Traveling across the high Atlas Mountains and the Valley of Thousand Kasbahs (fortresses), I arrive at Warzazat – a province between mountains and deserts, some 200 kilometers southeast of Marrakech, Morocco. Due to its proximity to the Sahara desert, it is also nicknamed the door of the desert.
While Warzazat may not sound familiar to you, you may have heard of Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars, Gladiator and Game of Thrones – movies and TV shows filmed in this region.
Overlooking the pinkish-brown clay houses, some dating back to the medieval times, this is home to the Berber people – an indigenous group of North Africa.
Never heard of the Berber people? Not to worry, because you may have already tasted their staple food. Tajines (tagines) is a famous Berber dish that can be found in restaurants around the world. I am already familiar with tajines and I am curious to find out what else do they eat in this region.
Restaurant Elbahja is a local restaurant my Moroccan guide, Mohammed – a Berber, promises to take us to. When my travel mates and I arrive at the restaurant, it is packed with locals and another group of foreigners.
I can’t find the door to this restaurant; it appears to be a big open space of dining tables partially covered by a roof with cooks grilling different types of meats in the back.
We settle on a large table outside and share it with a local man who is eating alone. He dips his bread into a plate of lentils, pickled cabbage and chicken innards and when he looks up, our eyes meet, and I immediately look away. When I slowly turn my head back at him and try to observe him with only the corner of my eye (just so it’s not too obvious), he notices me again and greets me with a big smile and offers me to try his food. Being thick-skinned, I thank him, take a small bite and capture a few shots of his dishes.
My companion and I are starving at this moment and we proceed to order as much as we can possibly consume. I look at the menu, which is written in French, and order the lentils, fries, brochette viande (skewers of meat), lamb chops, a whole roasted chicken, sausages, cow liver and hearts. I am tempted but decide against ordering dishes such as mutton head and cow’s foot.
I dip my Moroccan smida bread into the lentils; the abundant flavors are a combination of cumin, paprika, pepper, turmeric and other spices, so enjoyable that I now feel even hungrier – what a great appetite opener.
As I anxiously wait for the rest of my meal, I smell the aroma of the grilled meats before it is brought in front of me. Not to disappoint, the meats are excellent: well seasoned with local spices, and the texture is succulent and moist. Then the luscious roasted chicken arrives, it is beautifully presented with Moroccan turmeric rice and olives, with juice oozing from the chicken when I take my first bite. I tell myself to really enjoy all that is in front of me, because Berber cuisine varies depending on the region, and it is unlikely to find this exact taste again.
Nothing in the Berber meal goes to waste. This principal applies to the Berber cuisine where most parts of the animal are eaten, and it also applies to our meal where we wrap the leftover meats with bread and make sandwiches for the local women begging for food outside of the restaurant.
Many people in this country are still living under poverty. Food supplies in this region are not as abundant as in coastline cities such as Casablanca. In recent years high-end resorts are being built in Marrakesh to fulfill increasing demands of wealthy international travelers who seek exotic vacationing experiences. Friends have told me about their amazing experience in Marrakesh, but I think the luxury Marrakesh experience alone is far from the reality of the Moroccans.
Like a gift from their ancestors, today these ancient towns attract travelers from all over the world, providing locals with a source of income. At sunset, the old clay houses built centuries ago are covered in a warm embrace. How many sunsets have they seen? How insignificant is my brief encounter with them? I can’t help but wonder.