While no single dish can sum up Marrakech, one that readily appears on special occasions, including a family diffa (feast), is méchoui. Deeply rooted in Moroccan culture, this is a hearty dish of lamb or mutton so meltingly tender it falls off the bone with the slightest touch of a finger or fork. The secret, locals admit, is in the preparation. A cut of meat won’t suffice: they take a whole lamb, remove the entrails and season the meat with spices like saffron, cumin, and ras-el-hanout. Once the meat has marinated, it is put on a spit and roasted beside glowing embers in an underground clay pit for several hours until the meat is beautifully soft and the skin crisp.
Hands-down the most traditional place to try méchoui in Marrakech is ‘Méchoui Alley’, sidling up to the souks in the northeast corner of Jemma el-Fna. Here the simple hole-in-the-wall joints dish up the real deal, piled high on a plate with flatbread to mop up the juices. Ask nicely and they might even let you take a peek at the oven.
For a more upscale experience, book a table at Le Trou au Mur, which roasts méchoui according to a carefully guarded family secret, and serves it in a classy, Berber-chic riad setting or on the rooftop terrace.
If you’ve never tried Moroccan pigeon pie, now’s the time. B’stilla is a delicacy fit for a sultan: light, paper-thin, filo-like pastry layers contain a succulent filling of squab pigeon (chicken is sometimes used instead), almonds, parsley and aromatic spices like saffron, ginger, and cinnamon. The crust is dusted with powdered sugar and the result is a delicious sweet-savory dish.
Most Moroccan restaurants feature b’stilla. Intimate, contemporary Libzar in Gueliz is a great bet, as chef Assia’s home cooking is superb. Or for old-fashioned opulence and belly dancing, go to the candlelit Red House, where the b’stilla is made with homemade spices (there’s also a seafood version).
A thick, comforting, well-spiced soup that is traditionally served to break the sunset-to-dusk Ramadan fast, harira is a dish close to Morocco’s heart (and stomach). Often popping up on Marrakech menus as an appetizer or snack, harira is a complete meal in itself. The name derives from the Arabic word harir, meaning silk, referring to its silky texture. There is no hard-and-fast rule on how to make it, but many would agree that it should combine the likes of lentils and chickpeas, tomato, onion, celery, garlic, cumin, turmeric, saffron cinnamon, cilantro, and parsley. Meat (lamb, for instance) is an optional extra. All of these ingredients are simmered slowly until they create a robust, harmonious flavor—one that deepens the longer it’s left.
You’ll see great pots of the stuff bubbling away in Jemma el-Fna food stalls, where chefs ladle it out by the bowlful. Alternatively, head on over to delightfully old-school Al Fassia in the Gueliz neighborhood, where this classic is prepared with a pinch of love by all-female chefs.
Not to be confused with tagine, tanjia is a true Marrakech specialty. Tanjia is the name for both the meaty stew and the terracotta urn it's cooked in. Traditionally, tanjia is slow-cooked for many hours in the ashes of the farnatchi, the searingly hot communal oven that is also used to bake bread and the heat the hammam. The sealed pot is filled with beef shank, preserved lemon, garlic, cilantro, parsley, cumin, and saffron, plus a drop of olive oil and a smidgen of smen (salted fermented butter).
Go hungry to the simple tanjia stalls, just off Souk Semmarine, for some of the city’s best. For a classier, more refined experience, there’s La Sultana, with romantic, lantern-lit arcades framing a pool and the palatial dining room of La Maison Arabe.
A mini culinary world unto themselves, bite-sized Moroccan sweetmeats are utterly irresistible, oozing honey, packed with nuts, wrapped in wafer-thin pastry, and exotically perfumed with cinnamon, orange flower and rose water. You’ll see many takes on baklava, but more specifically Moroccan are the likes of crescent-shaped cornes de gazelle (literally ‘gazelle’s horns’), made with smooth, paper-thin dough, filled with almonds and sprinkled with orange blossom water. Equally delicious are twice-baked, almond-and-raisin fekkass, similar to biscotti, and halwa dyal makina, piped cookies dipped in chocolate. Fragrant ghoriba cookies, made with almond or coconut, can be as chewy as macaroons or as crumbly as shortbread.
Marrakech locals have a serious sweet tooth and you’ll often find a sweetmeat perched beside your pot of mint tea. In the souks, seek out tiny Patisserie Belkabir for a take-away box, or head up to the cool, sun-shaded rooftop of Terrasse des épices, which has a great in-house bakery. Northwest of the medina, in French colonial-era Gueliz, Marrakech’s best patisseries line the wide avenues—Amandine, Jaouda and Gato should certainly be on your radar.
Nothing goes better with a sticky sweet treat than a thé à la menthe (mint tea), wittily nicknamed ‘Berber whiskey’ by locals. The cornerstone of Moroccan hospitality, mint tea is sipped at all hours and on all occasions. You’ll often be offered a glass to sweeten you up for haggling in the souks, or on arrival in a riad as a gesture of welcome.
This mixture of spearmint, gunpowder green tea and sugar is served ceremonially: poured from a gleaming silver teapot from a great height (to aerate the tea) into tinkling glasses. You might get a motherly slap for slurping your tea on any other occasion, but here, it’s the what releases the aroma.
Fine cafés to watch Marrakech rush by over a pot of mint tea include Le Grand Balcon du Café Glacier, with its ringside view of Jemma el-Fna (just go for tea, skip the food), and the street terrace of the French colonial Le Grand Cafe de La Poste in Gueliz.
A classic that needs little introduction, the tagine is a must on any visit to Marrakech—just be careful not to overdo it and get ‘tagined out’. Named after the conical clay vessel it’s cooked in, this slow-cooked stew is incredibly moreish. All versions come with layered vegetables such as potato, carrot, green beans, zucchini, onions, and herbs and spices like parsley, turmeric, cumin, paprika, and cinnamon. Zesty chicken tagines are often studded with preserved lemons and olives, beef and lamb varieties with dates and apricots.
Tagines are on almost every menu—and you can whip up your own at most cookery classes. Some of the tastiest are served at nicely chilled Nomad, with a roof terrace popping up in the middle of the souks, and glamorous, Arabian Nights-style Le Comptoir Darna, where belly dancers perform.