The sky explodes into a sea of color. Dusk is falling, and smoke rises into the air with it, dancing around plastic tents and swirling between throngs of both tourists and locals.

A dance has begun.

Merchants stand proudly behind walls of sheep head and bubbling, clay pots of tagine. Onlookers peer down from terraces in between sips of mint tea, served from the neck of a scorching, metal pot. Snake charmers and henna artists clear the square to make room for the real star of the evening: dinner.

Locals sit along plastic benches, using soft chunks of bread to scoop up the meals in front of them. A chorus of “My friend!” and “Over here!” plays out in all directions like a song. The fluorescent glare from a single, bare bulb in each stand illuminates the dishes on display, blending with the pink puffs of sky to form a picture of one of the oldest and most famous night markets on earth.

Joel and I are on a mission this evening—eating our way through Jemaa el-Fnaa.

Orange Juice Stand at Jemaa el-Fnaa Square in Marrakech, Morocco
Orange Juice Stand at Jemaa el-Fnaa Square in Marrakech, Morocco

Fresh-Squeezed OJ

Our first stop is an easy choice. After a long day of wandering the maze of souks and dodging touts in the square, we are both eager for something refreshing. In Marrakech, a city dotted with patches of orange trees, this means a tall glass of OJ.

A line of vendors sit at the edges of the square in strict formation. We choose one of the smiling men at random.

He reaches over the stand with a smile and hands us a glass with a straw. We sip quickly as he invites us up for photos. The drink is sugary sweet but tastes of real oranges with just the right amount of pulp.

We return the empty glass and hurry off to begin our epic meal.

Orange Juice (Stand #30)

Price: 4 MAD/$0.44 USD

Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakech, Morocco
Harira Soup at Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakech, Morocco

Harira Soup

Our first course is a warm bowl of harira. Commonly referred to simply as “Moroccan soup”, it serves as a staple in menus across the country. The soup is simple and inelegant, a humble blend of tomato, lentils, and onion with soft chickpeas and short, skinny noodles floating at the surface. At just 3 dirham, this dish is one of the cheapest items you can buy here.

Harira Soup (Stand #75)

Price: 3 MAD/$0.33 USD

Snail Soup (Ghoulal)

A second, more local dish unique to Marrakech is being served by a small section of vendors just outside the main hub of the square.

Snail soup, also known as ghoulal, is an earthy blend of spices and tiny snail shells, served in a small, ceramic bowl. It’s the Moroccan version of escargot.

The chef scoops out a serving of shells from a round, steaming vat and places the bowl down in front of me. Taking a cue from my neighbors, I draw a toothpick from the dispenser and begin wrestling out the stretchy bodies from their homes. Each bite is chewy and savory as I polish off the bowl.

Snail Soup (Stand #2)

Price: 5 MAD/$0.55 USD

Tangia at Jemaa el-Fnaa Night Market in Marrakech, Morocco
Tangia at Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakech, Morocco

Tangia

Hors-d’oeuvre hour is quickly coming to a close as we prepare ourselves to head deeper into the hum of the market. It’s time for the main courses.

While Moroccan food is known for its variety of spices and flavors, it is also self-admittedly and unabashedly simple in its range of menu. Most visitors realize this by the end of their week-long vacations as they board their planes home hoping to never see another plate of tajine or couscous for a long, long time.

Yet, Marrakech has taken the ubiquitous tajine and transformed it into something only slightly different, but infinitely more tasty: tangia.

Tangia is similar to tajine in that both are cooked in earthenware pots. But while tajine can be any combination of broiled meats and vegetables piled together beneath a terra-cotta cone, tangia is a more specific brew of lamb laden with rouge chunks of grisly fat and braised in generous amounts of cumin.

One man hands us a small plate that jiggles as it’s plumped down in front of us. Our server (for lack of a better term) greets us eagerly and hands us forks. We tear off chunks of bread and eat it Moroccan style, and he laughs and smiles approvingly as he removes the silverware and announces with pleasure, “Yes, you eat the Moroccan way!”

I wipe the grease from the corners of my mouth, and we drop a handful of dirham into the chef’s hands and go off in search of our next dish.

