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A Night at Jeema-El-Fna

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The huge Jeema El Fna square in central Marrakesh turns into the largest open air restaurant in the world as soon as the sun sets.

As I walked through the night food market at Jeema-el-Fna in the old city of Marrakesh, each and every restaurateur tried to drag me in. A large Swiss glutton would indeed be a fine catch for any of them. My protestations did not stop them. Sit here my friend, for the best sheep heads in Morocco! I protested: But I have already eaten my supper! He sized me up quickly, then replied: It doesn't show at all, eat again with us! I moved on to the next stall. Same protestation. This time You are lean (I'm not), you can allow yourself to eat again! Come and play the second half-time with us! I try some wit: During the second half-time I do the Ramadan (Muslim fasting) The guy looked at me the same way the first one did, then replied: You did the Ramadan? It sure didn't work. Speaking in English or in any living language will only entice the same sharp answers in the language you used. At last, I gave in and sat down for another dinner.

During the day, there is not much to Jeema-el-Fna. A huge L-shaped square bang in the center of the old city of Marrakech - the Medina, it is so big that any number of pedestrian seem to be lost in the vastness of the square. On other side there are a few permanent spice stalls during the day but you can't really understand why UNESCO branded it a "part of world heritage".

But as the sun sets, the square changes its shape. From a Ceaucescian urban desert, it turns into one of the world's busiest open air restaurant. The entire square is pitch black, lighted only by the countless food stalls and tables. Here is my night at this legendary market seen with a fisheye lens and my new D300 camera - it can see through the night.

Some stalls offer a bar, with the food presented behind but out of reach ...

... while other let you come up close ...

... so that you can check how fresh the food really is.

Skewers are probably your safest bet - they are presented for your inspection and you pick just as many as you can devour.

Patrons, half of them locals, eat at long communal tables and sit on benches in the front or in the back.

The kitchen is a well-organized, efficient place in the back. Nowhere to hide unhygienic practices or stale ingredients here. Each stand bears a number and owners proudly tell you to remember their number 'for tomorrow night'. Coupled with the fearsome Police Touristique I think this makes for a market where the wandering glutoon can indulge in street food with relatively little risk for his stomach.

Sheeps heads is the food most tourists remember although very few try it.

I did not spot any foreign client at the half-dozen or so stalls selling sheeps heads (two pictures above and lead picture).

Food chauvinists do not realize how widespread snail-gastronomy is. You find traditional snail recipes all around the Mediterranean. And Morroco is no exception.

This snail-seller is not friendly with camera-wielding foreigners. Unfortunately I derived a rule of thum that if a man has a flat hat on his head, he will most probably protest if you take a picture. There are various reasons invoked for this 'it is stolen' but I suspect the reason is not fundamentally religious but rather has to do with a general dislike of foreigners. I can't speak for the man on the picture of course. I had to sneak twice past him to get this shot and he started gesturing with an evil look right after this.

My fearless friend Zed of Moldavian Pig Slaughter fame had tried the snails and reported them as 'foul tasting'.

Finally, a coffee and sweets.

Half a dozen stalls offer freshly squeezed orange juice. The glasses are freshly washed in not very fresh water, so you might want to take a rain check on those.

Friends don't let friends buy ground spices, but the stalls are very attractive ...

... and some sell some of the best dates and almonds you'll ever see.

The food merchants at Jeema El-Fna are relatively tame and quite friendly. They won't insist very much. There is no need - the market is teeming with people from dusk till dawn every day of the year.



