Josh Katz on Moroccan street food and where he finds his inspiration
Our new guest column sees London chefs travelling far and wide for inspiration. First up, it's Berber & Q founder and head chef Josh Katz on a whirlwind tour of Marrakech
I've come to Marrakech to cook at the inaugural Beat Hotel pop-up, a four-day festival of live music, DJs and talks inspired by the Beat Generation, a post-war literary movement that emerged in the 1950s and for which Morocco played a formative part. William S Burroughs, one of the leading protagonists of the Beat Generation, came to Tangier in 1954, seeking social liberation, sexual exploration and, I'm guessing here, the freedom to consume enough drugs to kill a small camel. Burroughs was soon followed by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones no less, all in search of the sort of hedonistic hippy lifestyle which Morocco came, and continues to represent.
And so here we all are, at the Fellah Resort on the outskirts of Marrakech, following in the footsteps of the Beats and musical giants, to indulge in our own form of hedonism – and to cook and eat some great food, of course.
Marrakech doesn't so much get under your skin as crawl all over it, wrap you up and then spit you back out, edified as some sort of living, walking ode to Moroccan culture. I defy anyone visiting the city for the first time not to leave garnering a brand new pair of Moroccan harem pants, a brightly coloured pashmina, some sort of oil to rub into your temples when life becomes too much, frankincense (natch) and an ornate Moroccan tea set so you can try and impress your friends when they come for dinner.
This is my fourth visit to the city in as many years, my seventh in total, and I don't envisage stemming the flow anytime soon. I love everything about the place. I love its aesthetic and style, its character and charm. I love the weather. I love the roof terraces and the evocative call to prayer at sunset that bellows out across the land and makes you know you're somewhere foreign, some place distant. I love the people. I even love the hustle, which I view as less a nuisance and more a game to be enjoyed. Most of all however, I love the food, and the love that goes in to making it.
I love the roof terraces and the evocative call to prayer at sunset that bellows out across the land
I have eaten my way around Marrakech on numerous occasions, and when I say "eaten my way around", what I really mean is that I've dedicated entire periods of my life, numerous days at a time, exclusively to the singular purpose of consuming as much Moroccan food as possible. It's amazing what the human body is capable of in the name of research. And greed.
Through my journey of culinary discovery and exploration I have discovered one true constant, that the best food in Marrakech is found on the street, not in the fancy restaurants, of which there are many, set up to cater largely for tourists with delicate tastes. It is my belief that to really experience Moroccan gastronomy to its fullest, and to experience Morocco at its fullest through its gastronomy, you need to be brave, and dare to eat in places that might take you out of your comfort zone.
Any tour of Marrakech's street-food scene must begin in Mechoui Alley, a narrow strip just off the main square (Jemaa el Fnaa), where street vendors lovingly cook up to a dozen whole lamb at a time on a spit, over four to five hours, in a pit dug out underneath the shopfront. The lamb is periodically basted in smen (a type of clarified butter), until it falls from the bone, the skin crunchy like crackling, and the fat melts in your mouth. The meat can be ordered by the half-kilo until it sells out, which usually happens by no later than 3pm, and is served on paper with little more than some local bread, cumin salt and harissa (though don't forget to ask for it). It remains to this day one of my enduring culinary highlights from anywhere in the world, and is, and will always be, my first pit-stop when I'm visiting Marrakech. There are several méchoui vendors to choose from, but I always opt for Chez Lamine.
Bissara, a thick, sludge-like soup made from fava beans, may not be for everyone – but it is for me, and I urge you to try it at least once and judge for yourself. There are a handful of bissara hawkers dotted around the medina, some just off the main square, but they're not always the easiest to find. It's usually best to ask a local restaurant owner to point you in the direction of one. It's served for breakfast, and is usually all gone by midday, with just a drizzle of oil, a dusting of hot pepper flakes and some fresh, warm bread for mopping it all up.
Terrasse Bakchich, Chez Hassan and Monsieur Fromage form part of a cluster of establishments located in and around Souk Talaa, in what can only be described as Marrakech's version of a food court. Picture the most modern, hygienic and beautiful food court you've ever been to – this is the exact opposite of that one. But if you're looking for something real and are brave enough to seek the culinary reward that's often so closely aligned with risk, then this is some of the best food I've had in the city.
The lamb is periodically basted until it falls from the bone and the fat melts in your mouth
Elsewhere, Bakchich is an institution – a tiny hole-in-the-wall type joint serving all different kinds of tagine. Chez Hassan is a great spot for grilled food, specifically sardines, beef kefta and chicken brochettes, but they also make harira, a soup made from lentils and chickpeas, that is definitely worth ordering. Monsieur Fromage specialises in grilled lamb skewers, typically kidneys or chops. It's not for the faint of heart (none of these places are), but it pays to hold your nerve and venture into the unknown.
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Beef kefta are grilled minced patties or skewers, usually spiced and seasoned with cumin, paprika and coriander, and served stuffed in bread with onion, grilled tomato and harissa. The kefta grills that can be found on many of the medina's side streets are Morocco's version of our late-night kebab joints. There are a number of obvious commonalities; you approach all of them with a mixed sense that's equal parts trepidation and excitement, are never entirely sure what it is you've eaten and don't know how you truly feel about them until the next morning. But the most important similarity is that, in the moment at least, they're always delicious.
I don't have a particular favourite kefta vendor to point you to – they always seem to be on the move, without a name from which to identify them by. Instead, let your instincts guide you: follow your nose and your eyes, and take a walk around the maze-like alleyways of the medina until you find the one that resonates with you. Be brave and keep an open mind: it's the sense of discovery that, perhaps more than anything else, is what Marrakech has come to mean to me, and why I keep coming back for more.
Josh Katz is the chef-owner of both Berber and Q and Shawarma Bar