For a brief moment last Friday night, our stately 19th century courtyard, entrance for generations of tricorner or top-hatted diplomats, had more the look of Jemaa el-Fna, with bissara and caliente aromas wafting around the fountain. It was the perfect way to top off Abdelkrim Raddadi's lively presentation of his "coffee table" book, Morocco's Street Foods, published by MARSAM Edition and Exchanges, Morocco's English-language book specialists (actually, the book is in English, Arabic, and French, as was Raddadi's rapid-fire delivery).
In cooperation with the American Language Center of Tangier, we hosted a full house of foodies, people of all ages and backgrounds whose love of Moroccan delicacies was not deterred by a stormy debut to the evening.
"Delicacies," Abdelkrim Raddadi would tell us, are not the only thing that street food is about in Morocco. Why people eat street food, its infinite variety in a country that has Arab, Berber, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and English antecedents (Tangier, for a brief couple of decades in the late 1600s, was British) - the sociology of street food is Mr. Raddadi's passion. His excitement for his subject was evident to us, and to National Geographic TV, which features his work in their show on Street Food Around the World.
And not just sociology; geography too. Raddadi tells of how caliente started in Tangier, with its large Spanish population during the International Zone years, made its way to inland Fez, and can be found in the eastern border town of Oujda, across from Algeria. But then the Spanish of Oran had their own version, carantica. The wonders of chick peas...
Actually, that Abdelkrim and the Exchanges team were with us at all last weekend in Tangier was a signal honor: he should have been in Paris at the Food Television Festival, where his book was one of a dozen chosen among thousands for the final competition.
So, what is the book? Not a cookbook; there are no recipes. There are lots of great color action shots, and even poetry in translation - well, maybe rimes is more like it - on the subject:
They say that the mechoui of Bougmaz
Kindles a desire for more.
Food of dinners and receptions,
It is even found in the souk.
Its irresistible aroma delights the senses,
One may even sell one's clothes
For a few slivers of mechoui.
A whole sheep including its head,
This alone is worthy of a party
For it is both regal and it goes far.
It has more of a ring in the original Arabic.
That Mr. Raddadi isn't a poster boy for Weight Watchers® is a tribute to his self control after four years of research - starting in Tangier with its trademark caliente (chick pea and egg savory flan) - that took him to street corners all across the kingdom. "Bad but tasty" isn't his judgment on a particular dish, it's more his description of the allure of the illicit: Moroccan Moms Against Street Food continue to rail against their competitors - "why are you eating that greasy stuff when I've made you this delicious tajine?"
Despite mothers' concerns, at least street food is not fast food - Raddadi is a believer in the virtues of Slow Food. But the increasing specialization of vendors in Morocco - "you can even get ready-crushed garlic!" - means that consumers here can outsource some of the more time-consuming parts of meals and just go out and buy their hergma (roasted calves' feet). Don't worry: much of Moroccan street food would pass the vegetarian test.
Morocco's Street Foods is on to something: this food is theatre. Just like fish-n-chips is best out of vinegar-doused newspaper, caliente needs to be eaten on a piece of paper torn off by the street vendor. None of this knife-and-fork stuff.
Street food in Morocco is lots of things to lots of people, and serves, as Abdelkrim Raddadi says, as a kind of GPS: "turn left at the beboush (snails) cart, then go straight 'til you get to the bissara (pea soup) stand."
We wish all book presentations could be as much fun as Abdelkrim Raddadi's, though we may have set our own bar too high by serving up the real thing. But a good time was had by all.