  • #1
  • Comment by valinda
Thank you for being so gracious and giving of your experiences, knowledge and talent.  I open you up last Friday and have been delighted since. It is all so very beautiful and dear.  I love you truly.valinda
  • #2
  • Comment by Alex
Wow!  All I can say is wow.  That is absolutely incredible.  
  • #3
  • Comment by Beatrice
Francois, your new lens is wonderful.  This place has always been on my foodie list; It would be interesting to work my way south along the "snail trail" along the Med.  Perhaps I should start with the large helix ones in my Alsace garden! Anyone have some cornmeal?
It's really fantastic! Thank you for sharing so interesting experiences with us. I often visit your blog and love your recipes, explanations and photos. Congratulations for your new camera. I would ask you a technical question that intrigues me a lot: How do you manage to display so quickly those big images and with so nice resolution? I'd really want to know...
  • #5
  • Comment by sedasuper
I read a lot of food blogs. Yours differ in so many ways. To me, the paasion for food comes from the passion for life; food is culture, researching, preparing,sharing food is to celebrate life.I like the way you live your life, things you experience,food you select and share. It has a lot of character in it.Congratulations.
Love the photos, great fisheye lens - a departure from your usual, and a great reminder to me of a couple of evenings spent at this wonderful food market. My daughters were particularly keen on the snake charmers, I recallJoanna
The pictures spring to live on my computer screen! Fx, you really captured the moment. I can read through people's eyes, feel the hustle, breathe in the aroma and so much more. It's like I was there, being dragged to the food stall, with my face red, my eyes glistening. It brought back my memeories of those night markets when I was in college. How sweet!!
  • #8
  • Comment by Stephen
Bravo!  Better than 10 guide books combined!
  • #9
  • Answered by fx
Thank you Valinda! I hope you'll have a chance to try some of my recipes!
  • #10
  • Answered by fx
Alex, I hope you get to visit Marakesh soon! Thanks for visiting my blog.
  • #11
  • Answered by fx
Beatrice, eating your garden snails is an economical and entirely biological way of controlling these friendly pests! I doubt the Moroccan snails are the best in the Meditterranean, probably the Italian cook them better in my humble opinion.
  • #12
  • Answered by fx
Spoom, thanks for your friendly comment! The images are saved in JPEG with some compression and my server is relatively quick although it had a heart attack the other day due to a couple articles on FXcuisine being too popular on that day! I also provide a lower resolution version (500 pixels wide) for users with smaller screens or browser windows. I don't think a blog can be successful if there are more words than pictures.  A pity really, since words download so much faster!
  • #13
  • Answered by fx
Sedasuper, thanks a lot for your appreciation! I am glad a glimpse of my life philosophy shows through my food writings and that you liked it!
  • #14
  • Answered by fx
Joanna, I'm glad you like my fisheye lens! It is definitely the right tool for crowded markets. I hope they didn't throw the snakes on you when you were there!
  • #15
  • Answered by fx
Cheese puff, I'm glad my pictures dragged you into the market and hope you'll have a chance to visit it someday - it really is a memorable sight!
  • #16
  • Answered by fx
Thanks Stephen, it's really easier to show than tell when it comes to food!
  • #17
  • Comment by Michael
It would be amazing to see a time lapse video of Jeema-el-Fna changing from what it is in the day to what it is in the night, I'd imagine it'd be like watching a flower bloom!
Hi, Fx~ Can you do me a favor? Some of my friends in China get very interested in your articles, but they couldn't read english. Can I reprint your blog in Chinese? I will make it clear that I am just a translator. I take it upon myself to introduce you to my fellow chinese people. Thanks a lot!! ( you don't have to show this comment, of course. :))
Francois, my wife is still urging us to grab the children for a weekend and all go - as always you put us there - I would definitely try the sheep head. Different cultures use different approaches, and different animals, in England the delicacy is pig cheeks, called Bath chaps - I believe the Italian's call this dish Guanciale? Mrs Beeton recommends boiling then breadcrumbing and says it has the same flavour, with more marbling through it, as a York ham. I'm told that in England the dish is all but impossible to get these days...
Fantastic photos, I felt as though I had been transported to the Marakesh markets.Funnily enough, although I lived on a sheep station in New Zealand I never ate sheeps head, made brawn from pigs heads though.Excellent read as always.RegardsWandawww.only-cookware.com
  • #21
  • Answered by fx
Michael this is a great idea, next time I'm down there in Marakesh I'll try to find a high vantage point to see the food merchants moving in hour by hour!
  • #22
  • Answered by fx
Cheese puff, you are welcome to translate this articlein chinese if you want! Just make sure you link back to the original!
  • #23
  • Answered by fx
John, you definitely have to go to Morocco, it is one perfect destination for high quality exoticism. I don't know how long it takes from Sweden but you must have some direct flights! The pig jowls are not so common in Morocco for obvious reasons. I don't know if the Italians eat them fresh, the only I have seen are dried. It is not the very best cut in itself and requires long cooking. Thanks for visiting!
