An Intro To Moroccan Food Markets
Sophie Duncan is a Thoreau Scholar who spent 2014 on a Fulbright grant in Morocco doing research on traditional foods, innovation, and authenticity. Below, she outlines a myriad of fixtures in the Moroccan market system: from city souks to traditional medinas and the supermarkets that are shifting patterns of consumerism in this culturally-rich part of the world.
I moved to Rabat in the fall of 2014 after six sweaty weeks in Fez, and I was looking forward to a little more sea breeze and a little less hot sun. When searching for a place to live, the thought of spending time lounging and writing in the tent on the roof of my apartment was a huge deciding factor. As it turned out, I was far too afraid of my landlady, who lived next door, to venture onto the roof much. Roof tent aside, the greatest quality of my new home became its proximity to the neighborhood market, or souk. I was so close that I could reliably hear the price of tomatoes (over and over and over) without ever going outside.
Any major city in Morocco that existed prior to 1912 and the establishment of the French protectorate has an old city, or medina, with the exception of Agadir, whose medina was destroyed in an 1960 earthquake. Each medina generally has at least one street or small networks of streets dedicated to food vendors, while newer parts of the city have similar but more spacious markets.
These markets, especially those within the confines of the medina, can look somewhat down at the heels but are in fact, quite formal—vendors pay a fee to a market manager and many have their own permanent storage and selling spaces behind garage doors. Contrary to the wishful and romanticizing thinking of your average tourist, these are not farmers markets. Nor is the produce necessarily organic. Most vendors buy their produce from large municipal wholesale markets, and may be removed from the growers by any number of middlemen. Though many small-scale Moroccan farmers don’t have enough money to purchase pesticides, let’s not forget that Morocco exports massive quantities of fruits and vegetables to Europe and the rest of the world. There’s plenty of industrial agriculture going on.
“Within each street market you will find vendors, mostly women, who are seated on the ground with their small assortment of wares set out in front of them…”
That said, some vendors do sell their own produce, or that of a friend. Within each street market you will find vendors, mostly women, who lack the box-and-crate setup and official stands of their neighbors, who are instead seated on the ground with their small assortment of wares set out in front of them, usually on a tarp or a scrap of cardboard. Now you know you’ve got a homegrown situation going on. Eggs in a bucket of hay? Going to be delicious. Butter in a plastic bag and portioned out with a paring knife taken from the pocket? Going to be funky. When you’re interested in food and you like chatting with old ladies, these vendors are the ones to befriend. If I ever see my egg lady again, I will cry with joy.
Availability and Variety
Urban markets in Morocco are typically open daily, though Friday shoppers will rue their lack of forethought and find the options, if there are any, disappointing on the holiest day of the week. Selection changes from day to day and hour to hour, prices vary with seasonality, and stands open and close throughout the day depending on the vendor’s schedule—hours aren’t posted and most vendors take a break to go home for lunch, so your ability to grocery shop depends somewhat on your understanding of the rhythm of a day in the city. If you stop by during a lunch break, chances are there will be a cat napping on the tarp-covered zucchinis you would like to buy.
Food offerings at your typical souk aren’t limited to produce. You’ll find olives, pickles and harissa, fish, live poultry, eggs, vegetables, and pre-soaked beans for sale in a variety of stalls that are interspersed with stores jam-packed with spices, condiments, and other dry goods. Meat and fresh fruit can be found here too, as well as hot griddle breads and other snacks, though better versions of all three categories can usually be found elsewhere—meat at the butcher shops on larger streets, fruit—referred to as “dessert” in Moroccan Arabic—from carts piled with bananas, citrus, strawberries, or stone fruit depending on the season, and snacks and breads from bakers and lady griddle masters around the city. Big cities tend to have the widest variety, while smaller ones offer more regional specialties— fresh goat’s milk cheeses in the north, little round eggplants near Marrakesh, fermented and funky goat butter in the strangely-isolated northwest, and delicious, pockmarked bread south of Agadir (to name just a few).
“If you stop by during a lunch break, chances are there will be a cat napping on the tarp-covered zucchinis you would like to buy.”
Seasonality is crucial both in quality, quantity, and cost. Strawberries would appear one day at an outrageous cost, to be followed by a blissful week of a kilo for less than a dollar. Excited by the affordable bounty, and relatively un-phased by the resulting digestive eccentricities, I’d plan out a variety of exciting strawberry-themed recipes, only to return a few days later to find the season had ended.
