The Flavors of Fez: Regional Moroccan Cuisine

The Flavors of Fez: Regional Moroccan Cuisine

Discovering the Heart of Moroccan Culture

Situated in a dry Mediterranean landscape, tucked between the Riff and Middle Atlas Mountains, the ancient walled city of Fez has been at the center of Moroccan culture for centuries. Within the 13th century walls of the oldest and largest of Morocco’s imperial cities lies a maze of crowded medieval alleyways, full of enchanting architecture, fabled cuisine, and mysterious traditions. These ancient urban pathways are filled with souks selling everything under the sun – centuries-old mosques, hidden palaces, exquisite classical craftwork, and the world’s oldest university.

As a first-time visitor to Morocco, few destinations intrigued me more than Fez. My agenda was that of a consumptive glutton and history nerd on a five-day quest to discover the country’s heartland. The region around Fez contains cities both lost and enduring that exemplify thousands of years of imperial expansion and cultural shifts – Meknes, the ruined Roman city of Volubilis, and the holy town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, all within a few hours’ drive and each worth a day to explore.

Traveling within the region and the country itself is often convenient and memorable. Fez is connected by train and long-distance buses to Morocco’s major cities, with cheap fares and comfortable rides. Within the region surrounding Fez, taxis are an affordable way to get around, giving you the freedom to explore. Just make sure to agree on a price and agenda before heading out. One thing to always keep in mind in Morocco is that there are two types of taxis – shared taxis which don’t leave until they’re full, and Petite taxis which leave anytime you request and by law should have a meter.

The Enduring Legacy of Fez

Fez is famous not only for its ancient city center, but the traditions that evolved within it. Trade and higher learning have always been at the center of this region’s history. In the 13th century AD, Fez was the capital of the powerful Marinid dynasty that stretched from Spain to Morocco. It also became one of the largest cities in the world and served as a global hub for education and culture. Many industries and fine arts developed within the massive maze of urban development. Because of the vast amount of cultural treasures and thriving classical industries, the city was rightly designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Fez Medina, or ancient walled city, also known as Fez el-bali, grew from the guidance and vision of various dynasties since the ninth century. Traders and merchants from across the Arab, African, and European world profited through trade within its walls. They brought their cultures, cuisines, and traditions with them and left an indelible imprint on Moroccan culture. To this day, spices from India, silks from China, cosmetics from Persia, and woodwork from Sub-Saharan Africa are sold and showcased as they have been for more than a thousand years. This everlasting connection to the Silk Roads is unboundedly apparent throughout the city.

The never-ending medina contains a limitless supply of excitement and landmarks, ripe for exploration. I purposefully lost myself in the mazes of passageways, seeking out wondrous architectural and cultural treasures, and indulging in street food along the way. People watching became my favorite activity, and soon I found myself sipping mint tea from a balcony, watching metalworkers hammer away at molten metal to craft pendant lights to be sold in the souk next door. This was what struck me the most about the city – you’re always steps away from the finest artisans, unapologetically doing business the way it’s been done for centuries.

The Cradle of Learning

The region around Fez is Morocco’s historic center of culture and learning. The finest example of this is the world’s oldest university, Al Quaraouiyine. It was started by Fatima Al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy merchant who wanted a grand mosque and learning institution (madrasa) in this increasingly influential city. The University was completed in 859AD, when the city was the capital of the Idrisid dynasty. The University houses an impressive collection of ancient Quranic scriptures and other historic books. Surprisingly, given its portentous design, this library was once abandoned by all but a few select scholars, only to be resurrected by a Canadian architect and the Moroccan Ministry of Culture in 2012. Now the world’s oldest library is open to the public and well worth a visit.

Traditional leather work has been produced in Fez for centuries. To this day, the old way of tanning is still used. The process begins by soaking the hides in a mixture of cow urine, quicklime, water, and a few other ingredients in large stone vessels. The workers then scrape and beat the excess hair and meat from them. This is followed by another bath in a mixture of pigeon dung and water, causing the hides to soften and break down from the ammonia-rich fecal concentration. The purpose is to make them easily absorb the dyes and color. This method of dying the hides produces a pungent smell which can be quite repulsive. Many of these famous tanneries are located on the roofs of the medina’s buildings and offer daily tours. Keep in mind that if you purchase a leather item, be sure to allow it at least a week to air out.

Goods produced inside and outside the medina make it to the souks, ready to be sold. You can literally find any item you want, with varying quality and price. I’m not much of a shopper, but I discovered a hidden talent in myself – a penchant towards the medina’s deeply rooted dance of the deal that I think everyone visiting Morocco should learn to enjoy. Haggling can be a great way to learn about another culture while getting a better deal in the process. The first and most important step is to make sure you are in a place where haggling is an everyday affair. In Morocco and many markets around the world, it is expected in most transactions involving goods. The exception is for prepared food – haggling at a restaurant or food stand would be insulting to say the least.

Savoring the Flavors of Fez

The medina and all of its inner workings will leave even the most hardened local or traveler disoriented, exhausted, and hungry. Fortunately, the city is full of incredible restaurants and street food vendors, open late into the night. Just like anywhere else in the world, eating at places packed with locals is the surest way to experience the true cooking in all its finest. The superbness of the regional cuisine of Fez exemplifies the region’s importance in the spice trade. These spices are used to balance the flavors of the slow-cooked meat stews known as tajines, and the subtle yet flavorful couscous dishes served in every home.

