It’s a cool, oddly un-chaotic Tuesday morning in Rabat’s central souk and there’s a thin smell of salt in the air; Mohamed Benmokhtar, my friend and guide, is beckoning me to a food stall. “Rziza,” he says, decisively, as I approach. It’s a sort of Moroccan spaghetti, it turns out; pale, stringy, deep-fried pastry smothered in honey. Devilishly moreish, it tastes far better than it looks; I want one more. At least one more. No, insists Benmokhtar, shuffling us deeper into the medina, through wafts of spice, to our second stall.
“Msemen.” Pronounced “meh-sa-men”, this is a flat, folded pancake, comparable to Malaysian roti (but probably less oily) and is made with khlee (“meat”), usually beef, that’s been marinated, sun-dried and preserved in fat. It is, simply put, delicious. Surely time for one more?
Not today. Still, our next stop will be our best, says Benmokhtar, a promise that turns out to be true if not so easily realised: unsignposted, Chez Majid on Rue Mohammed Gazi isn’t easy to find. Still, we arrive and take our seats as Majid himself sets out the menu du jour and Benmokhtar, founder of Moroccan Food Tour, tells me how Rabat, for all its obvious allure, is still the unsung city of Morocco. I agree; it seems so endearingly chill, so different from the hot, unremitting madness of Marrakech, or Fes.
“It has its own microclimate, too,” he says. “A sweet spot, so to speak; not too warm or too cold.” And hardly any tourists, either. “Weirdly enough, it’s always overlooked for Marrakech or Fes. And, sure, they’re great cities. But, in my opinion, Rabat is the real Morocco.”
And then it arrives: the sardine sandwich. Fresh fish, rubbed with herbs and green-chilli paste, then fried and aggressively stuffed into a baguette with fried aubergine, roasted green peppers, grated tomato and harissa. I admit, it doesn’t look great, but tastes divine; pure, unalloyed bliss, the very definition of that buzz food term popularised by New York chef David Chang’s Netflix series: “ugly delicious”.
“Simple, unassailable perfection, this is surely the best fish in the world”
It was good to be back. I adore Morocco. It’s been an inspiration to me, in one way or another, in so many different parts of my life. But probably no more so than in my love of cooking. I’ve been a chef for more than a decade, lucky enough to work under Yotam Ottolenghi, and then open a restaurant, Berber & Q, my own east London homage to North African and Middle Eastern food. So, I know Morocco. I’ve been many times – for fun, for inspiration, but also sometimes to remind myself of why I work in a kitchen. I became a chef because I like the idea of providing hospitality, making people feel looked after. For me, it was never just about the food, but a feeling. And that’s what you get in Morocco: food, yes, but also a sense of warmth, togetherness, friendship; the feeling I want you to get in my restaurant and the reason I go out to eat myself.
Even so, this trip will be different: instead of heading to Marrakech and the southern coastal regions, this time I will head north. I want to explore a meeting point between two great food cultures: European and North African, where influences from southern Spain can be found in the dishes from Rabat to Tangier. But more than that, I want fish. Not just because I’ve heard about the differences between the taste of Morocco’s Mediterranean and Atlantic catches, but because I want to relive one of the most transcendental food experiences I’ve ever had: fresh, grilled fish, eaten on the beach of Essaouira, a windy, Atlantic town 200km west of Marrakech. I’m not sure I can quite explain why, but it remains one of the defining meals of my life. And also its simplest. Can I find the same thing on Morocco’s Mediterranean coast?
The day after Rabat, I drive two hours north to Asilah, a slow, slinky kind of Atlantic seaside town of immense beauty. Once a Portuguese colony, its blue- and white-coloured old town was built in the 15th century and is well known for its Andalusian- and Portuguese-influenced seafood. There are tonnes of restaurants in town. But there is one in particular I want to try and have done since I read about it in Paula Wolfert’s book The Food of Morocco (my long-time authority on the country’s cooking): Casa Pepe, a generations-old, family cafe where meaty gambas pil-pil (basically, shrimp cooked in chilli and olive oil) arrive as they should: sizzling in a clay dish, honking of garlic. Our best meal of the day, though, is on the sunset roof terrace at El Kasbah: a tuna tagine alongside seafood paella with spicy harissa and grated tomato.
