By Colette Apelian - Michigan
By Colette Apelian – Michigan
Dear Mr. Bourdain,
Thank you for your report on Tangier this summer. It was exciting to have you travel to Morocco for an episode of your CNN show, Parts Unknown. Is there any chance you might return and visit Rabat?
Sure, another World Heritage Site and my former home, Fez, may be better known for food, and perhaps only Marrakesh can compete with the storied reputation and infamy of expat life in Tangier. Still, cosmopolitan Rabat has its charms, especially for cheap eats. Also, it is an UNESCO World Heritage Site that has all the quirky fun of a capital city, not to mention perpetual political protests near Parliament.
The contemporary art scene is expanding with new galleries and a government sponsored Museum of Contemporary Arts, so there is a lot to see and experience. Plus, most street vendors have high turn-over rates and tend to use fresh ingredients. I think part of the reason is that, like most foreign travelers, many Moroccans do not like food poisoning. However, even people not used to madina cuisine can enjoy, just have a Sweeps with quinine afterward, as my friend Rachida M. recommends. Problem solved. And, yes, the food in the Rabat madina is worth it.
In the hopes you will come back to Morocco, please let me suggest a few places.
Let me begin by being honest. I am not willing to give away all my favorite locations in the old city. While I would be happy to bring them business, it would be a shame to see them change or become too crowded.
They include the tiny fish fry restaurant on a side street the name of which I have never learned. You can pick up some good used washing machines and refrigerators, too, if you want to move to Rabat.
The restaurant has no title I have noticed, just a sign announcing the price for a plate of fish in Modern Standard Arabic, samak, rather than the Moroccan dialect, hoot. The fried fish comes with Moroccan shlada (typically a chopped tomato, onion, and cucumber salad dressed with vinegar and oil), lubia (cooked and, if you’re lucky, spicy kidney beans); and khoubz (pieces of fresh round bread sold throughout Morocco).
Another good fish restaurant is up a narrow staircase off one of the larger vegetable marketplace in the heart of the old city. Their fare is pretty much the same as the first. There are also the ladies who sell tiny and delicious shrimp, meat, and chicken briwat (filled savory pastries in triangle shapes) not far from the American Language Center. Their English is excellent, of course; and, like potato chips, don’t expect to eat just one as you stand in front of their glass case.
One of my favorite kebab or kefta places near the Marche Central burned down in 2012, unfortunately, but another along one of the main avenues, Suwika, and across from a mosque keeps my craving in check. I remember visiting them when the restaurant was so small some customers had to stand mid- meal if someone wanted a soda from the fridge. Despite the size, this restaurant attracted just about everyone around a single common table with bench seating.
Now, the restaurant has a back room. Before today, I recall sharing a meal with Palestinian diplomats fresh from a shopping spree in the madina. Later, my dinner companion told me they happened to be sitting next to some local prostitutes.
I’m not sure if he was correct, but it makes a good story. If you happen to guess the right restaurant, order your meal with eggs and the sauce, and do not ignore the cumin and hot spice (harr) shakers on the tables. Expect to eat with your hands and pieces of bread with which one makes small sandwiches.
In the interest of sharing, Mr. Bourdain, I can give away a few places by name. Let me warn you in advance that terms for and descriptions of foods in Morocco tend to change from place to place and from person to person; and that the spelling of words I use are but one way one can transliterate the Moroccan dialect of Arabic into English.
To get to the old madina, you might walk past some sausage and other wheeled wooden food carts that appear in the evenings along or near the pedestrian walkway between the tram tracks running along Hassan II Avenue and the city ramparts. These carts are especially easy to find close to portals, or babs. Get a small sandwich so you can save your appetite.
To get to the old city, you might also walk north-east down one of the major streets in the new city, or ville nouvelle, such as Avenue Mohammed V or Avenue Allal ben Abdellah. If you head down the latter, you will arrive at one of my favorite concentrations of restaurants and food stalls in the old city of Rabat.
It is along a short road between Bab al-Bouiba and Suwika. The road is also marked by a cat and kitty filled garden attached to a zawiya, or shrine, which is nearly across the street from the Mosque of Moulay Sliman. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and quite a few snacks can be enjoyed here, at Bab al-Bouiba, as locals call the road in addition to portal leading into it. Though I am pretty sure you are not a vegetarian, Mr. Bourdain, if you travel with one, he or she can find a meal here, too.
I like going in the mornings to enjoy milk and coffee with fresh warm semolina-based pancakes called harsha. Harsha can be ordered with honey (`assel) and butter (zebda), which sometimes ends up being margarine. You can also order harsha with Laughing Cow cheese (La Vache qui Rit). On the days I am not worrying about my waistline, I ask for harsha with amalou, which, according to one lady working at the narrow shop nearly in front of the fruit stand, is almonds ground with honey and “rumi” oil or, in her case, Oleor.
Another person told me Oleor is a sunflower oil, or “zeit al-nuwwar shems.” This strikes me as unusual, since most amalou is made with argan oil, I thought, but I support creative interpretations of recipes and sunflower oil is probably more cost effective. In the ville nouvelle, a man running the small milk-based food shop (mahlaba) next to the storied Central Hotel across from the Moroccan Parliament told me his amalou is made with peanuts. Go figure.
For breakfast along Bab al-Bouiba, you could also try the fairly oily and salty flatbreads called rghaif or milwi, which are basically the same, only square or round in shape. Milwi is also called meelowi or malwi.
