One of the things I was made to fear going to Morocco was food. On the day I got my Moroccan visa, I had with me another friend who also had to go through the same bureaucratic problems as I. And this, despite the fact that he had lived there for many years. We sat down munching my favourite falafel sandwich near the Strasbourg railway station. “I like this because, as a vegetarian, falafel sandwiches are the only ones which seem to add flavour and protein”, I remarked, “oh! It’s good”, said my friend, “The falafel, that is”, he continued, “but it is not good for vegetarians”, he switched to the negative part, “to get food in countries like Morocco”.
“We will ensure that you get vegetarian food when you are with us”, assured my friend, when we were planning my trip to her wedding. It was reassuring and at the same time concerning. “Should I then not venture on my own somewhere else ?”, I thought to myself, “Does that mean I can’t get anything outside?” and extrapolated it further. When your mind is confused and a bit terrified, you should not let it wander into the slippery slope of depressing imaginations. On one such terrified time, I stocked up some ready-made food from the supermarket and packed them with my luggage, which I had vowed to keep it light. But it wasn’t long before I realized how stupid I felt and all the food stuff duly got out of my bag.
On the morning of the day of my travel, I got down in the Paris East railway station and my legs automatically turned to the ‘little Jaffna’ street of Rue Fauborg Saint-Denis, next to Paris North station. The Saravana Bhavans and Sangeetas were closed, but I knew that I can find those little restaurants to treat my taste buds with familiar food before heading into the unknown.
“I too booked Royal Air Maroc to go to Casa”, my friend had told me while we gobbled up the falafels, “for I can reach Morocco having had some good food”. So I was expecting that I don’t need to eat the expensive airport food, and just had a biscuit packet for lunch. “Poulet ou Poisson” (Chicken or Fish), asked the smiling cabin crew guy. I stuttered and asked, “Do you have anything vegetarian?”, looking at him hopefully, “Oh yes! The chicken has some vegetables in it”, he said with the same smile and turned to pick it up, “La Shukran! I will take just the plate”. The plate was with a piece of bread, cream, and yogurt. Even the salad was Salmon. I thought I’m going to be in dire straits in Morocco, but also was happy with the fact that I had something to eat. “You can have more yogurt”, said the smiling French girl near me after seeing my sort of sorry staring at my plate, “I duly obliged and filled up my stomach”.
“I have told my mom to cook some vegetarian food for you. So you will have some nice dinner”, my friend updated me, as her dad drove me from the airport to her house. After some time of getting comfortable, I was presented with a large assortment of food.
I was very hungry, but I couldn’t really finish the assortment of food I was offered. I started to feel that I was being stupid to fear about food.
The next day was the day before the wedding and hence had some feasts set up to welcome the groom’s family. Feast or not, the Arab tradition of eating in a group has its uniqueness. Each course of the food, even the fruits, is served on a big round plate and kept in the center, with people sitting around it and all eating together from the plate. There are small plates given, for people who want to pick their pieces and eat at their own pace. My friend had told me about this, but I was seeing it for the first time, as one of the persons sitting around the plate. This felt for me the same way eating with hands would have felt for the Westerners or to some North Indians when they visit the south. I remembered the look on my friend Aavish’s face when he sat for the wedding feast of another friend, Rohith. They laid out the banana leaf before him on the table and he nervously looked at it and others, as a kid would do when (s)he is left among the crowd of friends and relatives and asked to dance.
Fortunately (?) for me, my vegetarian status had allowed me to be excused from joining hands (pun intended) on the centre plate. I was served some very interesting stuffs during the feasts, once a mix of vegetables with rice and then even a vegetarian tagine, a traditional slow cooked food, which usually has meat.
The only time I had to join forks on the centre plate was when they placed the dessert. But given that people had filled their bellies to the brim, I was the one ploughing through it and wasn’t much of a new feeling. And in any case, eating cakes and ice creams in extremely different ways is not new given that I have lived for 7 years in Indian University hostels.
So the time in El Jadida passed without much issues for my appetite.
