Bubbling cauldrons of soup, steaming bowls of snails, sizzling meat skewers, steaming lambs’ heads, and piles upon piles of fresh green mint–welcome to the incredible Jemaa el Fna, the grand square at the heart of Marrakesh’s ancient Medina!
The Main Square of Marrakesh
Jemaa el Fna market or souk is hustling and bustling all day long. You will encounter snake charmers, hat twirlers, monkey trainers. You can buy everything from a new jean jacket to spices. Not too many people leave without picking up their own fez, a traditional felted hat from days gone by.
No matter what time you go, you will be verbally accosted by touts, tour salesmen, helpful locals and so much more. If it gets a little to chaotic to be in the midst of, sometimes watching from the sidelines will do the trick.
Setting Up the Jemaa el Fna Food Stalls
Every evening, about 5:00 PM, the market square comes to life as the first of the various food stalls is trundled into place. A confusion of iron bars, padded seat covers, lattice work awnings, and of course, heaps and heaps of fixings for the days’ meals are unloaded and expertly assembled.
Some of these vendors have been in business for decades and have been going through this daily routine of setup, sell out, and tear down non-stop day after day after day for years.
The whole square acts as an enormous, open air entertainment district. You’ll enjoy the show before and after dinner as fortune tellers predict the future, impromptu bands belt out traditional favorites, and street performers show off their acrobatic skills. Somehow, I can’t think of a better way to spend an evening in Marrakesh!
The square really gets hopping just before sunset. Now, you’ll need to be extra careful to avoid being run over as the night time vendors show up with cart after cart for the last minute rush to setup and prepare for the diners.
The food stalls of Jemaa el Fna are the original pop up restaurants. They roll in on a car sized trailer, with everything needed to build and operate one restaurant for the evening crowds. Sometimes two or three carts are assembled together into one large dining room with seating for thirty or forty hungry visitors.
These guys have been setting up the same food carts for years. Insert tab A into slot B, fold and twist, every part has its place and they could do it with their eyes closed. The average time to go from loaded cart to packed restaurant with food on the tables is about one hour.
What to Eat at Jemaa el Fna
“5 times guarantee. No diarrhea!” touts a food stall vendor. We still didn’t stop at that one. I’m sure you know why.
You can find almost anything to eat in this ultimate pop-up food court. We tried the snails, some fried calamari, one or two kebabs, tajine (of course), and we ended the night with a soothing glass of Moroccan mint tea.
Some other items you can order:
- tajines, chicken or lamb
- Harisa soup
- egg sandwiches
- merguez sandwiches
- all kinds of offal
- sweets, like sellou -an almond paste
- fried vegetables
Choose Your Food Stall Carefully
It’s imperative to do your homework before planning to eat your evening meal at the Jemaa el Fna food stalls. Many people have later complained of stomach issues afterwards. Even though the four of us were all fine, we do pay close attention to a few things before we choose any restaurant in a foreign land, much less a street food stall.
The homework is simply asking your host or hostess which stalls they would eat at. They will ask you what you like to eat, and you should answer them. You should also ask them what foods are local and would they recommend you trying. I tend to ask everyone I come in contact with when I’m researching where to eat.
Nowadays, you can check some websites with reviews, and of course they are always helpful. However often times they are written by foreigners who have no idea what the local food should taste like or how much it should cost.
Other things to look for when choosing a safe food stall:
- A crowd of locals – this is a time when waiting in line will assure you freshly cooked fare.
- The cooks are right in front of you. Before eating at a stall, just watch. Do they wear gloves, wash their hands, clean off the dishes right away?
- Are the people eating looking happy or quizzical? Are they finishing everything on the plate? Are they ordering more?
- Is there a tout that just harangues you? Does he hand you a menu with several languages on it? This could be a bad sign and the stall could be catering to tourists who really don’t know what good local food is.
Pro Tip: Wherever we travel, we visit the old parts of towns like the Medinas in Marrakesh and Fez. We find them fascinating, and if you do too you might also enjoy a Berber market. If your travels to or from Marrakesh take you on the old highway between Marrakesh and Fez on a Tuesday, stop in the small village of Azrou and visit the weekly Berber market.
Where We Stayed
We stayed a the comfortable and intimate Riad des Arts, right in the Medina. We highly recommend it!
Our trip through Morocco was a constant Disney e-ticket ride of things to see and do, and probably the one that stands out the most is our dinners and wandering we did around the main square in Marrakesh, Jemaa el Fna. We loved the entire show of setting up the food stalls to discovering all the delectable foods to try.
Have you been to Marrakesh? Were you tempted by the intriguing food stalls of Jemaa el Fna?
Author Bio: Jim Vail, is a travel, food, and video creator and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 15 years. For many years he lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands, and he’s visited over 90 countries.