Morocco: Merchoui had a Little Lamb

Merchoui Alley sits between two bustling medina streets like a comma in the middle of a sentence. Breaking up the rows of carpet sellers, glistening brass lamps and fabrics every colour the mind could think of, this alley has five or six shops all selling the same thing; lamb. A haze of smoke hangs above the dusty thoroughfare. Clay pots the colour of earth line each stall, some topped with the cooked head of a sheep, like a macabre shop sign. The smell of cumin and turmeric clings to the warm air.

We spent the evening with Salim, a Marrakech local and food guide. He gave us an introduction to the medina over mint tea poured high so that bubbles frothed against the glass. We talked about his school days in the Atlas Mountains over greasy savoury donuts and discussed religion over sweet honey cakes that stuck to the roof of my mouth.

Marrakech donuts

As the sun dipped below the rose-hued rooftops, Salim led us through the labyrinthine souks to Merchoui Alley. At the back of a lamb shop, we peered down into a deep hole in the ground. A blast of hot air carrying the smell of cooking meat hit me. In the darkness under our feet there was enough room for an entire flock of lambs to roast slowly. And indeed Merchoui Alley provides most of the city of Marrakech with its daily lamb. Entire carcasses, yellowed with turmeric, are mounted on sticks thick as broom handles and lowered into the ground to cook for 24 hours. Teenage boys on rusty old mopeds weave through the narrow streets dispatching it to restaurants, cafés and riad kitchens.

Marrakech lamb pots

We ate melt-in-your-mouth meat stuffed into pockets of warm flat bread. Cumin and salt were the only seasoning. In the fading light stall merchants and shopkeepers shouted to each other and street cats with pointed North-African faces slunk between meat sellers. We talked with Salim about life in the Medina, and the tagines his mother made him as a child. As the sun set the call to prayer floated through twilight. Voices melting together and reaching a crescendo.

 

On the final night of our week in Morocco we returned to Marrakech, tired from a 12 hour drive from the desert, sand from a sandstorm lined my pockets and peppered my hair. I had booked us into a top end hotel for one night. For a treat. The lobby was as vast as the Sahara, all marble, glistening chandeliers and brass baggage carts that winked in the light. The crisp-suited man behind the desk looked at our slept-in clothes, our tired eyes and bulging rucksacks and gave us a  “you don’t belong here” look. We trekked across the pool area to our room. Guests in smooth skirts and buttoned up shirts sipped elaborate cocktails while a lady in a sequined dress sang Adele covers.

Tired and hungry we decided just to eat in the hotel’s restaurant. I fished out a crumpled travel dress from the bottom of my rucksack and ran a brush through my hair. Grains of Sahara sand fell to the floor.

The restaurant was just as opulent as the lobby and we were the only ones dining at 9pm. We sat in the centre of the room, the ceiling ending somewhere in the heavens above us. Deep red cushions adorned velvet seats and an army of waiting staff lined up with hands behind their backs ready to pour wine, pick up a dropped napkin or adjust the angle of an out-of-place fork.   We ordered the Merchoui lamb.

An entire leg smelling of turmeric and cumin was set in front of us. A mound of buttery cous cous and warm flat bread accompanied. The meat fell from the bone and melted in my mouth. If I closed my eyes, the waiting staff disappeared, the high ceilings and the velvet chairs vanished and I was back down that hazy alley.

Turkey: Tea Tour of Istanbul

In the sunken courtyard behind Süleymaniye Mosque we listen to Turkish chatter and the trickle of an ancient fountain. It is far from the noisy froth of cappuccino making and nu-folk playlists that signify coffee shops back home. Students of Istanbul drink black tea from gold-rimmed glasses, papers spread out over squat tables in front of them. Some chat in clusters on bright cushions, passing a waterpipe between sips. Business men and stall owners from the Grand Bazaar gesticulate wildly – lost in grand political debate and a haze of apple tobacco.

The first sip of tea scalds my tongue. The waiter appears with our waterpipe. Mark and I look around, hoping that the seasoned pros reclining in confidence don’t notice our wheezing attempts at smoking. The waiter takes pity on us trying to relax Istanbul-style. He gets the water bubbling for us, smoke spiraling from his lips. When the coals burn amber he lets me have the pipe back, as if spoon-feeding a toddler.

After a few splutters our draws become smooth. The tea has cooled to perfection. I sink into the cushions, warm fuzz in my brain and broken sunshine through leaves on my face. We watch the microcosm of Istanbul society until we are left with dregs in our glasses.

istanbul-spices

Past the cries of vendors selling cheap cookware, mosaic lamps and coils of waterpipes the smell of the Spice Bazaar floats on the air. We are engulfed in a labyrinth of bright yellow, burnt sienna and rust coloured powder. Mark dons his chef face, tutting and hmm-ing at mounds of spices. I spot a brass coffee machine through a cloud of steam. The mustachioed barista catches me looking.

