Djemma el-Fna: Sheep’s head, anyone?

Marrakech, Morocco 

One of my first, and best, experiences in Morocco is having dinner in the great central square of Marrakech, the Djemma el-Fna.

As previously mentioned, I was traveling on a very limited budget.  Fortunately, my Couchsurfing buddy and travel companion, Rachid, had been to Marrakech a few times and knew where to find the cheap, delectable eats.  I am glad that he, and another Couchsurfer who met up with us for dinner, had an idea about where to go, as I was like a kid in a deliciously spicy and richly varied candy shop.  I wanted to try everything, especially if the food in the stall came in pretty colors!

 

Note the smoke and steam rising from the food stalls.  Mmm-marrakech!

 

Amanda, from MarocMama.com, had suggested trying tangia in her guest post (she even provided a recipe — go try it!).  As I was to learn later, "tangia" is a relatively general term for meat-type products cooked with oil and spices in a big clay jar.  Often, however, it also means an entire sheep's head Umm…

Well, I was willing to take the plunge (I do like haggis, after all)!  If it was popular with the locals, I would show Just How Adventurous And Liberal I Am By Partaking Of The Native Fare. Rachid, on the other hand, made a face and informed me, "Sheep's head is gross!"

I blinked at him.  "B-but I thought it was a local favorite and, err, I'm totally willing to, uhh…"

"Sure, you can try it if you want," he said dubiously, making another scrunchy face.

"Umm… no.  That's all right.  I'll just have what you're having.  Err…" 

Which turned out to be lamb — meat only — cooked in the same spices as the sheep's heads, but requiring much less effort to choke down.  (Indeed, it was delicious!)  Our companion, however, went full-on sheep's head and et up all manner of mysterious and questionable ovine tidbits.  …Ah, locals!*

The stall owners served us small glasses of tea which likewise turned out to be standard-setting.  No, it was not mint tea, nor was it black tea, nor even verbena.  I don't actually know what it was.  The best I can get out of Rachid is "umm… spiced tea."  I'm sorry it's not very specific; you'll just have to trust me when I tell you it was AWESOME.  And you need to go to Marrakech to have some.  You do, really.  Trust me.  You'll thank me.

*Apropos of nothing, Rachid is Moroccan, but not from Marrakech. Perhaps this had an effect on his lack of affinity for sheep's head? Or maybe Rachid is just weird.

~  ~  ~

The tangia (not to be confused with tagine which is cooked in a clay pot instead of a clay jar) was delicious and accidentally set the bar rather high for the rest of the trip.  Since I have Amanda's recipe, I will soon be trying it at home.  Hope it turns out as well, despite the lack of clay pot action.

Unfortunately, the pictures Rachid took of the tangia stall were lost.  Sabah, from Sousoukitchen, just emailed permission to use this photo.  sooo hungry...You can find more in the original post.  There is also a nice illustration of the difference between tangia and tagine.

Our tangia looked almost exactly like this, all yellowy and meaty, with plenty of sauce. The round Moroccan bread was there, too. The idea is to tear off a small chunk, open it up — similar to pita bread — and use it to pick up your food, absorbing delicious, delicious sauce all the while. In fact, the stall owners will happily give you extra sauce for the rest of your meat and bread. They know how good it is!

At the end, they hand you a few pieces of paper — lightweight butcher or pastry paper — and pour water on one so you can wipe your fingers off.  Of course, I was busy licking the tangia sauce off my fingers like a complete barbarian and nearly missed out on the paper.  But hey, live in the moment, right?  Who knows when I'll be back in Marrakech, stuffing my face at the night market?  Carpe Tangia — seize the sauce!

 

Have you ever been rescued from eating questionable food at the last minute? 

(Or maybe you took the plunge and ended up liking something despite yourself?)

 

13 thoughts on “Djemma el-Fna: Sheep’s head, anyone?