  • #24
  • Answered by fx
Wanda thanks a lot for your visit, I think sheep heads are an acquired taste most of us will just never acquire. You can get a good idea of what it's like to eat the sheep head and the eyes in the dinner scene just before the showdown in James Bond 007 Octopussy.
Why didn't you mention the amount of bugs in that place, the electric lights attract them by the thousands and the food is covered in them. Your pictures are cool but don't seem to show this.
Fx, your website is a real delight for the eyes and a torture for the stomach! I'm drooling everytime I come here and the number of your recipes on my to-do list is growing much too fast. I've tried and loved your pumpkin risotto, and your latest posts on bastella and your trip to Marrakech have taken me back to beloved memories. Thanks.
  • #27
  • Answered by fx
Barry, I think the bugs, like the tourists, come during the summer. Visit Marakesh during the winter and you'll have very few of either.
  • #28
  • Answered by fx
Myriam thank you for your comment! I am most sorry to torture your stomach, but rest assured it is a calorie-free ordeal. I recommend you try the pigeon pastilla, you can substitute the warka with bought filo. It is thinner than brik leaves. Let me know if you try any other recipes!
  • #29
  • Comment by dancy
This is my first time to drop by your wonderful blog. The pictures are stunningly beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing! Just one question: what lens did you use for these night-market shots? How can you make it so clear, vivid and artistic! I just couldn't help wondering, with a DSLR and tripod (maybe?), would many people stare at you and even stop you?
  • #30
  • Answered by fx
Dancy, thanks for your appreciation! The lens is a 10.5 Nikkor Fisheye, which accounts for the immersive pictures. But the night action was captured thanks to the Nikon D300 uncanny ability to see in the dark. Most of these pictures were taken at 2000 ISO and there is very little noise. Flash would not give you the same shapes and textures, and a tripod would result in blurry pictures of anything human (they move around!). This is a new breed of pictures made possible by this camera and its older brother, the Nikon D3.
  • #31
  • Comment by dancy
Hi, FX, thank you for such a swift response! D300, emmm, that make sense. But probably you may modify the information in "About"? Because it really makes me feel Cannon 40D is absolutely not a rival of Nikon D80 :)
  • #32
  • Comment by Rob L
Went here a few years ago.  We ate in the square three nights in a row.  Lovely food but on the morning after the third night I was so ill I literally shit myself for the first and last time in my life...
  • #33
  • Answered by fx
Dancy you a right, I will update my About page! If you wait a year I'm sure many more cameras will have the same see-in-the-dark capabilities.
  • #34
  • Answered by fx
Rob I am not surprised you got sick in Morocco. I visited just after India so my food hygiene was verging on the monastic, but if you eat fresh vegetables or fruits, the shit is bound to hit the fan someday.
I am so jealous!The lens really made the pics fantastic.
  • #36
  • Comment by Thuan
Your pictures make me feel as if I was already there... yet also makes me want to visit it all the more.  Perplexing conundrum
  • #37
  • Answered by fx
Thuan, you will love Marrakech, it is a gorgeous city of many delights. The pictures just give you a glimpse of what there is.
  • #38
  • Comment by DavidG
Great shots!
I love the photos. I'm envious of your experience.
  • #40
  • Answered by fx
Barbara I hope you get to visit Marakech some day, a gorgeous place!
  • #41
  • Comment by Trisha Lin
Thanks for the info and making the place look so exciting to vist. To that end I'm in the process in planning a trip. Do you know of any restriction about the place. ie are there days that the place is closed or days to avoid. Also as I am getting on a bit would it be safer for me to travel in a group and if so do you know of any organised holiday companies or where I could find further information.
Thank you for your help and I'm really hoping to visit soon.
Best Regards
  • #42
  • Comment by Andy
Just back from Marrakech. Great photos!
Trisha, there were many people old enough to have visited as hippies way back when.
We took Easyjet to Madrid and then to Marrakech. Also booked accommodation on-line.
3/4 days is enough to see the place, but try a trip into the Atlas mountains-the waterfall at Ouzoud is worth seeing.
  • #43
  • Answered by fx
Andy, thanks for visiting and I'll try to visit the Atlas next time!
  • #44
  • Comment by allison
I am soooooo in love with your blog!! Everything is so wonderful and interesting and just inspiring! Saving up for morocco one day but being a student will take a while... looking forward to each and every new post. Keep up the good work and keep it coming!!
  • #45
  • Answered by fx
Allison, thanks for your appreciation! Morocco is not the most difficult destination for students, from the UK there are many low-cost flights, maybe that will be within your reach sooner than you think! Meanwhile I'll bring more fine things to your screen!
  • #46
  • Comment by Jet Nemon
       Loved your article & photos of the Morrocan ope food market. As I read, I felt as if I were actually there;
A sure sign that you're a most vivid & entertaining travel/food writer. Keep up the great work!!