“You like to try? For free?” he shouts to me.

I nod, leaving Mark bartering over black cumin.

The barista pours the tarry liquid from a long-handled jug into a tiny cup. He looks at me like I’m mad when I decline sugar. I see why as the bitterness hits the back of my throat, sending electricity down my spine. It’s perfect.

Mark waves a bag of canary-yellow turmeric in victory. I mirror him with a bag of coffee.

Istanbul is built on seven hills, and it feels like we climb all seven on our tea quest. Up a steep, cobbled street a gnarled old man sells tea from another brass contraption. He smiles as he hands us hot, dirty glasses of tea, his calloused fingers poking in fresh mint leaves.

istanbul-tea-trolley

Our final stop is a rickety tea house on the edge of the Bosphorus, where uneven floorboards creak under faded Persian rugs. Another tourist couple has found this place. A waiter lights the vanilla-scented coals of their waterpipe, and they wait until his back is turned before inhaling and spluttering.

I take a smooth puff of our waterpipe and wait for my tea to cool. Tomorrow we might see that couple in the sunken courtyard, reclining into bright cushions like they’ve been doing it for years.

Japan: Oishi!

The tick and fizzle of battered prawns gently frying set my stomach rumbling. Squat shop fronts lined narrow Sunamachi in Tokyo’s Ginza district. Scarlet lanterns and golden streamers hung from every lamp post. The mushroom parade of umbrellas ruffled in hurried apology as lone cyclists slowly picked their way through the crowd. Bicycle bells are too rude for Tokyo so every front wheel that gently noses into the back of your leg is a surprise.

“This is the Tempura King,” our guide, Miyu, said.

A stocky man in a white chef uniform stood proudly behind a stand bursting with golden battered morsels in all shapes and sizes. Neat black Kanji script displaying names and prices looked more like poetry than price tags. I guessed at what might be hiding in each deep fried coating – that green thing could be green beans, the orange one was probably carrot, and that non-descript white thing was probably radish. It was usually radish in Tokyo.

“Please, have anything you like,” Miyu said, her head dipping in an almost unperceivable bow.

Sunamachi is a shopping street, teeming with 100 yen shops selling toilet plungers, coat-hangers and greetings cards. Kitchenware spills out of shop fronts and fresh fruit and vegetables sit in cellophane as if frozen in time, because Japan has not yet cut free from the obsession with packaging.

“Japanese think it is more hygienic this way,” Miyu explained.

This street is not on anyone’s bucket list. There’s no historical lure like the Imperial Palace, no picturesque wooden roofs like Asakusa shrine. There is, however, food. Street food. And people. Normal people doing normal things, like shopping for toilet plungers and greetings cards.

I bit into the crisp tempura.

“Good?” Miyu asked.

I nodded.

“Then you should say Oishi, it means yummy.”

We drank tea the colour of algae, mixed with a bamboo whisk until it was frothy. An old iron bell tinkled in the shop as men and women popped in to pick up bags of tea and greeted the owner like an old friend.

At a small stand where faded J-pop posted peeled from the walls, sleek fish flopped in plastic tubs. A teenage girl cut fresh sashimi at lightning speed, looking down when she handed it to us. It tasted like fresh water. Orange fish roe popped salted explosions on my tongue.

“Oishi!” I said and the girl behind the counter beamed and dipped her head.

oishi-hotch-potch

Further along the street, past a little shrine where stone fox faces smiled down at you, two large women in chef whites ladled out Japanese hotch potch. They gave us a plastic sandwich bag full of hot stew. It was miso-thick with a soy tang and huge lumps of radish and lotus that burned the roof of my mouth.

“Oishi!” I said and the two women laughed as if I’d said the funniest thing in the world.

Though it was well before the yard arm, Miyu guided us into an open-faced warehouse of sake bottles. The chill of early April crept in through gaps in the temporary-looking walls. Salarymen in crumpled business suits that looked like they might have slept in the train station skulked around the flourescent sale signs. Prices ranged from 100 yen to 20,000 per bottle. Miyu filled a couple of plastic shot glasses with the clear liquid. It smelled like something you would use to cleanse a wound. The sake burned my throat and sloshed around in the pit of my stomach.

“Oishi,” I winced.

A crispy minced tuna cutlet dipped in a sweet teriyaki sauce soon soaked up the early morning sake. We waddled to a stall selling yakitori – meat on a stick grilled fresh in front of us. I forced each piece of sticky, glazed chicken into the last remaining corners of my stomach.

oishi-yakitori

“Oishi,” I wheezed, convinced that I was filled up to my throat with food.