  1. I’m really enjoying reading this… since we are currently staying only 20 minutes away from this fabulous place :D My current favourite dish there is the liver brochette. Have tried chicken tagine (not tangia), it’s quite nice but I put much extra salt on it. How easy was it for you maneuvering through the touts?

    1. Hey, Dina! I seem to be pretty good at ignoring people. I got good practice in Tanzania and Egypt. (Glad Tanzania was first, ’cause Egypt was brutal!)

      I remember having a discussion with a British woman we met on the way to the Sahara about how she thought it was so rude not to respond to people. Rachid and I explained to her that this was a western mindset that is counted on by salespeople the world ’round! Don’t make eye contact, smile vaguely (so as not to be completely rude) when appropriate, and keep moving. If you look like you are on a mission to get somewhere, it’s an easy choice for them to pick a softer target.

      The bus station, however, is a different matter. I had Rachid with me to sort through some of the confusion, but had I been alone, I would have been wary of accepting any of the “help” offered. Most of it is actually above board, but there are folks who will sell you fake tickets. When in doubt, go to the window yourself. Destinations are written in Arabic and French, so you should be able to sort it out.

      Sometimes more than one bus company will have competing routes to the same destination. It can be worth it to check the different prices, but even more important to check the departure *and arrival* times, as well as the route if you’re not going to a major city. You might get lucky and find an express bus for faster transit between hubs, but these can sometimes skip obscure areas in between. I want to go back and see the kasbahs in the canyons between Marrakech and the Sahara, for ex., something we didn’t have time for because of pesky bus schedules.

      Ooo, I want to go back! Have tons of fun — and drink some freshly squeezed orange juice for me!

  2. Lol, thanks, Daniel! (Sorry you had to post again — I didn’t realize this had been flagged for moderation.)

    I am not a sheep anatomy expert, so I have no idea what the bits are. As long as the meat was halal and delicious, then that’s all that matters, eh? :)

  3. I am from Morocco, I visit Marrakesh each time I am in there, jemma el fna is just a big restaurant where you can find everything : sheep head, feet, brain, snails, eggs, couscous, tagines, Moroccan tea, harira (Moroccan famous soup)…
    What I like the most is everybody sit near each other without really knowing each other, they enjoy the food which is fresh and very cheap.

    Thanks Katrina for bringing Jemaa el fna a little bit closer to the readers.

    1. My pleasure, Sabah! And thank you again for lending me your wonderful photo. It really adds to the scenery. ;)

      Also, I really appreciated your explanation of the difference between tangia and tagine. It was something I had trouble with during the whole trip!

      If you ever make it to Ireland, please look me up — or maybe we can plan a meeting in Marrakech one of these days!

  4. Oh I feel with you! I was in Marrakech just last week, also in the foodstalls of the Djemma el-Fna. After a few days we actually took enjoyment in just walking through the roles, smiling mischivous at the guys trying to pull you to their stands. I tried the Tangia as well, just because I didn’t know what it is. I’m not picky, but the looks of it was not inviting and it wasn’t easy to eat, but what I could eat it was nice and quite an experience. :)

    1. Ooh, Daniel, you mean full-on-sheep’s-head tangia? Wow! Good for you! I was glad to be saved from tasting but I feel a little bad about it, lol. Glad to hear it turned out so deliciously for you! :D

        1. Sheep …ankles? Wow, that’s a new one! Did you get a picture of the booth number or the dish itself? I am definitely going back, so I want to track this mystery food down, lol.

          1. yes Katrina; i forgot to tell you that people here cook sheep ankles mostly with chickpeas, i had them once in my life and it was Okey, i still don’t like them with Head sheep:(.

            greetings from the land of peace & slow lifestyle
            Rachid
            peace & hugs

    1. It’s a shame that Marrakech is not a port city, Roy. Would be great if you could put in there for a day or two and check it out yourself. I hope you can break free for a time and fly over there to enjoy some tangia yourself! :D

Leave a Reply