Like all ambitious travelers, I make every effort to eat in establishments frequented by locals when exploring new places. While planning my visit, I typically spend a lot of time researching where to go in order to gain a sense of the best, most authentic food that a place has to offer, and aside from food poisoning, my worst case scenario while eating abroad is to find myself in some sterile locale serving rubbery chicken cordon bleu to tourists.
I recently planned a 9 day trip to Morocco. Given my enthusiasm for discovering food and food cultures abroad, I was frustrated when I experienced difficulty in my attempts to find interesting restaurant options prior to leaving for Morocco. Sure, there were intriguing restaurants to be found that certainly looked worth a visit, but these were primarily at fabulously elegant hotels or run by ex-pats from Europe – definitely not catering to every-day Moroccans.
Once we arrived, I figured that our guides in Fes and Marrakech might help me find local gems. Our guides were excellent, and more than willing to take us off the beaten track when it came to exploring these cities, so I was surprised when they insistently steered us towards eateries where the diners were fellow tourists. After a couple of days looking around, I started to realize why. Morocco has quite a few cafe-type establishments catering to Moroccans, but not once did I see a woman frequent one. To be clear, though full of men, I rarely spotted a man actually eating at a café – rather, the items occupying the tables were limited to mint tea, coffee, juice, newspapers, cigarettes and cards.
I asked Redwan (our guide in Fes) about this observation, and he attempted to explain. Here is what he told me: to a traditional Moroccan, it is considered an embarrassment to eat a meal prepared in a restaurant. Wives and mothers are expected to be excellent cooks, spending much of their time preparing home cooked meals for their families from carefully procured ingredients. They generally learn recipes by heart from older family members starting before the age of 10. Men who eat out are presumed to be not well cared for, and women who eat out are presumed to be lazy and/or inadequately skilled at cooking. Even lunch is served at home, and many workplaces shut down for two hours in the afternoon so that workers can go home for their mid-day meal.
Given their lack of food, cafes are public spaces for men to get together for kibitzing and watching sports, serving a social purpose rather than a culinary one. In accordance with the traditional culture in Morocco, it would not be considered appropriate for a woman to join in this public fraternization with non family members. To prove his point, Redwan explained that it is nearly impossible to find a café with a women’s restroom. I did a few spot checks - he was right!
Alas, my search for eating like a Moroccan was foiled by my lack of an invitation to eat dinner with a Moroccan family. While eating outside the home is becoming more and more common for wealthier Moroccans (mostly younger folks in big cities and still primarily in groups of all men), eating like a local will remain elusive for most visitors.