Good. But better is to follow. Early the next day, we set off for Tangier, taking a coastal road direct to Casabarata, a sprawling, quite indecent flea market that hums with enterprise and endeavour. This is not, it becomes pretty clear, the Hollywood picture of the Middle Eastern souk; James Bond is not about to tear through on a Honda CFR250 any time soon. Instead, we find a small, nondescript clearing surrounded by failing canopies, rubbish and rubble, where plumes of white smoke billow from two drum grills and municipal cleaners in high-vis vests sit at plastic picnic tables (oh, the irony). Not the most picturesque spot for lunch, sure, but I tend to find the most rewarding eating-out experiences rarely are.
And, again, I’m proved right. We’re here for the sardines, which come in one of two ways: plain, with nothing more than flaked salt; or butterflied, then rubbed with chermoula (a paste made from fresh herbs and olive oil, cumin and paprika). Naturally, we order both, served with some sliced tomato and red onion, vinegar and country bread. As we tuck in, the plump flesh bursts from underneath the lightly blistered skin, the meat melts in the mouth like butter, the perfect balance of char, salt, acid, heat and oily goodness from the fish itself. Simple, unassailable perfection; these are surely the best grilled sardines in the world.
Still, Moroccan cooking can be complex. That evening, we dine at Le Saveur de Poisson, a well-known seafood restaurant made even more well-known by the late Anthony Bourdain who stopped by for Parts Unknown. There’s no menu; rather, a daily tasting selection of dishes defined largely by what’s been pulled from the sea that morning. We start with a beautifully spiced whitefish soup and a mix of roasted nuts and seeds. But the stand-out is the tagine: an unusual mix of sole, baby squid and cardoon, a type of gently bitter, artichoke-like thistle. Delightfully balanced, it’s a colourful reminder of just how well Morocco can combine flavour profiles that often seem at odds but make them work, gloriously.
The end of the trip is closing in but I’m still thinking back to Essaouira. So, the next day, we set off early, and head along the coast again and wind up at a small, fairy-tale fishing port, Dalia. The air is fresh with salt and there’s precisely one boat in harbour. It belongs to Mustapha, a local fisherman who’s eager to show us his early-morning haul.
“The fish on this stretch has a very unique taste,” he tells me. “It’s meatier than the Atlantic side. People from all over Morocco travel long distances to eat it. Come back during Ramadan and fish is triple the price.”
We buy a small selection of fish: bass, red mullet and one brightly coloured 10-incher whose name, it turns out, has no English translation. Waving towards the shore, Mustapha points us in the direction of Chez Ismail, a no-frills, seafood shack on a hill overlooking the beach, where he reckons there might be a grill on the go. There is; but not much else. Chez Ismail turns out to be little more than a few poles stuck in the sand with a roof made out of a combination of ply-board and polythene, bound together with staples and masking tape, with a ramshackle kitchen to the rear and two grills positioned towards the front. Perfect in every way.
While I begin to grill the fish, Ismail busily prepares a tagra (a clay vessel similar to a tagine) of fresh sardine, waxy potato, green pepper. When the food is ready, we take seats out front, with full views of the ocean, a light, fluffy wind brings back the smell of salt. Nothing is said as we eat, as we share each other’s food, in quiet, satisfied silence. It’s that feeling again, that sense of togetherness and hospitality on the simplest terms, that I find again and again in Morocco, where food and flavour are only a small part of much a bigger sense of belonging, of kindness, of friendship, where, no matter where you go, the cooking is always equal to the company.