Wandering the wet stony streets one thirsty mooned night in Essaouira, Morocco, we searched in vain for an authentic fish eatery. We had eaten so many times at the dock: A couple ambiance boat-shaped restaurants line the dock past the Portuguese-built harbor walls. Though the food is grilled tasty, the prices are not local. Through ear straining hearsay, we heard of a place where thigh-sized fish accompanied pyramids of prawn and shrimp. The hearsaid voices spit in our minds: fish, fresh, eat, cheap… We lusted over the plausibility.
We were looking for food and found adventure. We searched in panoramic swivels trying to locate the local fish market, which surprisingly is neither near the harbor nor the port. Through mutterings of two local tongues, Dareeja and French, we finally turned into the clandestine passageway leading to the open-air fish market. Slippery rubber footed vendors yelled from behind stacks of the day’s catch to boys donning greased shirts and gut-enshrined jeans. Though receiving some stares, no one treated us any differently. This welcoming-ness (and indifference) is felt all through Morocco. We were foreign, well yes, but unwelcome, never.
We scoped the scene, as they say, and walked to piles of red snapper, prawns, pre-cut calamari, shrimp and what was perhaps barracuda or eel. We knew not the prices of such delicacy, but decided to test our luck my pointing to three huge snappers, shrimp and calamari. The portions were large and intended for a group thrice in size. We were hungry, you see, and no amount of food would ever seem like enough. We just kept pointing, and the vendor smiled and kept stacking.
We were ushered to vinyl wrapped picnic tables. The fish were taken to a stall a few feet away for preparation and cooking. Smoky ovens and fully cranked Bhutta ranges grizzled and hissed. A man took our drink orders and disappeared for a few minutes bringing back three one-liter Sprites and orange Fantas along with two baskets of locally made bread. Bread breaking, smiles, poured soda and small talk surrounded us as clouds of smoke drifted pell-mell among the strung lights.
Within a few uncharted minutes, one, no two, no three plates of grilled fish arrived tableside. With no room left even for elbows, two heaps of calamari and shrimp were brought, smoldering aromatic vapors. We all goggle-eyed the amazing hoard placed in front of us. Nothing left to do but scoop, grab, pass and partake. It was a feast set for crowned Monarchs when we were mere out-of-towners.
Seventeen minutes later (we know because we timed it), we crumbled paper (used for napkins) and swabbed our chins and mouths. We muttered Shookran (Thanks) to the waiter and the cook working so feverishly behind the fire-shooting grills. The meal cost 140 dirham (about 20.00 dollars) for five persons. Not bad! We teetered out the door to the more open-aired medina alleyways. Yet another culinary adventure found by mere mortals among Essaouira’s favorable food and flavor.
By Terry Hollowell, Content Editor, Tour Leader