Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Animal, Vegetable, Minaret: Fez Medina, Part 2

Animal: Part Two of a three-part series
Read Part One (To enlarge photos, click on images.)

Morocco, I gotta hand it to you. When it comes to head-to-tail eating, you really walk the walk. Every last vestige of carnivorous cartilage is utilized for your dining pleasure. As I made my way through the meat and fish souks in the Fez medina, it looked like CSI: North Africa. Each head, fin and spleen, from camel to sardine, was spread out for scrutiny. There were so many anatomical parts, I’m thinking you may have discovered some new ones. I didn't know which was worse—seeing them dead or alive.

Sheep heads; chicken by the pound; hanging rabbit and weighty chicken

As a flexitarian, I eat a plant-based diet with a little organic dairy, some sustainable seafood and as an occasional treat, organic chicken. All the forethought that goes into deciding whether something is treatworthy can be exhausting. But who wants to be a slave to a diet I.D. when you're traveling? It's so inflexible. So my trip philosophy was, when in MoroccoYep, I would allow myself some wiggle room to experience the region's cuisine, guilt-free. It would be like having a little vacation from myself. So when I saw succulent, crackly-skinned chickens roasting on fiery spits that first day on the streets of Casablanca, gone was all forethought. Hell, there wasn’t even any foreplay. On day one, I did the deed and after my first romp with a chicken, I wanted it again.

Chickens en route (dead man squawking); future chicken tagines; a birdwatcher

But then I saw the live chickens crammed in cages by the food stalls in the Fez medina and wondered if I was doing the right thing by letting go. The way I felt when I saw them reminded me of why I’m such a killjoy about eating meat in the first place. But then I figured these chickens were locally produced and probably free from industrialized feedlots, antibiotics, hormones, GMO feed and chemical baths, unlike some countries. In fact, maybe they were really pasture-raised and had enjoyed long, healthy lives, and the cages were just temporary digs before these selfless birds offered themselves up as chicken tagine sacrifices. And maybe these sacrificial birds had their own humanitarian foundation, Poultry with Purpose, that spread love throughout the land, and fowl felt so good about themselves, humans could taste the happy in their chicken. Maybe.

A cow head; sheep heads; cow hooves

Though I have flirted with vegetarianism, I've never been one of those people who no longer enjoys the taste of meat. The last time I had one bite of filet mignon, I got weak in the knees. And while in Morocco, I never ordered red meat, nor was I remotely tempted to try the camel burger at Café Clock, the hearty harira soup made from lentils, chickpeas and tomatoes that I devoured daily tasted so rich, I wondered if it could have really been vegetarian. Either way, I decided to abide by a don't ask, don't smell policy. After all, I was on a vacation from myself. Did I really need to know? (If you know you’re in denial, is it still denial?) In fact, once when I ordered chicken tagine, it didn't take long to realize beef short ribs were canoodling in my couscous. The waiter had brought the wrong dish, and since there were no other diners, I knew it wasn't a mixup. What were my options? To throw it away? I have a zero-waste policy too. So as a flexitarian and conscious culinarian, I acquiesced to the cow in my couscous. 

A tannery; leather workers with dyed skins; a bargain shopper

And what do they do with all the animal hides? Fez is the leading leather production city in the region and has been since the 16th century. The skins that are in its famous tanneries are treated with pigeon dung, acids and cow urine before the dying process and then are transformed into beautiful babouche slippers, shoes, purses, jackets, etc. I've tried to abstain from buying leather in the past few years, but I asked myself, "Wouldn't it be better to support the local economy by buying their leather goods than to pay sweat-shop laborers in another country to manufacture synthetic stuff with a huge carbon footprint?" It embraces the head-to-tail credo. Too bad the traditional dyes, once made from natural colors like turmeric, have largely been replaced by toxic chemicals that the tannery workers are exposed to on a daily basis. Oy, some vacation from myself.

Catches of the day

The fish souks were swimming with fish I couldn’t identify, but I knew a sardine when I saw one. At least I thought I did. Turns out there are dozens of types of sardines or pilchards—common names for small fish in the herring family. Supposedly fish shorter than six inches long are sardines, while the larger ones are pilchardsSince Pacific sardines are a Seafood Watch® Best Choice and one of the most sustainable fish, I assumed Atlantic sardines would be guilt-free pleasures too since Morocco is one of the world's largest sardine exporters and the fish reproduce so quickly. But through some after-the-fact sardine sleuthing, I discovered that like most aquatic regions of the world, Morocco has overfishing issues too—surprisingly, even with sardines. And that glorious sardine tagine I ate? Ignorance truly was bliss.

You've got snail!

Small brown snails, sold live by the pound or the bag, are a popular Moroccan street food served in an earthy broth called babouche (yes, the same as in babouche slippers)While there's an obvious French connection to escargot since Moroccan cooking was influenced by the occupation, snail shells of the edible variety were uncovered at the roman ruins of Volubilis outside of Fez, dating this delicacy back to the Roman empire. The day I was at Volubilis, I didn’t see any traces of snails—only the shells of a lost empire. But I doubt they would have made a very tasty broth. 

The ruins of Volubilis left me breathless and brothless

Stay Tuned for Part 3: Vegetable

Mark Bittman’s The Flexitarian: Make Peace with Meat


  1. Great read--funny and insightful. You always pull me in with your clever turn of phrase. So glad you're back.

  2. I grimaced, I laughed, and at one point almost got sick, all while devouring every last morsel of your delectable tale.

  3. I wonder where they get all those snails. Are they wildcrafted or farmed? Well, now we know how all those feral cats are making it through the day. Great photo!

  4. Did you try the shark head? It has a lot of bite!

  5. Ok. I'm fully open minded. But some of those pic gave me culinary pause... GREG

  6. I have to laugh at your chicken experience, I saw a lot of chicken interactive going on. One fellow bought two chickens from the butcher and was taking them home, one under each arm, I asked him French where they were going and he grinned from ear to ear saying they were going to sleep. Being vegetarian that was the kindest sally he could give. I also stayed at a Berber household in the north where the chickens like to run across the low slung tables and then they were dragged off screeching their displeasure only to turn up a the most exquisite barbecued dish I ever had to the pleasure to taste. I was like you, I suspended the veg part when I was there. Thanks for your lovely blog. As for the feral cats, the Moroccans do feed them and treat them well, saw lots of that.

  7. Hi Anonymous: Thanks for the compliments and sharing your experiences. I took 250 pics of cats in Morocco and hope to make an e-book of them.

  8. I met a man who fed the cats in the botanical gardens in Rabat, he collected unsold offal from butcher shops and gave it to the cats. He did this on a donation basis. I took many pictures of kittens and other cats, the Moroccans introduced them as mothers and grandmothers with their many kittens. I would love to see your e book of your cats.