Morocco’s top tables
Take a culinary pilgrimage from coastal Agadir to the port city of Casablanca and the capital city of Marrakesh, and experience the country’s classics.
Before the menu arrives, before the napkin is unrolled, before being seated between the Kasbah-chic cushions, I lose count of the number of dishes waiter-waltzed from kitchen to table. There is an aroma of raisins and roses. Of almonds and aromatic stews. Of plums and pistachios. And it fills the room.
This is the first thing you need to know about Morocco. It has a bona fide love affair with its food. On walking into the intimate The Restaurant at Villa Riad Blanche in the chi-chi district of Founty in Agadir—the country’s southern Atlantic belt of beaches and surf shacks—the waiter leads me under hanging lanterns past chockablock tables. It is 10.30pm—late by most people’s watch—yet each group of diners is presented with sultan-worthy platters. There are plates of prawns served a la plancha. Buttery oysters from Dakhla (Western Sahara). Seabass tartar and whole squid, marine risotto, beef carpaccio, foie gras terrine, and citrusy John Dory fillets, accompanied by fluffy pita breads.
It’s late April and I’ve come to Morocco on a gourmet pilgrimage on impulse. The plan is to tour the country’s top tables, tackling a three-stop journey through its most alluring cities—from Agadir to
Marrakesh, by way of Casablanca. It’s fair to say that Morocco is not yet renowned as a gourmet destination, but armed with a list of restaurant recommendations from friends, I have more than a little to go on. I just have no idea how much North Africa is going to change my attitude to its cuisine.
An hour later at Villa Riad Blanche, the diners are oohing and aahing over traditional stews, or tagines. These are named after the cone-shaped earthenware pots in which they are cooked. Some come fez-topped with raisins and almonds, others with courgettes and thyme. There is one with mussels and calamari, tomatoes and clementines. Another with just-landed monkfish and charmoula. I opt for the local favourite—a lamb and raisin tagine stew adorned with sweet onions, and served with couscous. It’s stunning, yet for locals is nothing out of the ordinary. “Don’t be surprised,” the stick-thin waiter tells me. “This is how Moroccans eat. And then, of course, you must have a dessert. It’s compulsory!”
All told, Morocco has always been easy to enter, but harder to leave. Its cultural treasures have never been a secret. Olive-green minarets, domed ceilings with gold and jade tiles, and creaky bazaars where fragrant spices, fabrics, carpets, oil lamps and curly-toed babouche slippers have been traded for centuries—what’s not to love about that? It’s effortless to spend hours sampling the country’s best sights and restaurants. And that’s just what I intend to do.
Around dusk the following day, Agadir stops working, revealing its true culinary colours. At La Caravane, inside the Sofitel Agadir Royal Bay Resort, I spy a buffet’s worth of spit-roast meats and salads. Next to that are ubiquitous claypot tagines, doorway-wide and sumptuous enough to feed a family for a week. This is followed by a smorgasbord of baklava, an Ottoman-era pastry made of filo layers filled with pistachios and soaked with syrup. Outside, on the sun-shaded terrace, couples
fuel jealousy by inhaling hand-spun pizza made to order from a wood oven. My in-the-know friends had told me it would leave an imprint. I just didn’t realise by how much. I order a lovely beef tagine with preserved lemons.
In the last decade or so, the Moroccan kitchen has gone well beyond simply trying to imitate its French counterpart. Cast your mind back and you may recall Morocco was a former French protectorate. Under occupancy from 1912 to 1956, the country was committed to French rule, adopting many culinary and cultural imports. There remains a strong café and art scene, and some of France’s most creative chefs and hoteliers have opened world-class restaurants and riads from Agadir to the Atlas Mountains. But homegrown chefs are also lighting the torch paper for fusion Berber cuisine, embracing Bedouin recipes, as well as influences from fellow neighbours Spain and Tunisia. This is Morocco’s greatest gift: while some things stay exactly the same, others are changing it for the better (with inspirations from neighbouring countries).
MARRAKESH’S CAPITAL EATS
I find myself beginning to agree with my friends’ recommendations a day later in Marrakesh, a three-hour car ride north. Particularly at the Royal Mansour, an opulent palace hotel with private riads (traditional house built around a courtyard, often converted into a hotel), extensive grounds and butler-service. First overseen by the King of Morocco, and built by more than 1,200 craftsmen over three-and-a-half years, its VIP riads cost upwards of S$2350 per night—with the ultimate riad maxing-out at a bumper S$47,000. Here, days start with a traditional breakfast of sweet tea, almond pastries and fresh Moroccan beghrir. Also known as ‘one thousand hole’ pancakes, a reference to their honeycomb-grid appearance, they’re drenched in warm butter and honey. Afterwards, it becomes a journey through fresh fruits, spongey eggs, moreish cakes, belly-hugging buns, yoghurts and sweet treats. All told, it’s devilish.