You can have them decorated the same way as harsha. For lunch or an afternoon snack, you might find a spicy, olive stuffed version of rghaif near a small sundry store and along a side-street leading off of Bab al-Bouiba.
Look for the tough and sometimes grumpy ladies in front of a large metal frying stand not far from some fish sandwich guys. They set up benches along the street or have seats and tables inside their little shops. Their sandwiches are stuffed in round Moroccan bread and include battered and fried fish, shalda, makouda (a fried spicy potato puff), eggplant (badinjal), roasted peppers (filfla) and a red sauce that is on the tart and hot side.
If you are in the mood for something sweet for breakfast or lunch, stick to Bab al-Bouiba, where you can choose from several varieties of pastries or halwa. Some are filled with rose-water scented almond paste. Others have chocolate centers.
One shop for halwa also offers fresh juice (`asir), including avocado mixed with milk you can order with or without sugar. The narrow shop in front of the fruit stand has café au lait with or without sugar, too. There, you can have your food and drink delivered upstairs. Sit near a window to watch the action on the street and get a good view of fresh food being brought from the kitchen at the back of the building.
Mornings and lunch are fun, but evenings are even better as you can watch this part of the madina come alive with hungry shoppers and bachelors getting off work. Be prepared for crowds, to stand for your meal, and to walk up and down the stalls and carts if you intend to have appetizers, an entree, then desert with tea, when the tea guy comes. Frankly, I have only heard about him. One day I hope he shows up when I do. Of course, crowds usually indicate the best food.
If you enter Bab al-Bouiba from the ville nouvelle, you can find a tiny stall wedged into the rampart portal. There, a bearded man cooks sausages on a small barbeque set up on a table with a chimney over it. Like it spicy? Ask for him to zeed harr along with the other spices, or `atriya, that include cumin.
Chances are you will not be able to find a seat at the little table inside and end up standing on the street with the rest of us as you enjoy a sandwich (sandwish). One of my new preferred meals is just down the road: the cooked cheeks of a cow’s head (ras al-baqri) so soft it will melt in your mouth. You can buy a sandwich or plate (sahan, on this restaurant’s sign rather than tebsil) with salted cumin sprinkled on top.
Across the way are several restaurants with young men standing in front and frying rice, liver, onions, and sausage on tall and wide hot plates. Some restaurants have chickens turning on a spit. These places are especially good if you want to sit down and enjoy your meal inside, but, frankly, I prefer the freedom of walking around.
Also, sometimes I am lucky enough to sit at a plastic table and chair set in the open air across from the zawiya garden and near the tangia guy. He is usually near a fish sandwich cart, and his moveable stall had a tangine of fried mussels last time I was there. Tangia is usually cooked by males for other men, though I see ladies customers indulge. A young man sharing a table with me this fall told me the dish originated in Marrakesh.
It starts with a ceramic pot that is usually seasoned with use. The pot is tall with small handles near the rim. Each tangia maker has his own recipe, however it usually consists of meat, spices, and vegetables that are stuffed into the pot, which is then covered with a piece of paper or another type of covering that is poked with holes and tied with a string. The pot is typically slow cooked for hours in the hot ashes of the room used to heat a public bath house or hammam. The Rabat madina tangia guy served me a dish with bread and a spoon.
A tangine also starts with a well-seasoned ceramic vessel, this time a shallow bowl with a conical top. Just about any ingredient can be used, so a tagine can be vegetarian, meat or fish based, with prunes or even poached eggs. Like a tangia, it is a cross between a soup and a full course meal, and eaten with bread.
For desert you can have fruit from the fruit stand or halwa. You might also take a few pieces from the large mounds of shabbakiya and mukharrqa near the fresh pressed sugar cane juice machine not far from the fruit stand.
Shabbakiya and mukharrqa are typically flour and egg based sweets that are fried with or later bathed in honey then sprinkled with sesame seeds. You can find a sweet juice cart in front of the mosque entrance, too; or, if you are lucky, a few other fruit carts will be around.
Feel like eating at home? Head for the line of ladies sitting behind small wooden tables across the street from the zawiya. They usually set up their tables in the evenings. The ladies sell types of flat breads or pancakes they told me were called mtsimin, baghrir, and shariya. Each, when warmed, make delicious companions to whatever sweet or savory breakfast or other type of meal you might like, though considering the love of sweet food in this country, I like to imagine they are usually eaten with butter, honey, or, perhaps, apricot jam.
Mtsimin one lady sold me was a type of rghaif – round shaped — and made with smen, a preserved butter. Bagharir is an airy and spongy round pancake with air holes on one side. Shariya is eaten with milk and chicken, according to the lady selling them, and it looks a lot like someone took rghaif and cut it into a bunch of curved noodles in a loose pancake shape. This type of rghaif looks a lot like what Paula Wolfort describes as Azut Cadi in her book, Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco (2001 reprint, p. 127).
So, Mr. Bourdain, I hope I’ve given you and your television crew a few reasons to visit Rabat some time. It you come, give me a call so we can do lunch or dinner and see an art exhibit.
Colette Apelian is Art and Architectural historian and Centre Jacques Berque scholar who teaches online for Berkeley City College and Central Michigan University while writing and researching about modern and contemporary Moroccan art and architecture and the history of electrical and transportation networks in French Protectorate Fez.