Behind The Moroccan Souks With Marrakech Food Tours

Allow me to dispel some rumors that you may hear from local shopkeepers while you are walking the souks in Marrakech. There is no special auction today at the tanneries because of an unnamed festival which is ending today. No, the museum is not closed today. Whichever way the shop owner is pointing you, that's not the right way. And, most importantly, if you remember nothing else, remember this: The price they are offering you is not a special price. It's not a democratic price. Unfortunately, it's probably twice the amount they would have accepted for that Berber scarf you just had to have.

No matter how many warnings you read in blogs just like this one, you will most likely be fooled in the souks; you will make a mistake, you will pay thirty dirham and then realize that five would have done the trick. Because you are a tourist, a stranger in a strange land, and no matter how much you try to "live, eat, and drink like a local", you will need some help to truly find all that Marrakech has to offer. That's where Marrakech Food Tours comes in. 

We've extolled the virtues on this site of taking a food tour early in your trip to any city multiple times, and when we were invited to join Youssef on an evening Marrakech Food Tour, we were ecstatic. While it is always interesting to taste the delicacies of Berlin or Paris,  a place like Morocco can be a little bit more intimidating, as there are so many foods which are not only out of our comfort zone, but impossible to find the best examples of. We knew heading in that we wanted cous cous (and lots of it!) while in Morocco, but it was Youssef and our food tour who showed us the absolute best example, made warmly by a woman who hand prepares each batch to order, steaming and hand-testing the singular grains until they are the absolute perfect texture. She only serves her customers the quality dishes she would serve her family, which works out well, because the kitchen of her restaurant doubles as the kitchen of her home. This is the kind of place we never would have found without help, and joked that without being led into it, we would have never realized this place was a restaurant, let alone one that served the best cous cous that had ever touched our lips. 

Real Talk: Originally, we thought that we were not going to be able to make the food tour due to scheduling issues, and we asked Amanda and Youssef to recommend some places to us for lunch. They sent us multiple options, and we settled on one that looked as if it would be relatively easy to find in the maze of the souks, we loaded into our offline google maps, and headed straight for that blue dot, ready to eat some delicious Moroccan delicacies. But we didn't end up eating those delicious delicacies, because all of the signs for the good restaurants are in Arabic. Or didn't have signs at all (like the place we were trying to find) and was simply a stand which had been slow-cooking and serving up tanjia (lamb meat, cumin, salt and preserved lemons) for four generations. Instead of incredibly tender and flavorful tanjia, we ended up in a super touristy restaurant eating overpriced and bland tagine. Sad face emoji. Don't worry though, there is a happy ending, as the very place we were trying to find ended up being the first stop on our Food Tour, and we tasted that tanjia. We even went back again two nights later and knew just what to order. Thumbs up emoji. Sheep emoji? 

I could tell you that we were also able to taste all of the olives we were too afraid to ask about earlier in the day, that we had a sardine and harissa sandwich that tasted less like sardines and more like beautifully seasoned meatballs, that we tried sheep head (SPOILERS: It's gross. DOUBLE SPOILERS: The British guy scooped out the eyeball and ate it like it was the last glob of Nutella in the tub. TRIPLE SPOILERS: That guy is my hero) and Moroccan donuts, that there was a cookie called a "Gazelle's Ankle" that could only be described as an almond dumpling. I could tell you all those things (Or did I just tell you about them?), but that would be underselling the coolest parts of the tour. The opportunity to see one of Marrakech's dozens of bakers, who tend to monstrous wood burning ovens for the better part of the day while neighborhood women bring raw bread dough to be turned into daily loaves and children bring trays of cookies to be baked into delicious treats was truly a look into the everyday routines of the city, a behind-the-scenes peek into a world we would never have been able to see without Youssef's guidance. These bakers are scattered throughout the city, tucked away behind literal holes in the wall every six or eight blocks, working in blistering heat so that the neighborhoods can have fresh baked goods daily.

Then there was a visit to the man who stands ankle deep in soot and trash, silently shoveling the leftover scraps of the souks into another huge oven, the fires used to heat the waters of the buildings above or to provide steam for the hammams (Moroccan bathhouses scattered throughout the city where Moroccans head to relax and bathe themselves. Entrance can cost as little as 10 dirhams ($1) for locals, and usually 100-150($10-$15) for tourists). The ash which comes out of the fires? It's used to cover and slowly cook the clay pots which house, you guessed it, the tanjia which is eaten in homes around the area. Area residents drop off their clay pots early in the day, and they are usually ready to be eaten the next morning. 

What the pots look like before they're buried in ash.

What the pots look like before they're buried in ash.

These and many others on the tour are the kinds of things you will never be able to see as a Marrakech tourist, you must have help. Youssef, both owner and lead guide of Marrakech Food Tours, is an absolutely fantastic leader, allowing time for any number of questions and additional stops (his quote at the beginning of the tour: "If you see something that looks good, let me know, and if I think it's good, we will stop and taste it. If it's not good, we won't stop.") on the over-three-hour jaunt through the souks, revealing the side of the stalls you would never dream of seeing without the help of a local.

Before attending this tour, the souks were just a colorful mass of scarves, t-shirts, and chess sets; a never ending barrage of owners hollering in multiple languages to entice you to enter their shop and leave with an intoxicating mix of spices, slippers, or jewelry made in the High Atlas Mountains.  When we left the tour, we felt as if were Marrakech experts, striding confidently past the calls for tagine and paninis, past the menus in English and French, past the places which promised free wifi. We marched confidently to the small stand surrounded by Moroccans, pointed to the smoldering clay pot, rejected the first price offered, paid a pittance for a huge plate of exquisite, steaming fall-off-the-bone meat, and proudly enjoyed our tanjia. No more overpriced touristy food for us. Not anymore.