I hire a Berber guide and a calèche, a horse and two-seat carriage, for a tour of the city’s famed gardens and palaces. First stop is the Jardin Majorelle, Yves Saint Laurent’s gift to the city. An oasis of cobalt blue and lemon yellow Art Deco design amid rare flora, palms and lilies, it offers a respite to the dry heat. Yves loved the place so much there is a memorial to him tucked-away in the shrubbery. Our next stop is the infamous Djemaa el-Fna square: a UNESCO World Heritage site that treads a fine line between a circus freak show, rogue’s gallery and non-stop festival of music, revelry and astrology. Somewhat surprisingly, dentistry is on offer, too.
At lunch, I try something you’ll rarely find back
All told, Morocco has always been easy to enter, but harder to leave. Its cultural treasures have never been a secret. Olivegreen minarets, domed ceilings with gold and jade tiles, and creaky bazaars where fragrant spices, fabrics, carpets, oil lamps and curlytoed babouche slippers have been traded for centuries—what’s not to love about that?
It’s effortless to spend hours sampling the country’s best sights and restaurants. And that’s just what I intend to do.
Step into Royal
Mansour, an opulent
palace hotel in
home. Exquisite spiny lobster tagine with chickpeas and saffron. Served at Le Marocain, one of four restaurants inside La Mamounia, a hotel visited by the likes of Sir Winston Churchill, Charlton Heston and Orson Welles, it is plump and delicious—and yet I’m distracted by the gorgeous exoticism of the restaurant’s decor. Later, at Al Fassia, a stand-out restaurant run entirely by women, I choose a classic pigeon pastilla, a layered pie wrapped in soft pastry and dusted with cinnamon. You, too, may find it hard to stop at one. The perfect marriage of savoury and sweet, it’s arguably the highlight of the trip.
PIT STOP IN CASABLANCA
Farther north, Casablanca brings more sunshine, but also reveals more secrets. For the ultimate dinner, I call ahead for a rendezvous at Rick’s Café, based on the mythical saloon in the eponymous movie Casablanca, featuring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Established in 2004, it’s a tourist attraction in its own right. Secreted between twin palms on Rue Sour Jdid, the restaurant brings Hollywood to life, first opened by Kathy Kriger, one of many expats who have fallen in love with the city’s faded grandeur. It is decked-out with whitewashed arches, sculpted balconies and balustrades and is a painstaking replica of the celluloid version, right down to the gleaming piano and antique bar where Bogart slumped in the film. I order the signature goat cheese salad with fresh figs and a saffron-flecked kebab, then ask the pianist to tinkle out As Time Goes By on the ivories. It would be rude not to.
Finally, to see the city at its most alluring, I take a dusky stroll along Place des Nations Unies, stopping to admire the palm-fringed Palace Mohammed V. Couples picnic, teenagers flirt over ice cream and the city shifts up a gear as sunset casts a streak of pink light across the sky and its time-worn bazaar. Casablanca’s greatest gift to the visitor, I think, is it remains true to itself. It’s unchanged and antiquated, yet modern and cosmopolitan. And the
same can be said of Morocco. Which is perhaps why visitors try to keep it a secret. You may not know it yet, but one day it’ll cast a spell on you, too.
THE TAGINE THROUGH TIME
Whether it’s prepared with lamb, chicken or vegetables, this succulent slow-cooked stew, served in a traditional upturned earthenware pot, represents the best of North African cooking.
A nomadic Bedouin creation, its history straddles continents, from Morocco to Iran and Iraq, dating to the Early Muslim conquests around 650 to 700. Check the history books and you’ll also find the cone-shaped pots first mentioned in the One Thousand and One Nights, the Middle Eastern folk tales compiled during the Islamic Golden Age.
As with everything so simple, the details need to be carefully thought through. Clarified butter is often used to lubricate the pot’s surface, a puree of chopped onions is added for aroma, and olive oil enriches the flavours. Meat or fish should be boiled with fresh coriander, hot spices and garlic, then stewed until butter soft. It is a simple thing, perfectly executed.
Tagine, an upturned eathernware vessel, is used to cook all manner of stews.
Sweet Moroccan pastries to sink your teeth into.
Relax and enjoytraditional tea atRoyal Mansour’sexpansive grounds.
Pit-stop: visitthe vibrant night bazaar inMarrakesh.
A variety of taginesfrom meat toseafood can be hadin Morocco. VillaRiadBlanche SecteurN50CiteFounty,Sonaba,Agadir,Morocco www.riadvillablanche.comSofitelAgadirRoyalBayResort Bp226CiteFountyP4,BaiedesPalmiersCommunede Bensergao,Agadir,Morocco www.sofitel.comRoyalMansour ArsatGestion,RueAbouAbbasElSebti,Marrakech, Morocco www.royalmansour.comLaMamouniaAvenueBabJdid Marrakech,Morocco lamamounia.grandluxuryhotels.comRick’sCafé 248BdSourJdid,PlaceduJardin,AncienneMedina, Casablanca,Morocco www.rickscafe.ma