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Food Markets in Rabat, Morocco

Lunch time was still a good two hours away but the old city center, Rabat’s fortress-walled medina built in the 12th century and then rebuilt and expanded in the 17th century, was filled with the midday shoppers and the smells of fragrant spices from cumin, paprika, coriander, cilantro, briny preserved lemon, garlic, onions, saffron, and olives. Someone somewhere in this maze was making a chicken and olive tajine, that complex, rich, fresh and spicy terracotta vessel-baked stew for which Morocco is famous.

This was a daily conundrum during the year I lived in Rabat: No matter how satiated I would be before going food shopping, I always became exceedingly hungry once I entered the medina. It was a hunger brought on by so much good food, be it the daily market offerings or the master chefs in their private quarters above or behind the kiosks who were preparing lunch or dinner for their families and enveloping the medina with magical aromas.

The importance of food indicates the supreme importance of family and friends in Morocco and people will take time in preparing it and eating with others. Slow Food, Buy Local, Buy Fresh are the rule not the exception here.

When you enter one of the Rabat medina’s several stone-arched gates off of Hassan II Boulevard and step to your left or right, taking one of the few central streets, your senses are engaged: it is an intense, colorful, fragrant-rich, succulent, and immensely gregarious place to be. To your right or left might be the women selling flat breads and crumpet-like pancakes. The women are dressed in their crème or mushroom-colored jellabas, hooded robes. Some have hennaed hands, indicating they may have recently attended a relative’s or friend’s wedding. Their breakfast goods and breads are stacked like a money-counter’s coins on small tables before them. Behind them the old wall and trees around a tiny shrine offer shade and calm.

Deeper in the maze-like streets of the medina are the fruit and vegetable sellers. Some are in orderly kiosks; others sell produce on oilskin cloths on the ground, but all offer only fruits and vegetables that were just harvested and local—baby artichokes, carrots, zucchini, okra, green beans, tomatoes, buttery green lettuce, and endive among many other seasonal choices. In the morning there are also fishermen who have just hauled in their coastal catch and are setting up scales right on the path so as to get the fresh fish swiftly into capable hands.

Morocco is a land of varied landscapes, with two coastlines, one Atlantic and the other Mediterranean, four mountain ranges, valleys and plains in between, and finally, the desert at the most southern end of the country. This rich diversity guarantees a bountiful and varied local diet. Rabat’s coastal climate feels like that of southern California, while its growing seasons are more like those of northern California due to rain throughout the year.

Amidst all this, women shoppers rub elbows, vying for the best produce and bargaining. As they walk past or negotiate for room at a kiosk counter, their long jellabas shimmer with their myriad jewel-toned colors of emerald, fuchsia, orange, scarlet, violet, lapis, and lemon.

The women shoppers’ children, despite the fierce verbal skills and poker faces of their mothers, cast mischievous glances and big, glowing curious eyes at the rich dynamic, textured, colorful, and time-honored market world around them.

Further down, there are the butchers. One is waiting for his next customer, leaning forward with his elbows resting on a stack of sheep and cows’ feet cut at their elbow joint. His head just fits between the hanging display of kidneys and livers on one side and tripe on the other. Beyond him are older men, in their wooly brown jellabas and white skull caps shuffling through, looking at each display.  One stops at a spice stall, taking in the sand dune mounds of paprika, cumin, coriander, curry, turmeric, fennel, cardamom, caraway, and saffron.

Not far away is an old man, he must be as old as a medieval wizard and looks just like one with his long white beard, golden silk turban and sparkling blue eyes. He is selling dried rose buds, ground henna, terracotta skin scrubbers for the bath, loofa sponges, and herbs and amulets to cure, protect, and procure the user’s wishes. If you stop and tell him your concerns, he will offer his advice as to the right herbal mix for you. (He often sold me beautiful tiny rose buds, which I used in both cooking and in making foot baths smell good. Each time I saw him he would give me a lesson in  Moroccan Arabic, laughing kindly at my efforts to drop as many vowels as possible, a distinguishing aspect of Moroccan Arabic. Also, Berber is a native language and very widely spoken, as is French, followed by Spanish, Italian, German, and many other languages: Moroccans are incredibly multilingual, reflecting their geographical place in the cross-roads of human history.)

The medina itself is a medieval walled-in city within the larger city of Rabat, as is the case with medinas in other parts of Morocco. It has indoor and outdoor caverns, a few main thoroughfares and infinite capillaries that seem to shift as regularly as the daylight and shadow across the narrow passages. Further, beyond the food markets, lay carpets, ceramics, wood-work, jewelry, clothing, music recordings, and much more -- much of this is along Rue Souika, which is the main street you will encounter upon entering any gate from Boulevard Hassan II, and on to the other main street in the medina, the Rue des Consuls. Two peripheral areas at each end of the medina also boast remarkable flea markets offering purely Moroccan treasures amidst lots of second hand junk and colonial era pieces.

If you walk all the way through the medina toward the ocean side, you will come upon a stretch with a view out over the ocean. You can cross the main road, Rampe Sidi Maklouf (carefully), toward the fortress, the Kasbah des Oudayas and explore this small walled neighborhood overlooking both the river and the ocean.

Within the Oudaya is a lovely Andalusian Garden, a recreated remnant of the 17th century occupants, the moriscos, who arrived here as exiles from Spain around 1609 and made the fortress and the medina below their new home. For the first half of the 17th century, the moriscos also made Rabat an independent pirate republic. In the Oudaya you will see indications of this, the most pronounced being the canon at the highest point, which point in three directions: across the river at Sale, up river, and out over the ocean. Before the Iberian refugees were absorbed by the Moroccan Sultanate in 1666, they were fiercely independent. This meant they were at odds with the folks in Sale (one canon), with anyone coming down river (a second canon), and filtering who they let in or out from the ocean-river mouth passage into their harbor (the third canon). In the Oudaya you will also find their 17th century palace, a fine example of late Muslim-Christian-Jewish Iberian styles brought back to Morocco and fused with local aesthetics.

