Shopping for Moroccan Food at Tangier’s Market

Aromatic herbs and bread at Tangier's food market (Credit: MCArnott)

Aromatic herbs and Berber breads at Tangier’s food market (Credit: MCArnott)

A maze of crooked streets in the medina, lead soldiers at the Forbes Museum, annoying haggling in the souks, perfumes at Medini’s, antiques at Majid’s, traditional crafts at the Centre de l’Artisannat… These are the sights and sounds of Tangier. But its pulse is truly taken through the taste buds.

Don’t miss the food market!

From the 1920s to the 1950s, Tingis–Tangier’s Roman name– had been a fashionable playground for the likes of Paul Bowles, Malcolm Forbes, Barbara Hutton (the Woolworth heiress), Joseph Kessel and André Gide. In earlier times, Delacroix, and later Matisse, were in awe of its incomparable light.

But independence from France (in 1956) was followed by the repressive fist of the late King, which brought regression and decay. Tangier’s appeal changed, but not its food.

In 1999, Tangier began revamping its dilapidated image, and major changes were expected. A modern harbor and train station, sewage lines in the medina, road development and beautification of the city. King Mohammed VI said that he would do in four years what his late father—King Hassan II—did in forty. His vision is to bring Northern Morocco “closer” to Southern Europe.

In Your Bucket Because…
• Knowing the old Tangier will enrich your experience of the new one—yet some things never changed.
• It’s a long but worthwhile day-trip from Southern Spain.
• For everyone: Foodies, romantics, adventurers, tourists.

Guides — Whether you Wanted Them of Not

One of the changes: The infamously overzealous guides were warned to leave visitors alone. Back then, this is how you might have experienced it.

Beautification of Tangier’s Grand Socco (Credit: MCArnott)

A guide clad in a hooded-djellaba would politely, but unrelentingly, offer his services as soon as you disembarked. If you booked him, he would not tell “how much.” But at the end of the day, he would show an offended face when you paid him what seemed right. If you didn’t want a guide, it would not matter: Even an assertive “choukrane” (pronounce shoe-krann; it means thank you) would not convince him that you knew your whereabouts. Never mind, you would rush to a “petit taxi” and asked for Le Grand Socco (the large square). From there, you would access the souks and the food market.

Ah, surprise: Somehow, he would already be there waiting for you. If you tried to go on alone, his familiar face would appear as you looked around you. Eventually, lost in the maze of streets, you would give in, and he would take over. Carrying your bags, he would make up for “lost time” by speed-walking only to the shops that paid him. Today, guides are not allowed to harass tourists, but other customs remain.

Food Market Basics

First rule: Bargaining is the order of the day.

Second rule: Don’t snuggle or get too close! Once, a shrewd young man pretending to haggle for me, put his arms around my shoulders and took a case from my not-so-secured bag. Worse than losing money, it contained my car keys—the ensuing is another story. So, make sure the content of your bag is inaccessible to a pickpocket walking or standing behind you!

But, as you fasten your bag, remember to unfasten your senses!

Traditional bread making in Tangier’s medina (Credit: MCArnott)

The market is a line-up of small booths built with concrete blocks, except for the large hangar-like produce area. Most vendors are locals, but here and there, women in bright traditional dresses sell their products from baskets laid on the mud floor. They are Berber tribal people who came down from the nearby Rif Mountains where they eke a harsh living on the rugged slopes. As you make eye contact with a smile, you will notice how outdoor life and farming labor printed deep wrinkles on their tanned faces. They won’t mirror your friendly approach, and you might wonder if they are as curious about you as you are about them. Remember to ask for approval before photographing!

Tangier Food Market Will Knock your Taste Buds Off

Start your shopping tour with some of the basics of traditional Moroccan cuisine. You can’t miss the rows of wooden barrels filled with pickles so pungent they clear your sinuses. Move on to large bowls of colorful olives and buy a sample of the multi-colored mix to taste the different flavors. Notice the wooden shelves with glass jars of preserved lemons still soaking in salted lemon juice. They are key ingredients to Moroccan specialties such as tagines—a stew slowly cooked in a traditional glazed dish with a hat-shaped lid.

A stall at the Tangier food market: olives and pickled lemons for Moroccan recipes (Credit: MCArnott)

On the next row, choose from the hefty piles of plump nuts, dried figs and fresh dates still clustered on their stems. Also used in tagines, they contribute to their sweet and savory taste. Frown if you must, as you smell the content of round earthenware bowls with a loose lid. Smen is to Moroccan food what butter is to French cooking. Its particularity is a salty flavor that I find similar to an aged blue cheese. Made from clarified butter (traditionally, churned from camel milk), salt, and dried herbs, it used to be a keepsake from birth to wedding day.

Are you sniffing like a cat nearing catnip? Ah, the combined aromas of the spices are tickling your nostrils. Displays of seeds of cumin, fennel, anis and coriander show off their texture, while golden turmeric, rusty paprika and numerous blended spices in earthy shades complete the odorant palettes.

As a fragrant souvenir of Tangier chose the mystical ras-el-hanout spice-mix for couscous. The “top of the shop” is a jumble of all key spices used in Moroccan cuisine. Each vendor has its own recipe, but the forty ingredients must be of the best quality: “from the top of the shop.”

Couscous is a traditional dish of North Africa (Credit: MCArnott)

Even if flies get the first bite of anything in sight, you can’t miss the meat and fish markets. Tangier is where the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea unite: The fish is fresh. Yet, raw fish and meat reek in the warm stagnant air. Besides, you will notice that, here, nothing is wasted: Only an expert in animal anatomy would know what “this” and “that” really are.

Fortunately, you are approaching displays of fresh and fragrant herbs. Get a bunch of lush mint and lemon-verbena! Even if you cannot use them all, for a few cents, their energizing scents will strangely relax you. How about delicate tiny rosebuds to place on your nightstand? Or, fragrant orange flowers to refresh your bathroom? In fact, how about infusing them, Moroccan style?

Next up are the feta cheeses in their own juices. Air-dried for a couple of days, cubed, and topped with a thin slice of quince-paste secured by a toothpick, you can enjoy them as tapas.

At Tangier food market fruit and vegetables are always fresh: Vendors know better than risking the wrath of a Moroccan housewife. So is the bread baked in traditional ovens and whose whiff gets the last of your pocket change. Your bag is full, it’s time to return to the harbor.

Late in the night, you will lay in bed exhausted but content. So much contrast in one day will seem like you had a dream.

Practicalities

  • As the King’s new summer residence, Tangier is better and safer than ever. As the gateway to Europe, caution is still required if you travel alone.
  • Most guides are multilingual. Some can organize cooking classes in Tangier and guided tour of the food market.
  • If you go from Spain, the seventy-minute crossing by ferry or hovercraft through the Strait of Gibraltar can be rough.
  • Your ferry return-ticket is valid at any crossing-time on the same day, depending on space available.
  • To my knowledge, there is still no official Tourism Office in Tangier. For special places of interest check this UNESCO-related blog.

About 

Marie-Claude Arnott is a freelance writer and a global citizen. Raised in France near cosmopolitan Geneva, Switzerland, she speaks four languages, has lived in five countries and visited over fifty. She holds a B.A. in International Studies from California State University East Bay, and studied Feature Writing with the London School of Journalism. In addition to writing real travel stories, she writes short stories about real people in imaginary places. She enjoys fashion, golf, French pastries, and spending time with her grandchildren.

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