I started to realize that very few fruits and vegetables could be taken for granted or as a given, and took it upon myself to capitalize on their short availability by buying kilos of cherry tomatoes, figs, peaches, avocados, carrots in season (the carrots were so sweet! And so woody and gigantic when not in season…) and greens whenever they presented themselves. I also developed favorite vendors based on their lack of creepiness, my predilection to support women vendors, and of course, the quality and variety of produce they offered.
For many city dwellers, myself included, these markets are part of the daily fabric of life; they are a chance to socialize and see friends and neighbors. Others, however, find the chaos stressful and the dirt and grime distasteful—markets are crowded and proper footwear is essential. This is where the covered Marché Central (Central Market) and supermarkets come in.
Many Moroccan cities have a Central Market– generally built by the French administration during the Protectorate and intended as a more sanitary alternative to existing markets. Rabat’s Marché Central is a prime example—a covered building with a grid of stalls selling higher end produce, meat, fish, and imported goods.
“For many city dwellers, myself included, these markets are part of the daily fabric of life; they give people a chance to socialize and see friends and neighbors.”
Though it is situated right on the edge of Rabat’s medina, its prices make it more accessible to Rabatis (and foreigners) of a slightly higher socioeconomic status. For those interested in a truly one-stop shop, there are also supermarkets. French, Moroccan, and Turkish owned chains are increasingly common and aside from a few token Moroccanisms, like the shelves full of HAPPY brand spread, could be anywhere in the world.
In the countryside, however, an entirely different system reigns. While towns and villages may have a small bodega-eque store, or hanout, to provide them with staples such as flour, semolina, butter, milk, stove gas, and dusty packages of equally-dusty tasting cookies, rural folk must trek to weekly markets to stock up on fresh produce. Towns that hold weekly markets are frequently named after them, so if someone tells you to visit the town “Sunday Market,” make sure to clarify which region before you head off.
Weekly markets are frequently huge, and are structured along the lines of a fair or festival in that cars, trucks, donkeys, motorbikes and wagons are stationed on the outskirts and tents in the interior are organized into categories—second hand clothes, homewares, and electronics; cheap plastic kitchen and home accoutrements made in China; cobblers, tailors and other handymen and women; butchers and food stalls selling soups, sandwiches and snacks; and produce.
“Towns that hold weekly markets are frequently named after them, so if someone tells you to visit the town ‘Sunday Market,’ make sure to clarify which region before you head off…”
The produce section has always been of greatest interest to me, and is comprised of vendors, often selling their own produce but not always, sitting in between a small assortment of vegetable mountains piled onto tarps. Mounds of green cabbages contrast with bright red tomatoes and create quite the colorful landscape. There are no posted prices here, and customers always buy in bulk. The same rules of seasonality and regional availability apply here to a far greater degree, and fruit, somewhat of a luxury, is harder to find.
If the city markets in the Rabat or Fez medinas are not for you, weekly markets are not likely to be your cup of tea. Foreigners and even Moroccan city dwellers stick out like the sorest of thumbs; it’s unusual for anyone but regular shoppers to stop by unless it’s sheep shopping time for Eid al Adha, or Eid al Kebir, as it’s known in Morocco—the Feast of the Sacrifice. Weekly markets feel much more old school, but are far from unchanging.
The Future of Moroccan Markets
The rise of supermarkets in urban areas since the 80s and 90s, increasing infrastructure in rural areas, and the continuing funnel of rural to urban migration means that both weekly markets and urban souks are perceived to be diminishing. Fez recently saw the construction of a mall and Carrefour supermarket not far from the medina—exciting for mall lovers but provoking consternation among foreigners and Moroccans who fear it will threaten the success of the medina’s food markets.
“It will be interesting in the decades to come to see where weekly and urban street markets persist as supermarkets gain traction… but I can tell you where I’ll be buying my next kilo of carrots.”
Though perusing markets and getting to know vendors is now one of my favorite outdoor sports, I must admit that the hustle and bustle is not always enjoyable and can feel like a real hassle in comparison with the one-stop shop and posted prices of a supermarket. While I feel that they have value as an important part of the texture of Moroccan culture and society, it is dangerously easy to romanticize “traditional” markets in Morocco as a perfect or timeless aspect of local culture, which they are not.
It is also too simple to say they’re in danger of disappearing because of the commercial power and allure of supermarkets, as old markets boast the pull of tradition while offering a more social form of shopping. It will be interesting in the decades to come to see where weekly and urban street markets persist as supermarkets gain traction… but I can tell you where I’ll be buying my next kilo of carrots.