A labyrinth of streets in the medina, haggling in the souks, spices, antiques, a sputtering moped, Moroccan wares aplenty, a loaded camel, these are the sights and sounds of Tangier. But its pulse is truly taken through the taste buds. When in Tangier, I never miss the food market.

Tangier’s Tasty Transitions

In the 1950s, Tangier was a fashionable playground for free-spirited Western intellectuals and artists. Today, it’s a destination for tourists, designers, and foodies.

The change began in 1999 with King Mohammed VI, who promised to modernize a decaying Tangier: new harbor and train station, sewage lines in the medina, city beautification, and more. The food market hangar might change too, but Moroccan cuisine will stay.

Moroccan food pleases all the senses at once and for good reasons. It was first influenced by the Phoenicians, then the Middle Eastern, and then El Andaluz—the formerly Muslim-ruled Iberian Peninsula. Second is in the king’s evolving tastes for regal dishes. The third is thanks to the finest ingredients available, from the fertile green belt of the Northwest to the sun-drenched land of the South. 

Today, as the world merges, Morocco is infused with a taste for the modern culinary arts, but tradition remains the source. The national dish, couscous, is relatively simple to prepare—steaming the grain is not—compared to the lesser-known masterpiece that is bisteeya, yet both started as humble Berber dishes. Then paper-thin Persian pastry and Andalusian influences turned it into a lavish, flaky-layered pigeon/chicken pie, with lots of eggs curdled in lemon—Tetouan style—garlic, onions, almonds, seasoning galore, and a dusting of cinnamon and sugar. The result can be a four-inch-thick, deliciously crumbling affair.  

Food That Will Knock Your Taste Buds Off

In the market, rows of concrete-blocks booths gather by product type. Most vendors are locals, but here and there, women in traditional dresses in bold colors sell their products from baskets laid on the mud floor. They are Berber tribal people from the rugged slopes of the nearby Rif Mountains. And their products are as whole food as it gets.

The market is usually crowded, so go with the flow and you may first encounter pickles so pungent, they clear your sinuses. Next are olives, from sweet black olives—my favorites for tapenade—to always-seasoned green ones and a staple for tagines—a stew cooked in that glazed dish with that hat-shaped lid. Get a taste and buy a sample of the multicolored bunch but beware of the harissa-spiced ones—think hot chili peppers. This is also the area for preserved lemons (in salted lemon juice), by the piece or in jars, and another key ingredient of Moroccan cuisine.

Next up, the hefty piles of plump nuts, dried figs, and fresh dates still clustered on their stems, contribute to the sweet and savory taste of tagines. Fruit and vegetables abound and are remarkably fresh. Vendors know better than risking the wrath of a Moroccan housewife.

Are you sniffing like a cat nuzzling catnip? I know, the combined aromas of the spices tickle my nostrils too. The odorant display of seeds of cumin, fennel, anis, and coriander shows texture next to powders of golden turmeric, rusty paprika, and blended spices in shades of browns and greens.

A fragrant souvenir of Tangier would be the mystical ras-el-hanout, a jumble of all key-spices, each vendor having its own recipe. Since everything is permissible, well almost, the 20-40 ingredients include more than traces of aphrodisiacs, as the vendor might warn you with a twinkle in his eyes. However, all must be of the best quality, hence the meaning of its name “from the top of the shop.”

Aromatics is an art that Moroccan housewives master. They should elevate the flavor of the main ingredient, not overpower it. Spices and herbs are profusely used, hence the numerous booths at the market. Besides, they load your plate with beneficial properties.

Be curious, don’t veer away from the meat market, even if flies get the first bite, and don’t miss the fish market either. Tangier is at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. The fish is fresh. You might also notice that nothing is wasted here. From the mounds of entrails and the meat quarters draping the sides of a booth, I bet a veterinarian could put the animal back together, rawhide aside.

Next up is feta cheese in its juices. Air-dried for a couple of days, then cubed, they make tasty tapas when topped with a thin slice of membrillo (quince paste). Berber women also sell cheese from goats that may have fed themselves in trees.

Frown if you must, as you smell the content of round earthenware bowls with a loose lid. Smen is to Moroccan cuisine what butter is to the French, but I find its smell close to blue cheese. Made from clarified butter—traditionally churned from camel milk—salt, and dried herbs, it was a traditional keepsake from birth to wedding.

As for that odorant whiff of fresh bread, look for the nearby stall. It’s time for a restorative snack anyway, either a crumpet-like beghrir, or a puff-pastry-like rghaif. Get it drizzled with butter and honey or sprinkled with goat cheese. And enjoy it right away or it will lose its yummy-ness. 

Don’t leave without a bunch of lush mint and verbena. You might not use them all, but for one euro or two (vendors like euros), their energizing scents will somehow revive you now and relax you later. How about delicate tiny rosebuds to place on your nightstand? Or fragrant orange flowers to refresh your bathroom? How about infusing them, Moroccan style? You decide.

First published 2012 Buckettriper.com