Saturday, March 22, 2014

Gluten-free in Morocco? Naaaaaah...

It's definitely possible to go gluten-free as a tourist in Morocco if you don't mind eating the same food over and over again. Bread is a staple with every meal and couscous is one of their main dishes but given the right willpower you can avoid both. I didn't have such willpower, and I didn't suffer too much as a result (but I do think the wheat here is not as pure as what I was eating in Central Europe and Turkey).

One day I will be gluten-free again.  I will!

Anyway, here's a very long summary of what we ate during our three-week trip - so much of it was so delicious that it was impossible to narrow down! Hostels often offer breakfast but they don't really have kitchens, and hotels never do, so except for our housesitting stay we had to eat lunch and dinner out wherever we went. (World's tiniest violin - I know. Believe me, though, it gets old fast!)

Moroccan breakfasts always seemed to include mint tea (or coffee upon request) and bread. The tea comes super sweet by default and it's rare that you can ask for no sugar... but it's rude to refuse so we partook in a lot of sugary tea.

"Berber whiskey"
(they drink this all day every day
and the higher you pour it,
the more respect you earn from locals)

take note, Starbucks -
this is the best way to serve coffee
(separate and with warmed milk)

Sometimes the food at breakfast was just bread - like in Essaouira when we ate at a "snack cafe" with the locals. We liked this particular place a lot because they were pretty friendly and we always sat in front of the lady making the bread. It was really fun to watch her roll and knead and shape the bread while she chatted with the patrons.

the locals went for bread
drenched in melted butter
(as awesome as that sounded
we opted just for honey)

Sometimes you also got pastries with breakfast. (Because a loaf of bread isn't enough bread??) Sometimes the pastries were plain, sometimes they had a little filling, sometimes they had some sort of amazing peanut glaze. The peanut-glazed were our favorites, and sadly we couldn't find them in the markets so they were rare treats.

And sometimes you got a Moroccan pancake - a thick crepe-like doughy plate of goodness with butter and jam on the side. We really liked those times.

our favorite breakfast spread
at Dar Aliane

If you were really lucky, breakfast also included fresh squeezed orange juice, a hard boiled egg, a small container of yogurt, and a little triangle of Laughing Cow cheese. (Yes, Laughing Cow cheese. It really grows on you!)

for champions
at Diyar Timnay in Moulay Idriss

And let's not forget gluten-free Mr Breakfast corn flakes - our meal of choice while house sitting in Rabat.

must be popular -
ingredients are listed in about 50 languages!

Lunch and dinner
Afternoon and evening meal options were almost interchangeable. The true Moroccan options included gluten-free tajines (chicken, beef or veggies cooked in clay pots) or gluten-filled couscous (with chicken, beef or veggies). These are offered everywhere; tourists and locals alike eat them on a regular basis.

upper: veggie tajine
middle: delicious kebab
lower: chicken couscous with veggies

We tried both of these a few times and found the veggies too overcooked and the dishes too underspiced and overpriced for our taste - maybe because we usually ate them in tourist areas? So we gave up on them pretty quickly.

(As an aside, couscous is also regularly eaten on the holy day, so menus will feature "couscous vendredi" - Friday couscous, chef's choice on how it's prepared. We aren't religious but we really like this concept of "couscous Friday" - or maybe we just like saying "oh boy, it's couscous Friday!" - and we hope to implement this tradition when we get back to the States.)

walls and walls of couscous at the supermarket

Back to meals... Omelettes were commonly offered on menus, and these became go-to lunch or dinner choices whenever possible, just for the no-carb, no-gluten protein boost (and the price - eggs are cheap). With cheese, herbs, or just plain they were always delicious!

And speaking of protein, rotisserie chicken is also huge in Morocco. Lots of cafes feature "poulet complet", a whole roasted chicken with rice, or salad, or french fries, or some combination of those. We never could commit to a whole bird but one day we finally broke down and went for a "demi poulet". We can't be sure that the meat we ate had no hormones, but we can be pretty sure it was free range (pretty sure this is true of most meat in Morocco) and we are definitely sure that it tasted pretty awesome.

1/4 each
rice for her, fries for him

On days when we wanted comfort food, we were able to find pizza or shawarmas pretty easily.

an Italian restaurant in Fes?
but of course

a roadside cafe in Casablanca

Salads were always a nice option, always gluten-free (although I'm not 100% sure about the dressing) as long as you skipped the huge basket of white bread that came with them. Menus typically featured a "Moroccan" salad (veggies with tuna), a "salade mixte" (beets, potatoes, greens) or a "salade nicoise" (greens, beets, egg, tuna). Same basic ingredients but totally different tastes to each.

world's largest salade nicoise

beets beets beets
in the salade mixte

homemade Moroccan salad
at the Berber village during our camel trek

Sidewalk stands offer meat sandwiches that they cook right there for you. We'd been curious for weeks but couldn't get up the nerve - there's always some degree of concern with food safety wherever we go, especially when meat and food carts are concerned. Finally in Fes, the price was right (and clearly listed on the sign) and we were starving, so we took a chance. Those sandwiches were so much better than most of the shawarmas we'd had in Morocco and we regretted not taking the plunge earlier in our trip!

they were so good that
we sent several other tourists their way

A popular side dish is fried potatoes. Obviously Jen avoided these but Patrick was able to enjoy a few servings.

