Handful after handful of fresh linked lamb sausages, each about the size and diameter of my pinky, were draped – almost lovingly – across the searing hot grill. Two inches of cedar and oak charcoal from the foothills of the Low Atlas mountains glowed red underneath, fed by the frequent and maddeningly competent (at least to anyone who’s ever been a backyard bbq master wannabe) fanning and blowing of the grill attendants. Concerto Meat and Hot Metal, a universal signifier of pleasure, was combined with shouted orders from the many cooks in the kitchen, great rolling belly-laughs as men in love with what they do and with those they do it with bantered back and forth, and the hubbub just out of view behind the wall of smoke, of snake charmers, water sellers, Gnawa musicians and dancers, and fortune tellers.
But above all, there in the new darkness of the early night, a full moon to one side, and the gauzily-lit stonework of the oldest mosque in Africa on the other, was the smell.
Redolent of peppers, of garlic, of cumin, wood smoke, melting fat, caramelizing vegetables, bread, salt-tinged steam, the haze that permeated everything – before rising into the dark sky and disappearing into the desert – was almost substantial enough to be meal in itself. This was why I was in the largest public space in Africa, at night, in the heart of the biggest outdoor restaurant in the world.
Edith Wharton once wrote that it’s impossible to understand, to truly appreciate Marrakech until you’ve stood on the roof of the Palace Bahia and gazed out at the city laid at your feet. I disagree. The palace is okay, mind you, but it’s not where you go to “get” Marrakech. That happens elsewhere, and I’d argue that it’s at the Place Djemaa el Fna, at 8 p.m.
Every night, the Place Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech, Morocco is transformed from a rather uninspiring (although much-prized) field of concrete and cobblestones into an open air epicenter of culinary experience.
As the sun sets, around a hundred restauranteurs move in, setting up stall after stall, rolling tanks of propane off of cars, trucks, and donkey carts, struggling under great canvas sacks of charcoal, and moving in boxes, bags, trays, buckets, coolers, and vats of startlingly fresh food. Within 45 minutes, smoke begins to fill the air, and by the time the sun goes down, everybody is up and cooking. And the crowds descend. It is not a tourist affair. Yes, there are obnoxious touts out to get you to come have a special tagine or a “best of its kind” fried fish, but they’re the minority and easy to ignore in the face of so much good (and good looking) food everywhere you look.
Instead, you have places like Haman’s grillade, where the merguez sausage, served so hot off the grill that the sizzling fat makes them vibrate, fills a small, shallow bowl. They are served with a chili-infused tomato salsa and great slabs of the ever-present sesame- or cumin-sprinkled bread known as khobz. Seated on long wooden benches surrounding three sides of a grill, 15 of us ate shoulder-to-shoulder, tearing off a piece of bread, picking-up a sausage with it, and dipping both into the salsa before trying to get it past lips locked in a rictus of near permanent oooohhhhh.
Then there is the harira place. Actually there are two very well-attended sellers of this iconic Moroccan spicy soup. As with most good food places almost everywhere, and like many of the most popular stalls in the Place Djemaa el Fna, the cooks do one or two dishes and that’s all. The soup places do soup, perhaps some crunchy bits to put in the soup, and a piece of cake afterwards if you are so inclined (and they have any left).
The harira itself was good, but the experience at stall 23 made it something way beyond that. Cooking away in 50 gallon pots, the harira is scooped into a bowl, handed over to you, and as soon as someone is done with a spoon it’s dunked, rinsed, and handed to you. The spoons themselves gave credence to the real concern of the cooks – there was no pretense to anything other than the soup – and I saw people eating with wood, metal, small, large, and partially slotted utensils, or just giving-up entirely and drinking directly out of the bowl.
France may lay claim to escargot (as well as the entirety of Western culture), but nowhere in the world do you see a people so in love with the humble snail as in Marrakech. Seriously. Gone is that which makes the escargot a thing of haute cuisine, and in its place three sellers of snails, side-by-side, doing everything in their power to waft the most seductive smells of broth and garlic your way. Great metal-core ceramic bowls, kept hot by the omnipresent propane, holding a couple of hundred snails each form the centerpiece of each stall. The proprietor stands behind, slowly turning the snails over in the broth, every once a while plucking one off the top, sucking the snail out, and tossing the empty shell over his shoulder. A big bowl costs about US$0.75. There are plenty of takers.
One thing that becomes clear, as you move from stall to stall, is that there is much more going on here than an evening of eating under the stars. Even satiated, unable to imagine yet another bite, Djemaa el Fna still evokes something primal. Wharton was a traveller who came to Marrakech to see this world that the French had made their own. Her view from a palace roof was of a place, an exotic geography of red-walled buildings. But well before her visit, and well past it, Marrakech served as a refuge, a gathering place on the fringes of wide-open, humblingly harsh deserts and mountains. People gathered there to connect with other humans, to see others of their kind, to do again those things that make us who we are. The Djemaa el Fna reminds the world of Wharton – our world – that the community of food is not about buildings, about going into some place – small and limiting – to eat, it is instead about communion and community. And, if you’re lucky, a clear sky and a full moon.