  • #47
  • Answered by fx
Jeannette, thanks for your kind words!
hello!  i'm heading to marrakesh in a couple of days and i stumbled onto your blog.  wondering if you could possibly recommend any incredible restaurants?
  • #49
  • Answered by fx
Lisa, the best and most memorable of them all is called Dar Yakout, don't miss that! For other restaurants try to avoid the Morrocan menu whenever possible or you'll die of stomach explosion, it's so filling and repetitive. Have a nice trip!
Very much enjoyed your article. I regard street food as a vivid expression of a nation's culture (we English alas don't have enough of it - our pie and mash shops are dying out) and enjoy sampling it wherever I go.

I also enjoyed your pics - not just the fish eye but the fact that they're taken without flash, so you get the true feel of night-time spaces lit by flares and single light bulbs. A real authentic feeling of the Djemaa el Fna at its best!
  • #51
  • Answered by fx
Andrea, thanks for visiting! Indeed with the Nikon D300 one can manage to grab some presentable shots of action scenes without a flash. Have a look at my Calorie Bomb section for an homage to some of the finest delicacies in the street food from the British Isles!
  • #52
  • Comment by Pedro Silva
I have been there last year. As a portuguese I loved to see where did came from the arabic influence in Portugal in simple thins like: eating snails, the doors architecture...
A mitical place this square.
Jeemaa El Fna in The eyes of Westerns:
First of All thank you very much for these important information about the place. In fact, this place is an old place and it was a simple in market In old Amazigh dynasties. In addition , it was not as it is now, I mean all activities which are taking place now in this zone are just lies. Moroccan Gov is trying to change the place from a cultural one into a "place for selling and buying in cultures".
N.B : I am  very  interested in  this place, and I can supply anyone  with hidden issues about it.
  • FX's answer→ Yes, but the former use of this square was perhaps less joyful. Was it not a place for public executions?

  • #55
  • Comment by Frans
Oh, wow! I lived for 3 years in Marrakech and your photos truly bring out the wonder and bountiful feast that is offered each night in Djemaa el Fna. I still have my favourite stalls and remember their numbers to this day. What a
  • FX's answer→ Ah Frans you must know so many good places in Marrakech, this is a really interesting place to explore!

  • #57
  • Comment by Frans
. . . sorry oops! I hit return by accident . . . What a fun time to explore local street food. And your photos there are incredible. The Nikon D300 is such a great camera. Your choice of lenses and framing of subjects/still shots are extraordinary. Well done to capture the chaos of a night in the square, but also highlight the joy and mystery of wandering from stall to stall, exploring . . . thx for your blog.
  • FX's answer→ Yes the Fisheye worked fine with the D300 good low light sensibility. I am eagerly waiting for Nikon's new full frame camera though!

  • #59
  • Comment by casseroles
Great food, how I love the snail. How I love to go at Jeema-El-FNA for a night out. I would probably include it in my lists for our plan vacation.
  • FX's answer→ Yes you are bound to love it!

  • #61
  • Comment by Cat
found this website while checking wikipedia for the spelling for my blog. the pictures say much more than my word ever will! i found the stalls at jeema-el-fna to be more fun than the snack streets in beijing. cheers!
  • FX's answer→ Glad you liked it!

  • #63
  • Comment by Lors
I am going to Marrakech in a few weeks - I loved your pics and can't wait to get there!!!

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