Memories of Essaouira: Vagabonding by the Beach and Wandering the Souk

Did I happen to tell you that j’adore Essaouira in Morocco? And I’m not alone at all on this one. Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, and Orson Welles are some of the famous people who have visited Essaouira and succumbed to its charms.

But what strikes me most is the windswept beauty of this place, anchored in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. Life isn’t rushed in Essaouira, and you get the feeling that the ‘chill’ vibe of the hippies who once flocked this whitewashed town lingers on in every street corner and back alley. By no means is this a picture-perfect place despite its UNESCO World Heritage status. In fact, it’s a bit rundown on the surface: the battered ramparts pummeled by the sea; the faded patina of its sun-scorched houses; the threadbare stones of its dust-coated walkways. But somehow, it’s divine when the beaten, organic feel of Essaouira lends a rich texture to Morocco’s premiere getaway by the Atlantic.

In the past, I have written a bit about Essaouira’s history. While its golden age of prosperity from trading caravans of the Sahara has certainly passed, a sort of renaissance has been happening in the last few decades. The erstwhile glory and exotic charms of this beach town is undeniable, inspiring many Europeans to rescue the medina’s crumbling houses, turning them into gracious riads (guesthouses). True, it’s a town permeated by expats, but it’s also primarily a Moroccan village at heart, with genial Souiris (locals) welcoming with open arms those who have come to love their Essaouira.

So, here’s why I’m in love:
Easygoing Essaouira embraces idle loafing in its numerous outdoor cafés. A libation or two amidst a dynamic courtyard is encouraged any time of the day, especially when the weather is almost always pleasant year-round, averaging around 22˚C / 71˚F.

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Artisans abound here, so shopping is a great way to pass the time. The vendors are not as pushy as in Marrakech, although it’s still keen to bargain with them. You will find beautiful faience pottery, brass lamps, kilims or rugs, and many other doodads sold in the main souk or along the tiny back lanes.

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The Skala du Port is an impressive sea bastion, dominated by a Portuguese watch tower. It stands guard over Essaouira’s port, its ramparts lined with bronze canyons, overlooking the crashing waters below.

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Known as Morocco’s “Pearl of the Atlantic,” free-spirited Essaouira is thronged by in-the-know Marrakchis and international hippie jetsetters. Don’t be disheartened, though; it doesn’t feel overrun at all. At least not at the time we went (in spring). But also note that the Gnaoua Music Festival is held here every June, and is quite popular!

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~Recreating Memories of Food in Essaouira~
While the local diet consists mostly of fish, there is one street food I tried here that absolutely blew me away. It’s called Za’lüq. Like the Atlantic trade winds that rush in, this Moroccan eggplant salad is keeping me happy, refreshed, and invigorated. I found this in one of those mom-and-pop food stands in the souk, so I have no idea neither what number it is, what street it’s on, nor what is the stand’s name. I did, however, attempt to recreate the wonderfully smokey and spicy flavours of Za’lüq at home, with help from the many cookbooks I read and recipes I tried. I love Claudia Roden, an authority in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine, but this recipe is lifted from Anissa Helou’s “Mediterranean Street Food” cookbook.

Za’lüq (Moroccan Eggplant Salad)

2 medium eggplants (about 14 oz total weight)
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, preferably Moroccan or Tunisian
4-6 plum tomatoes, diced
1 cup cilantro, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon cumin
juice of 1/2 lemon or to taste
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
salt and pepper to taste

There are two ways of preparing the eggplant. (I prefer method no. 2).
1) Peel the eggplants lengthwise and cut into small chunks. Steam pieces together with garlic for 20 minutes or until soft.
or
2) Broil eggplant with skin on in a 425˚F preheated oven for 30-45 minutes or until soft.

Sweat garlic in a pan with olive oil, until golden but not burnt. Sauté the tomatoes, cilantro, and cumin, then mix well. Place over medium-high heat and cook for 15 minutes or until the excess liquid has evaporated and the sauce looks fresh and chunky. Stir occasionally.

When eggplant is ready, remove meat from skin (if broiled), mash them with a fork or potato masher. Don’t use a food processor or the eggplant will become too mushy. The salad should have a soft but chunky texture. Add the mashed vegetables to the tomato sauce along with the lemon juice and the rest of the seasonings. Mix well and simmer over low heat for another 15 minutes, stirring regularly. Taste and adjust seasoning accordingly. Let cool and serve at room temperature or slightly chilled. I like to store mine in mason jars and serve them straight up that way.

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*I apologize if posts are pretty unpredictable in the next few weeks. Our family is going through the long process of selling our home, so it’s guaranteed to be extra busy here on our end. Thanks for your support! See you soon…

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