Are you interested in heading to Morocco? Amanda Mouttaki talks about local life in Marrakech, where to savor truly traditional cuisine and how to have experiences you won’t find in your guidebook.
1. Please tell us a bit about your experience living in Marrakech. What brought you there and what kinds of experiences have you had thus far?
We (my husband, myself and our two kids) came to Marrakech in August of 2013. My husband grew up here and we wanted our children to learn Arabic and French as well as have the ability to form real relationships with the members of his family. Our other more guilty pleasure reason was to be able to travel to Europe, the Middle East, and other areas of Africa. It took us a lot longer than we anticipated to settle down and get in a rhythm, but so far we’ve been able to do quite a bit of travel around Morocco as well as visiting Finland, and we have plans to go to Portugal in May of 2014 as well as Greece, Croatia, Italy and Turkey in the fall of 2014.
2. What’s one attraction or experience in Marrakech you recommend that a person probably won’t find in their guidebook?
Marrakech is probably one of the most tourist heavy locations in the country and it’s written about all the time. One thing I would recommend is for visitors to get lost in the Kasbah. There’s a lot of focus on the medina with all the shops and artisans at work. You won’t find much of this in the kasbah, but there are loads of alleyways that lead to empty courtyards and even some palace ruins. The big street that leads up from the Saadian tombs is dotted with small grills in the afternoon and evenings selling sausages, kefta, and grilled chicken and in the morning there are shops selling bissara (a fava bean puree), cannellini beans in sauce, and other street breakfast specialties. You’ll need to be a bit adventurous, but I rarely see tourists in these places and the food here is wonderful!
3. For those wanting to experience local Marrakech culture, what’s a top experience recommendation?
You have to get into someone’s home. This is where you’re going to find the best food and it’s the best way to get to know how Marrakechi’s live. If you can’t find this, then having a picnic in the olive groves near Menara Gardens during the spring and summer are also a good idea. You’re likely to make friends with locals who are enjoying an afternoon out, too. If you’re really lucky they’ll share their food with you!
4. You run a company called Marrakech Food Tours that focuses on showing visitors home-cooked Moroccan food over tourist fare. What’s your favorite experience to share with guests?
We started the company because of how sad I was over the food tourists were served in many places. The first time I visited, before I knew my husband, I walked away hating Moroccan food. I thought it was awful and tasteless. When we moved back and saw tourists filling up restaurants that locals would never eat in I knew I had to show them good food. My favorite experience in doing this is really hearing from people, “Wow you’re right. This IS so much better!” We also try to show them the traditional ways foods are cooked and prepared by visiting a ferran (traditional bread oven) and the pits where lamb is slow roasted to create mechoui and tangia.
5. What’s one thing that surprised you about Marrakech when you first moved there?
In a lot of ways I was training for this move long before we came – having been visiting for almost 10 years. The biggest surprise though was how easily I became accustomed to living in a hotter climate. I grew up and lived most of my life in the northern US and I assumed that even the “cold” Marrakech winters would be comfortable for me, but it didn’t take long for me to forget what cold felt like and be shivering when it was 60 degrees Fahrenheit (16 Celsius)!
6. Tell us about one of your most memorable unexpected adventures in Morocco.
We went to Fez for the first time and drove from Marrakech. There are such striking geographically contrasts through the country and this did not disappoint. One day we visited an organic goat cheese farm outside of the city and decided to drive further up the mountain to visit some friends in Ifrane. When we arrived they asked if we wanted to go for a short walk in the cedar forests and we obliged. Our kids loved it. They were running around, hiding in the woods, having a blast while we could hear the sound of Barbary monkeys and see the ruttings of wild boars along the path. Most people think of Morocco and think of the Sahara, but this was one of our very favorite adventures in a place most people don’t even think exists in this country.
7. What’s one must-pack item for those traveling to Marrakech?
A hat and sunscreen. You can get them here, of course, but having sun protection is a must. Even in the middle of winter the sun shines here and you’ll need it. We can have weeks of nothing but clear, sunny skies.
8. As an American expat in Marrakech, what are some of the main ways your life/daily routine has changed?
Life is so incredibly more laid back here. I don’t feel the pressure and crush of the “rat race” as I did in the United States. I used to wake up in the morning, get my kids out the door, work all day and see them later in the evening for a quick dinner before bed. Now they come home in the middle of the day for 2 ½ hours to have lunch before going back to school until late. Also here, people stay up much later. It’s very normal to eat dinner around 9pm or later and not go to sleep until after midnight. Of course, mid-day naps are totally normal and expected.
9. What’s one lesser-known attraction in Marrakech you’d recommend to travelers and why?
Our food tour! We’d love to have you join us to experience authentic, delicious Moroccan food. But if you can’t make then I would suggest going really deep in the souks. There’s an area called ta’ala that is where a lot of the leather making workshops are, as well as some pretty rustic food options. It’s near the Ben Yusuf Madrassa and the Maison de Photographie Marrakech – which are both excellent spots to visit. In ta’ala you will find better prices for leatherwork, but even more interesting is to see all the tiny workshops turning out purses, leather slippers, and other handicrafts.
10. One of the great parts about traveling is interacting with locals. What has been one of your most memorable local encounters in Marrakech?
I’m at a huge advantage here because I’m not a typical expat as my husband is a local and I live with my Moroccan family, so interaction is unavoidable. Because I have this close relationship and live in a very residential (i.e. hardly any other foreigners) area I’m able to participate in life rituals like birthdays, engagement parties and weddings in a way that many without a connection are unable. I don’t know if I can pinpoint one specific encounter, but having small conversations with people who find out I chose to move to their country from the USA and hearing the excitement in their voice and words of welcome always brings a smile to my face.
Q&A with Amanda Mouttaki, who is a world traveling, mom of two boys, foodie at heart and lover of all things Moroccan.