“We have one more stop,” Miyu said.

I hoped it was just to buy a toilet plunger or greetings card.

The stall sold Japanese sweets. Little globs of green clung to cocktail sticks. It looked like the kind of thing you’d eat in space, or in a dystopian future where food is not to be enjoyed but purely for nutrients. There was no room left in my body. If I ate anything else I would have to sacrifice an organ to fit it in.

“Honestly, I can’t,” I said to Miyu as she held up a green tea mochi sweet.

Her face fell as if I had just insulted her own cooking.

It tasted a bit like grass, and felt like a slug sliding down my throat. It wouldn’t go down, but stuck somewhere in my chest. My face had probably turned the colour of green tea because Miyu’s eyes were wide. But I held on and eventually the final piece of Sunamachi Street sat in my stomach with everything else.

“Oishi,” I said. But I’m not sure Miyu believed me.

Vietnam: Streetfood in Saigon

“Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City?” I asked Ngoc.

“You can use both,” Ngoc said, her eyes sparkling with enthusiasm behind thick-rimmed glasses. “Nobody will mind because you are a foreigner. I think Saigon is easier to say.”

We slurped Bun Bò Hue from cracked bowls down a narrow alley on the fringe of Ben Tanh Market. A lady tended to the tick and hiss of metal pots at her food cart. Puffs of insects floated like little clouds around the flourescent lights. The smell of cooked meat and aniseed sweetness clung to the humid air. It was the first stop on our late night food tour of Saigon.

“Ok, let’s go,” Ngoc said, putting on a baby blue motorbike helmet with a cutesy face on the front.

 

Streets that had seemed slow-paced during the day crackled to life as night fell. I clung to Ngoc’s silken dress as she weaved her motorbike through the thick traffic. We passed makeshift pavement stalls and hot wok stands billowing steam. Sheets piled with crockery, spices, toys and clothes were guarded by old women cawing like crows at passers-by. We got lost in a school of motorbikes waiting at a red light. Entire families perched on single scooters, toddlers peering out from under helmets, wedged into the footwell.

“We are leaving district one now,” Ngoc threw over her shoulder. “Soon we will be in real Saigon.”

Surrounded by people transporting elaborate flower arrangements, sheets of metal and even doors on rusty old bikes, heat from the exhaust stung my ankle. Saigon already felt real to me. One man had a tawny mess of live chickens strapped to his handlebars, clucking and flapping, while he waited for the light to burn green.

 

As we crossed into district 8, crumbling colonial shop fronts and old warehouses shedding paint huddled under sleek, glass karaoke bars that had popped up on every corner. Squat plastic furniture cluttered a vast concrete space that might have functioned as a car park during the day. We were seated amidst Saigonians reclining happily, empty Ba Ba Ba cans littering their tiny tables. Some prodded lazily at meat roasting on table-top barbeques. Laughter and fast-paced chatter competed with wailing karaoke floating across the car park.

Saigon BBQ

We roasted goat, frog and squid with chopsticks and ate straight from the grill. We called out “Mok, Thai, Ba, YO!” like a gleeful battlecry while we clinked our beers together. Not for the first time in Vietnam, I found myself being spoon (or rather, chopstick) fed. Ngoc even lifted my beer to my mouth until I laughed it out of my nose. The whole meal was fast-paced, messy and left us smiling.

 

Back on the motorbike we zipped into district 4. Under the chaotic architecture of tall pastel townhouses, open-faced restaurants selling all forms of seafood lined the main road. Teenagers danced to ‘Gangnam Style’ blasting from 80’s boomboxes strapped to the back of their parked motorbikes. Brave from the Ba Ba Ba, we shouted encouragement from our table as we were served fat scallops swimming in lime, ginger and chilli in their shells. Whole crabs covered with deep red dust were delivered next. We cracked open the claws, slurping up the meat inside while the chilli powder tickled our noses.

 

“Would you like to try the special egg?” Ngoc asked, smiling like a child with a secret.

I nodded and a couple of hard boiled eggs in chipped cups were placed in front of us. I peeled back the top and looked into the gelatinous eye of a baby bird, curled up inside. Ngoc giggled and shook half a pepper pot into the egg.

“In Vietnam, duck foetus is very good for you,” she said.

Special Egg

I raised my spoon as if going into battle and scooped out the shrivelled, feathery blob. I could almost make out a face, beak closed in a downward frown. The bones felt like undercooked spaghetti, the feathers like stubble. I swallowed it, almost whole; not daring to crunch down with my teeth. Ngoc clapped and whooped as if I’d just taken my first steps.

“See, now you are in real Saigon,” she beamed.