Marrakech, Morocco — In Marrakech every day is market day. In fact, in this city of a million people, every minute of every hour of every day the streets are alive with the sights, sounds and smells of vendors hawking their wares. Even for a serious foodie the city's food and spice markets are a force to be reckoned with. Pass through the red walls of the Medina and you will soon find yourself lost in a maze of markets.
As a food and health blogger, I've developed a craving to seek out extraordinary markets. Discovering farmers markets in faraway places is an adventure in both food and culture.
I also have an affinity for spices. To me Moroccan food celebrates the range of sweet, bitter, fiery and aromatic spices better than any other cuisine. In fact, Morocco's most famous seasoning, Ras el Hanout, is typically a blend of 35 spices. 35! Oh la la! Therefore, it was no surprise to my husband when I told him that for my birthday, I wanted to go on a culinary excursion to Marrakech.
The old fortified city of Marrakech is truly one giant market. In any direction you look someone is selling something. Anyone visiting for the first time should be prepared to get lost, and lost, and lost again as you search for the true foodie corners where local Berber farmers sell their homegrown specialties. Luckily, on our first day, my husband and I stumbled upon a small square packed with elderly men selling local produce.
We bought some oranges and pomegranates that looked bruised and battered, but tasted fabulous. I especially loved the giant weathered flour sacks stuffed with bundles of fresh mint. For Moroccans, mint tea is the cornerstone of every gathering. They mix fresh mint leaves with green or black tea for a midday energy boost (healthy alternative to coffee!).
For our second day of exploring the markets we hired Eben Lenderking, owner of the fabulous cooking school at Sanssouci Collection and author of the cookbook Tanjia Marrakchia, to guide us through the maze of food stalls. Our culinary adventure continued with a tour of the spice markets, where we were guided to a wholesale shop in a small back alley of the old Jewish quarter.
There we bought spices for the tajine and couscous dishes that we would be cooking later in a class taught by Eben's Dada (aka head chef). We also bought a few Moroccan specialties to bring back home, including beautiful threads of saffron, savory cumin, the shop's own house Ras el Hanout blend, cinnamon bark and the famed nutritious Argan oil.
After stocking up on spices, we headed to the impressive Marche du Mellah, a covered food market where we picked up fresh vegetables. A traditional Moroccan vegetable couscous dish contains seven vegetables (so nutritious!). The version we cooked at Riad Kaiss included onion, cabbage, zucchini, tomato, carrot, turnip and pumpkin. We also scoped out the fresh fish for a monkfish tajine, which ended up being our favorite dish of the cooking course.
Marrakech is not for everyone. It's loud, dusty and chaotic. But Marrakech has a magic, energy and excitement that I have never experienced anywhere else. And it has the flavors to match its unique vibe. For a food lover, Marrakech is a true culinary adventure. An adventure in finding your way through the maze of markets and an adventure in endless spices, oils, grains and vegetables. I left Marrakech inspired to continue my drive to explore the amazing and wonderful food markets of our world.
You can continue to follow my culinary adventures and get inspired to live FRESH at www.freshabits.com.
Elyse Kopecky is an Oregonian living, working and playing outdoors in Geneva, Switzerland. She's a passionate food and health blogger who enjoys inspiring friends to live fresh. Next month she's leaving the corporate world to study health supportive culinary arts at the Natural Gourmet Institute in NYC. Follow her adventures in the kitchen and on the trail at www.freshabits.com and @freshabits.
Darya is the creator of Summer Tomato, one of TIME's 50 Best Websites of 2011. She received her Ph.D in neuroscience from UCSF and her bachelor's degree in Molecular and Cell Biology from UC Berkeley. Darya writes about food, health and science for several publications and is a dedicated foodist, health enthusiast, and proud geek girl.