"fried potato grease bombs", Patrick said
(as he inhaled them)

And then there was the soup. Harira, Morocco's specialty soup, is a tomato-based bowl of goodness! It has flour and sometimes pasta, so it's not gluten-free, but the best batches also had chickpeas, lentils, onions, and loads of spices. We dare say the better bowls of harira soup may have trumped some of the amazing lentil soup we had in Turkey. If only the Moroccan tajines were as flavorful...!

homemade by our hotel owner in Meknes
(best soup we had in Morocco)

just add olives and beet juice
and you've got dinner

Speaking of olives - WOW, the olives! They're sold in bulk in the medinas, in the markets, at the grocery stores. They're provided as a light (free) appetizer in nicer cafes and restaurants. You can't get a pizza or a salad without olives. They even come with breakfast! They're perfectly cured and sometimes perfectly spiced, and occasionally a cafe or restaurant will also have a bottle of amazing olive oil for bread dipping.

olives drying in Moulay Idriss

the best part of our Marrakech meal in the square

If you can't find fresh-squeezed juice in Morocco, your eyes aren't open. The beet juice shown above was definitely a favorite, but we had our share of orange juice too. In Merzouga we finally broke down and tried "banana juice" and "avocado juice" (what could that possibly mean??) - they ended up basically being a smoothie... A delicious, refreshing smoothie. We miss smoothies.

rows and rows of juice stands 
in the Marrakech square

One drink we only found in the Marrakech square at night was a chai tea chock full of cinnamon, cloves and ginger. If we hadn't gotten ripped off by the tea cart guy we would've gone back for thirds, fourths, fifths of this stuff... so good.

best enjoyed with chocolate cake

And then there was the sugary deliciousness. Essaouira was our first exposure to fresh doughnuts, fried right in front of you and then dipped in sugar. About $0.25 each. No picture available - we inhaled them too quickly.

Fes's specialty is a sort of chocolate eclair...

so of course we tried it
(it was awful, really)

In Meknes we ran across a small bakery selling deep fried doughy bits in all shapes and sizes. We started to get just a few, then got a little carried away. The bakery guy just laughed at us and pulled out a bigger container. After the dough was fried the treats were dipped in some kind of simple syrup and sprinkled with sesame seeds. They weren't as tasty as we hoped they would be... which is not to say that they weren't good or that we didn't eat every single one.

heart attack in three, two, one...

Almond desserts are also pretty popular in Morocco. Rabat's kasbah has a small cafe where you can rest and sample terribly overpriced mint tea and almond pastries... so we did. Hey, it was tourist day.

tea for two

Street food/snacks
We've already raved about the Moroccan pancakes but they deserve another homage. Thick and doughy, sometimes with a cornmeal dusting, served with your choice of nothing, honey, chocolate, or Laughing Cow cheese. The first ones we had in Rabat's medina turned out to be the best. They were everywhere, though - perfect for a quick on-the-go snack, a meal, a second breakfast, a post-dinner snack... We enjoyed these a lot.

avec fromage
s'il vous plait

We also found smaller bready snacks in Meknes. Totally filling, perfect with harira soup.

top - tasted like corn muffins
middle - tasted like buckwheat couscous patties (a good thing)
bottom - a sugary corn muffin

As far as non-bread snacks on the road, fruit was pretty widely available in Morocco. We probably bought 20 kilos of oranges, all said and done, and loads of bananas and dried dates too.

Moulay Idriss fruit stand
(there was a whole street of this)

$2.50 for all of this in Fes
(those grapefruits were amazing)

And Patrick finally tried a rare treat that turned his tongue purple in Marrakech. Pulpy, not very sweet, and probably chock-full of antioxidants.

prickly pears in the park!
say that five times fast

The smaller markets mostly featured junk food snacks so whenever we went to the hypermarket we tried to load up on raisins, peanuts, and Jen's favorite:

Moroccan fritos

So yeah, we ate our fair share of bread in Morocco. It wasn't particularly good bread, but it did the trick. Finding gluten-free options wasn't terribly difficult though, and avoiding potatoes was pretty easy. If you have other ideas for avoiding gluten in Morocco, please leave a comment!

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