By Daniela Frendo
By Daniela Frendo
Malta – The cheerful vendor watched us admire his collection of money notes. There were hundreds of them, all flattened out next to each other under smeared glass sheets.
“Look, this is from Australia. And this one from Mexico,” he smiled proudly.
Truth be told, I was more interested in his colourful array of jewellery. The walls of his tiny shop were curtained with long beaded necklaces, chunky bracelets, and intricate silver earrings reminiscent of ancient queens.
I could have spent all night in the shop, and probably all my money too, but it was hard to browse through the dazzling jewellery on an empty stomach.
Luck and hunger
A very old man sat on a stool at the side of the shop, his wide, curious eyes following us around. When I approached the counter with a silver khamsa pendant (or Fatima’s Hand, a talisman for good luck and protection in North Africa), the elderly man uttered something to the shop keeper.
“My father wants to know where you’re from.”
He gave his father a comprehensive lesson on Malta, then turned back to me, his eyes twinkling.
“What currency is used in Malta?” he asked, smiling eagerly.
“It used to be the Maltese lira, but now it’s the euro.“
His smile dropped. I took one last glance at his money collection and realised I hadn’t seen a Maltese banknote anywhere.
“If I ever come to Marrakech again, I’ll bring you a small gift.”
His face lit up.
“Shukran. You are always welcome in my country. And I wish you a Happy New Year.”
Returning to Djema el Fna, you could hardly tell it was New Year’s Eve. It was business as usual at the heart of Marrakech. Local women emerged from the narrow streets of the souks, carrying heavy shopping bags across the square. A strong smell of incense filled up the area around the tea and herb stalls. Behind them, young men wheeled in carts loaded with miniature tajines. A few others were arranging glowing lanterns on the ground. If it wasn’t for the tempting aroma of the nearby food stalls, I would have carried on shopping.
Clouds of smoke lingered over the long rows of food stalls. Waiters with glossy menus stepped in front of us from all sides and angles, addressing us in at least five different European languages. We watched diners sipping lentil soup and wincing at bowls of snails. Many stalls had a variety of fresh salads and grilled skewers, and we could have just settled for that, but my adventurous boyfriend had recently been inspired by Andrew Zimmern’s forays into bizarre street foods.
We scanned the stalls for a particular local delicacy, but the ever-persistent waiters kept blocking our sight. After spending ten minutes telling each one of them that we had just had dinner, I decided to change tactics. When the next waiter leapt in front of us with a colourful menu and a broad smile, I made our request.
“Where can we have ras el kharuf?”
His smile widened, “Are you sure you don’t want to see the menu?”
Our insistence took him by surprise. He asked us to sit at the stall on our right and relayed our order to the chef. The stall served everything except the delicacy we were after. Fearing that we might have just fallen into a trap, I summoned the chef to confirm our order.
“A sheep’s head for you Monsieur. And for you as well, Madame?”
The chef had the same look of surprise as the waiter. We were served complimentary soup and olives as starters, and still there was no sign of our dinner being cooked. I nibbled on the spicy olives with growing anticipation for trying the sheep’s head, until suddenly, out of nowhere, a different chef appeared at our table with two plastic plates and placed them right in front of us.
It took me a few moments to come to terms with the sight of my dinner. Then, slowly, I removed the greasy skin, forked out the tender flesh, and braved my way through the first taste. The succulent, mildly spiced meat melted in my mouth – I couldn’t believe I was actually enjoying it. When all of the meaty bits were gone, I was left with just the crispy, browned skin and…
“Is it OK to eat the eyeball?” I asked the chef.
“Of course,” he said, inspecting our progress, “And don’t forget the tongue.”
We left the food stall with a full stomach and a proud smile.
Our pregnant bellies didn’t dissuade waiters from holding up tourist menus in our faces. We were just exploring the rest of the food market, savouring the pleasant aroma of spices and grilled meat, when we spotted something that had clearly been missing from our sheep’s head. The two chefs behind the stall met our curious gaze and beckoned us over.
Arranged neatly on a white plate was a set of glistening brains.
One of the chefs introduced himself, his voice struggling over the fierce hissing of whatever he was frying.
“I’m Abdul, and this here is my best friend, Obama.”
I looked at the other chef, whose dark skin shimmered like bronze as he moved closer to the cooking fire, and instantly realised what Abdul was on about.
The Obama lookalike (we never learnt his real name) put a small plate between us, in which a single brain wobbled in sauce. Both chefs watched us take the first bite over thick oily fumes. I braced myself for a strong unpleasant taste, but the brains turned out to be bland. Abdul and Obama grinned at our contorted faces, then handed us a glass of mint tea each to restore our faith in the Moroccan palate.
A New Year’s Eve toast
In the absence of champagne, we went for two large glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice for just 5 dirham (€0.50). There were no fireworks nor countdowns to welcome the new year in Djema el Fna – just the usual commotion and spontaneity that I had grown to love so much about Marrakech. In fact, a big part of me was relieved that for once I wouldn’t have to pretend I know the words to Auld Lang Syne.
We drank a toast to a year filled with happiness, health and more adventures. The stall vendor took our empty glasses and asked us to wait as he moved about busily behind the counter. I watched him from the foot of the high stall, wondering what he was up to.
He had refilled our glasses to the brim, and before I had time to become suspicious again, he let us know that the second drink was on the house.