Essaouira: Streetfood Mania, Stray Cats, and Gnaoua Music

The next coastal city on our way southwards is Essaouira, the Wind City of Africa and home of the Gnaoua and World Music Festival. We found a place to park in a guarded lot near the beach.

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In terms of wind, this place definitely lives up to its name, and the windsurfers of the world have noticed. I’m not sure whether there were more surfers or camels on this beach.

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Anyway, enough of that, what I really want to talk about is all the amazing street food I hunted down. First up, Harcha; a pancake made of rough semolina, sugar, milk and a shit ton of butter. Harcha isn’t usually difficult to find, but to me they’re only worth buying if you find a street vendor slapping the dough onto a hot griddle right there in front of you, which is less common. It’s impossible to smell these things cooking and not immediately need to stuff your face with one, which is probably why they are always being sold faster than they can be made. After the dough is flipped and grilled on both sides, they are cut open and stuffed with either cream cheese, honey, nutella, amlou or any combination thereof. It is even better than it sounds.

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I walked about two paces before I had to stop again. There was a man standing on the street with a big wooden cart full of sweets. I picked out this little swirly pie thing, which turned out to have a fluffy nut paste on the inside. Dude. So good.

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Textiles, jewelry, pottery, soap, Argan oil, leather shoes and bags…

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I was on a mission to find a good restaurant. I had read in my book that many of the cafes here in Essaouira have live Gnaoua music in the evenings, and also that it is easy to find good pastilla. I went to work finding a place that had both. It didn’t take long before I found one.

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Folk music of all kinds always moves me more than anything else (even more than food), and my first experience of Gnaoua music was no different. These four guys were jamming away, totally off the cuff, loud and joyful and unpolished and in perfect tune and time. IMG_2741

After a long while, I finally turned my attention to the menu. Pastilla is a Moroccan meat pie that usually involves the meeting of both sweet and savory flavors. From what I’ve read and seen, pastilla stuffed with pigeon and apricots and a sugared crust is the most traditional, but also the most expensive and therefore least common way to prepare this. The kinds you normally see are fish pastilla and chicken pastilla. The chicken pastilla is closer in spirit to the traditional form. It usually contains raisins or some other dried fruit, and always has powdered sugar and cinnamon on the outside. The fish one usually has bits of fish and little yellow, translucent noodles inside. It isn’t sweet at all, only savory. The chicken one easily wins for me.

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As we ate, I was swept up by the music and the atmosphere. It was a great night.

In the morning, there were somehow even more camels on the beach than there were yesterday. Camels really are the strangest looking animals. They look like something out of Star Wars. Watching them chew food is mesmerizing.

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I snuck back to the medina in the morning to stuff my face with harcha again. I found myself behind this woman carrying two trays of to-be-baked cookies and tried to follow her (ahem, not creepy at all…). I was hoping she would lead me to some magical bakery but she disappeared into one of the houses after a few minutes. Drat.

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My harcha place was closed (double drat), so we moved on to the next task, which was to find a place to wash ourselves. We searched everywhere for a hammam, but the one that we found didn’t want to let tourists in, and the other one that I had marked on my map turned out not to exist. Our last ditch attempt was a funky little backpacker hostel hidden away deep in the medina, where we hoped they would let us pay to take a shower. When we walked in, we talked to a British girl behind the desk who said it was no problem if we just went upstairs and used the showers really quick. We thanked her and went up. The water was hot. We were grateful.

Refreshed, we got back to strolling around town.

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Soon, I was hungry again. It was Valentine’s day and I had poked around in the internet for recommendations for a good fish restaurant. The one that I decided on was located inside the shipyard at the harbor.

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The food was good (but not great; I definitely prefer street food), inexpensive, and there was a great view of the water from inside the restaurant.

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A Valentines’s Day well spent. Essaouira is my favorite  city so far.

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