Tangia (Stand #10)

Price: 20 MAD/$2.18 USD

Sheep Brain/Head at Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakech, Morocco

Mixed Sheep Brain

Every culture has their own culinary oddities.

In Bangkok, they snack on crickets. In Lijiang, they sip on yak milk. In Edinburgh, they split fried candy bars.

And in Marrakech, they dine on sheep brain.

Although, to reduce the sheep tents in Jemaa el-Fnaa to just “brains” would be doing a major injustice. While servings of intact brain sit proudly on display, many patrons opt for a scattering of various offal: lung, cheek, tongue, and yes, brain. Each piece is chopped and sliced beyond recognition, topped with a few generous spoonfuls of bubbling tangia juice, and presented like an obscure culinary puzzle. I immediately recognize my first bite as tongue by its distinct chewiness. The bits of brain are too soft to distinguish among the various cuts.

Mixed Sheep Brain (Stand #44)

Price: 25 MAD/$2.73 USD

Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakech, Morocco

Eggplant (Aubergine)

Our heads are swimming with the overwhelming meatiness of our last few dishes and look around for something lighter.

Joel settles on a grill table, the stage in front of a mountain of vegetables ripe for eating. He picks the eggplant (or aubergine) and our server fires up the grill. The oiled patties are ready in less than a few minutes.

Each slice is thick and coated with oil, served without added spice or pretension.

Eggplant/Aubergine (Stand #1)

Price: 5 MAD/$0.55

Jemaa el-Fnaa Sausages Night Market in Marrakech, Morocco
Jemaa el-Fnaa Night Market in Marrakech, Morocco

Smoked Sausages

We switch to another tent. This one is almost entirely dedicated to the sweet science of sausage grilling. A string of links is thrown carefully across the grill, bathing each piece in a thick plume of smoke. The flames on the grill rise higher and higher, and the cook bravely throws his hands directly into the fire, somehow remaining unburnt.

A plate of sausages appears soon after. Joel pinches a link between thumb and forefinger, slathers it in a rich red pepper sauce, and pops it into his mouth with a content smile.

Smoked Sausages (Stand #34)

Price: 25 MAD/$2.73

Spice Cake and Tea at Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakech, Morocco
Spice Cake and Tea at Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakech, Morocco

Spiced Cake & Spiced Tea

We’re ready to throw in the towel on our savory exploitations for the evening.

But, me being me, I need something sweet to close the deal. We look to the gathering of spice vendors on the southern edge of the square.

A handful of men are serving cake and tea. Jars of ginger, cardamon, black pepper, and other spices I fail to recognize decorate the table as we order a serving of dessert to share.

The tea is stronger than expected and coats my throat in a warm wash of star anise and ginger. It’s almost too overwhelming, but after my third sip I begin to appreciate the warmth.

Next is the spice cake. An electric mix of spices assaults my taste buds in a chalky, powdery mess. Joel is done after one bite and I’m trying my best to appreciate the astringent flavors, but by bite two I tap out as well.

Spiced Cake & Spice Tea (Stand #70)

Price: 15 MAD/$1.64

Msemen at Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakech, Morocco
Msemen in the Medina in Marrakech, Morocco

Msemen (Pan-Fried Dough)

We’re wrapping things up for the evening, reminiscing over our meal while strolling along the street towards Koutoubia. It’s night now and energy fills every corner of the medina.

A lady catches our eye. She’s pounding greasy balls of dough into pancakes and flipping them deftly on a wide griddle outside of a little shop with a sign declaring “Cane Sucre Café”. We edge closer as she pokes a hole in the center of one of the balls and cracks an egg, which bubbles and pops in the hot oil.

Joel and I look at each other. We’re both fit to burst, but the man in front tells us that it’s only 6 dirhams per pancake, and we cave.

He folds a fresh one in half, gently charred and teaming with enough oil to immediately soak through the brown paper. We tear off hot chunks and pass the bag back and forth as we finally head home, full and happy.

Msemen/Pan-Fried Dough (Found on the streets surrounding the medina)

Price: 6 MAD/$0.65

Before you go…

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