The staples of Moroccan cuisine are simple – fresh-baked bread, fruits, vegetables, and various types of cured olives. The warm, fluffy flatbread made in special ovens is served steadily with every meal. A Moroccan meal wouldn’t be complete without it. For experiencing the true backbone of everyday life in the city, one must experience Fez street food. Small food stands serve regional favorites like Khlii – spiced and dehydrated pieces of beef cooked over a fire. Pastries like Chebbakia – fried dough soaked in honey, skewered meats and kebabs thrown over coal fires are popular in the busiest areas of the medina, creating a smoky, meat-filled scent that wafts through the city’s passageways. Limitless varieties of fruit-based sweets are also plentiful and best eaten with scalding hot mint tea.

Pastilla is a specialty served at Moroccan weddings and special events. It consists of poultry, traditionally pigeon, cooked in onions and spices, shredded and layered in between filo dough, nuts, and honey. It is then baked into a pastry and decorated with powdered sugar and cinnamon. The sweet and savory characteristic harmonizes incredibly well.

Relaxing Amid the Chaos

The chaos of the medina hides a relaxing side, buried beneath the surface. Spas and hidden cafes are abundant, and rooftop restaurants offer romantic solace from the clamor below. However, there is no better way to relax in the crowded medieval city than to book a stay in a traditional Moroccan inn.

Dars and Riads are typically old estates converted into beautifully ornate bed and breakfasts. The often pricier Riads contain garden courtyards, antique furniture, and interiors radiating with historic romanticism and mystery – they are the ultimate escapes when the chaotic clamor of the Medina overrides your senses. Dars are more subtle and are often smaller. From the outside, these grand manors are unrecognizable from the stone and plaster walls connecting them to the surrounding homes and shops. Every Dar and Riad has prideful and attentive caretakers and small kitchen staff who make incredible Moroccan meals for their guests.

Exploring the Wider Region

On the road from Fez, you pass grasslands and olive orchards reminiscent of Santa Barbara County, California. The weathered landscape, full of dry grass and distant chaparral-covered hills, stretches as far as you can see. Along the way, small villages and fruit stands sell local produce. Here, I bought several large pomegranates that lasted several days. Journeying on, you reach the holy city of Moulay Idriss. The small town covers two hillsides overlooking vast open spaces to the west. Here, the tomb of Idris I, the first Islamic ruler of Morocco, is laid to rest. The town is full of cafes, charming restaurants, and most notably, the annual pilgrimages to the town’s mausoleum. During the festive August pilgrimages, known as fantasias, thousands of people visit the town to partake in religious services as well as the energetic summer festival that takes over the town. Markets fill the streets, strewn with live music performers and, of course, limitless food vendors. Beautiful music and hymns ring out from every corner. Visiting during these festivals, which continue every Thursday throughout the fall, is something that shouldn’t be missed.

Just a short drive from Moulay Idriss are the ruins of Volubilis. Originally constructed as a Phoenician city in the 3rd century BC, it became a Carthaginian stronghold and later served as the capital of Roman Mauritania. Finally, in the 8th century, it was recognized as the capital of the Idrisid Dynasty before being abandoned. The local population and many of the stones used in its construction were moved to neighboring Moulay Idriss and the royal Administration of Fez. However, the base stones, Roman columns, and several Roman baths with tiles still colorful after thousands of years still stand.

The V-shaped city was once the center of trade for the Southern reaches of the Roman Empire. Surrounded by colossal defensive walls, it stood as one of the empire’s far-flung centers of trade and power. Parades of travelers, merchants, and armies once marched down the Decumanus Maximus – the city’s main street. The great Basilica and Capitoline Temple stand majestically over ruined homes and palaces. In these small buildings, you can find intricate mosaics and polished baths, signifying the incredible wealth of those who once lived here. Sauntering about Roman palatial estates and towering basilicas was an experience of a lifetime. Surrounded by the Moroccan countryside, there’s no place like it. Almost the entire site is open to explore at your whim. It’s this accessibility, along with the sheer scale and condition of these immense ruins, that makes Volubilis a must-see detour on your trip to Fez.

The Vibrant City of Meknes

Just a short drive from Fez and the ruins of Volubilis is the city of Meknes. Founded in the 11th century by the Almoravids as a military settlement, it has since become one of the four imperial cities of Morocco and an important economic and cultural center in the region. Meknes is a friendly place with a slower pace of life than Fez. There are fewer hassles in the Medina, people are more talkative to strangers, and goods tend to be cheaper. Not to mention fewer tourists, making the place feel more inviting, especially after acclimating to the non-stop bustle of Fez. For food and music, few places in Morocco can deliver a comparable experience.

The Medina and Lahdim Square are the centers of the town’s nightlife and food scene. During the day and night, food vendors and performers come out to attract customers. Families, couples on dates, and visitors congregate in the square. Street food stands pop up out of nowhere and completely take over any open spaces, leaving walking spaces filled with shoulder-to-shoulder foot traffic.

The region around Fez, with Meknes being the most accessible, is famous for its music. Musicians from Fez and Meknes are said to be the best in Morocco and recognized worldwide. With similarities to Andalusian Flamenco, Moroccan musical genres share a love of danceable rhythms and hypnotic melodies. Each region has added its own flare onto the nation’s music, and this diversity and range of styles is best represented here in the country’s heartland.

As I entered the Fez station, grabbing some Chebbakia and coffee, and boarded my train, I was excited to watch the Moroccan heartland go by around me as I journeyed to the southernmost imperial city and the Atlas Mountains and endless desert that surrounds it. My time in Fez had left me with a deep appreciation for the enduring legacy of this ancient city and the vibrant regional cuisine that defines the heart of Moroccan culture. I couldn’t wait to continue my exploration of this captivating country. If you find yourself in New York City, be sure to visit El Bahia to experience the flavors of Fez for yourself.

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