The medina everywhere in Morocco (every town and city has one and every village has a market square) is alive with people there to buy their daily food. Many people still do not rely on refrigeration or the concept it represents, less than day-fresh food. The medina also being its own neighborhood in the city of Rabat, many people also live in the medina’s numerous labyrinthine back streets that wind away from the shopping area.

The beauty of traditional food shopping in Morocco is that you buy it every day, buy it fresh, buy it locally, buy it seasonally, and buy it from your neighbor who is also cooking a killer tajine, better than anything you’ll ever eat in a restaurant. Home cooks are the masters and chefs study with them if they are wise. This is not to cast aspersions upon restaurants—there are some stellar ones that are definitely worth visiting—but nothing compares to what is bubbling away in a home kitchen.

A drive in the surrounding country reinforces these realities as one witnesses the activities of people who still know how to grow local, seasonal, and healthy food. A common scene is a woman churning butter in a heavy linen sack that is suspended between two poles with her rocking it back a forth; a man and a donkey pulling a cart with baskets full of flower blossoms ready to go to market to sell for making flower water; cherry pickers selling just-picked ripe ruby red globes or white truffle sellers advertising pyramid-piled truffles on upturned ten-gallon cans on the roadside. Beyond them are sweeping fields of spring green and cadmium red poppies.

Recommended culinary souvenirs are saffron and ceramics. If you love authentic cooking tools, select a terracotta tajine dish to carry home. Ceramics are a diverse undertaking; each city and region produces its own distinctive styles of shapes, colors, and painting designs. And as for saffron, it is grown in southern Morocco, around Taliouine, south of Marrakech and available in almost any marketplace. Some consider the Moroccan saffron of a lesser quality than Spanish or Iranian varieties, but I am an advocate for terroir in all its manifestations. You can taste the unique mineral-plant composition of Moroccan earth in Moroccan saffron. This holds true for the red wines produced in the Fez-Meknes valley (Amazir is my favorite), and those wonderful white truffles sold roadside in spring in central Morocco.

Other Rabat Markets

There are also some little treasures for food shopping outside the medina. The petit marché, is on Place Pietri in the heart of the more modern city, whose architecture speaks of its colonial French occupants as well as of more modern structures associated with an independent Morocco. Here, you will see the flower market, le marché aux fleurs, in riotous color year round and with flower vendors and flowers of every imaginable variety, African, Asian, and European. Steps leading to an airy underground space take you to the little covered food market that boasts a good butcher, cheese sellers, a sausage vendor, herbalists, and specialty foods imported from France.

Every neighborhood has several bread bakeries and pastry shops, both staples of the daily diet. Just follow your nose and eyes. Most bakeries are excellent and excel in both Moroccan breads (whole grain flat breads being my favorite) and French breads (baguettes being as good as in France).

Throughout the city each neighborhood also has a fruit and vegetable seller who might have a little kiosk along a high stone wall or in a row with other small specialty shops. On the roadside you might also see someone with their coal fire and vat of oil making puffy fresh fried donuts. Another roadside merchant might have coals on which he is roasting corn. Toasted nuts are another street snack specialty.

Just below the Oudaya is a craft center where ceramics, leather goods, wood crafts, and more are sold. Moreover, further up river in the Rabat-Sale river valley is a potter’s guild where artisans have gathered in shops and buildings like a small village in and of itself. This is a fine place to buy locally made ceramics, baskets of all shapes and sizes, jewelry, and others artisanal goods.

This perspective on local, seasonal, Slow Foods might seem challenged by the presence of superstores in Rabat. But one of my fond memories of food shopping in Morocco was visiting the hypermarche, hypermarket, Marjane, ironically, in Rabat and Sale’s river valley, the region’s traditional farm land that produces much of the local vegetables and fruits. I was worried about what this mega store would do to the incredible selection of locally grown and sold seasonal foods. I entered the store behind a Moroccan family who, like me, were there to take in the new phenomenon. Parents, children, grandparents, an aunt and uncle, and a cousin moved through the store as a unified group the way tours go through museums. They went from product to product, display to display, and fruit and vegetable to fruit and vegetable. Even though they were in the convenient and fast hypermarket, they would not be rushed. If the food did not meet their standards of freshness and taste—they picked items up, felt them, smelled them, eyed them closely—they would resume their old ways of shopping from local green grocers and fishmongers and butchers (this I overheard them say to each other as I followed in their wake). Subsequent trips to Marjane taught me that ease and convenience in Morocco will only go as far as quality and taste meet traditional standards. In other words, Moroccans are great foodies with high standards.

For More Information

A good informational website on Rabat in French: www.rabat-maroc.net.

If you are interested in reading about Rabat’s early pirate republic, the best pieces I’ve ever read about it in English are by J.B. Bookin-Weiner. They’re engaging and will change a lot of your thinking about what was happening in this part of the world:

The "Sallee Rovers":  Morocco and the Corsairs in the Seventeenth Century. In The Middle East and North Africa:  Essays in Honor of J.C. Hurwitz. R.S. Simon, ed.  New York: Columbia University Press. 1990.

The Moroccan Corsairs of Rabat-Sale. In Le Maroc et L'Atlantique. Rabat: Publications de la Faculte des Lettres et des Science Humaines. Serie Colloque et Seminaire, no.21. Pp.163-191. 1992.

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