Casablanca is a cosmopolitan city that has the feel of Mumbai. I arrived in the morning at Casablanca and my friend picked me up and took directly to a café he frequents. The breakfast plate had an assortment of stuffs from croissant, baguette, orange juice and Moroccan tea in a pot.
The mint tea is a sort of universal welcome drink in Morocco. The first time I had it was in the Sunday market in Vandœuvre-lès-Nancy, without knowing its significance. And then, I drunk copious amount of them during my many visits to my friend Ghassane’s houses in Nancy and Strasbourg. My favorite with respect to both the drink and ambience, is in the Moroccan café adjoining the Grand Mosque of Paris. I have been there twice, once with my Parisian friend Mike and later with friends from a conference I was attending in Paris. And the association of this tea with Morocco is telling given that it was there in every breakfast I had as well as welcome drink in the hostel I stayed in Marrakech.
Back in Casablanca, we went to the city in the afternoon and walked around. I was disappointed that the Turkish kebab shops here did not have falafel and I had to be content with some not so tasty salads. Late in the evening, I met another friend, Romaissa, who had done her internship in Nancy, and with my host Abderrehman, we had dinner at an Indian restaurant in Casablanca, playing some Shahrukh Khan songs on TV (Argggg). The taste was very similar to that of what you find in Europe, bland, as you can bluntly put. But I was quite shocked to find that even the cost of food was comparable to or even more expensive than in France. It just goes to show the kind of wealth that flowed through the cosmopolitan city of Casablanca
The street food culture is not much in Morocco. I could hardly find any street snacks in El Jadida except those guys selling some sweet breads and the likes on the beaches. In Casablanca, it was just slightly better. There was this guy selling pieces of coconut and pineapple. And as the night fell, there were some guys selling snails, something vegetarians aren’t going to like even imagining. But there was a universal coverage by the seasonal cactus or prickly fruit. This is a tasty little fruit with very strong thorns that surround it. Hence the vendors peel open the outer layer and present the fruit to the buyers. It has a wonderful taste.
Next, I headed towards Marrakech. After stupidly missing the train and then with the next train delayed by nearly an hour, I was hungry as the train chugged through the arid, hilly terrain towards Marrakech. After some initial juggling of speech, I could convince the seller on train to give me a cheese sandwich, which was essentially a baguette with a couple of cheese strips inserted. The sandwich tasted divine, may be the cheese was so good, or may be that I was just damn hungry.
Marrakech is however, a divine place for food lovers, even for vegetarians. My hostel provides with breakfast, which were essentially what I got while in Manal’s house in El Jadida: a mix of mlwei, Harsha and breads with cheese and jams. And of course the Mint tea.
I was working through my mind to decide on what vegetarian dishes should I hunt and ask for in the restaurants: Tajine would be good, falafel sandwich is safe and may be Couscous. But then by some stroke of luck, I hit upon ‘Earth Cafe’ in Google. It is a vegetarian/vegan restaurant right in the middle of the Marrakech old Medina. The restaurant lies on one of the narrow side streets from the street heading southeast from the square Jemaa Elfnaa. Even with maps and sign boards here and there, it was a little tricky to find. Since I also had to remain casual so as not to attract any potential ‘help’ from some guys who want to earn some bucks, the extra search effort was necessary.
They didn’t even have a menu card, with the menu just written on a mirror (4 vegetarian and 4 vegan), but those option itself was far more than I would get in any restaurant. And the food was divine.
Beyond Earth Cafe, Marrakech has many restaurants that cater to a large tourists flocking from the US and who also have vegetarian and vegan interests. For instance, I had a wonderful vegetarian couscous in a restaurant near La Majorelle.
There were so many options that I even gave a miss to my temptations to have vegetarian Tajine.
But if nothing else works, there was always the Mlewi with cheese that was easy to get and tasty to munch.
So the entire episode of fears about food in Morocco turned out to be a farce. While Moroccan food is not as flavourful or hot as Indian cuisine, it had enough of varieties to keep a vegetarians happy.