlooking the Badi Palace with its stork sentinels. With a Japanese chef and western music, it’s not quite the authentic local scene though.
Marrakech Cuisine by the Guidebooks
By the time I turned to the guidebooks I was dispirited but felt increasingly reassured that, no, we hadn’t misjudged Moroccan cuisine at all.
Frodor’s came up with Al Baraka whose website started with flowery talk of culinary art and an unmatched level of succulence before going on to list their specialities – tajines and couscous.
After scrolling through suggestions from Lonely Planet I ended up writing four words – ‘same old, same old’. They wrote of Tangia: “Can a standard chicken tagine with olives and preserved lemons really be worth almost three times what you’d pay in the Djemaa?”
It’s a question I can’t answer as I wasn’t prepared to invest some dosh testing it out.
Marrakech Cuisine by the Travel Bloggers
About the same time I visited Morocco I remembered that Legal Nomad’s Jodi Ettenberg had also been. Jodi waxed lyrical about the tajines, never tiring of them, even though she was there for a month. She wrote: ‘While some complain that they are tagined-out, I am as enamoured with tagine as I was with soup in Burma and I’ve had a wonderful time sampling the different possibilities.’
Re-reading Jodi’s blog didn’t change my view about the lack of variety in Marrakech’s Moroccan restaurants. However, she did manage to do something that none of the other travel sources had managed; she illustrated that within the tajine world there was quite a variety between different types of tajines. This was something I’d experienced myself on my first night when I was served a wonderful sardine tajine in my riad. It was the first and last sardine tajine I saw.
Jodi’s view wasn’t enough to elevate the country’s cuisine to the level I’d expected, but it did at least throw a fresh slant on it.
It might come across that I didn’t like Moroccan cuisine. It’s not the case; on the whole I enjoyed the food. But my foodie expectations prior to visiting the country had been very high.
The bottom line is that the Lebanese dishes I devoured which prompted this blog took me on an exciting journey through an exotic, spice-rich culinary landscape that spanned North Africa and the Middle East. The Moroccan staples just didn’t.
Jack is co-owner, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to lots of other places. Follow Jack on Google+