There is a new cafe in Essaouira – it’s only been around for a few months and it’s only open in the evenings from 4-9pm, but it’s always packed to the gills and is cheap as chips.
Come to think of it, maybe it’s like a Moroccan equivalent of a chippie or Greggs (for the non-Brits, it’s a bakery chain selling sandwiches and hot savoury pastries); only Moroccans tend not to eat on the move, so they pop in for a quick, hot snack and move on.
Even the menu isn’t very large. You can have warm harira soup (3dh, around 23p), freshly griddled msimen (2dh, about 15p) and piping hot mint tea (6dh, expensive at about 45p!), or any combination of the above. That’s it! And yet it’s probably the most popular fast food joint in town – at less than £2 for a hot meal, that’s perhaps hardly surprising!
Msimen are like a pancake made from a dough rather than a batter. Head-scarved ladies pull the dough into shape and fold it over and over itself, liberally sprinkling it with something like very fine semolina. Then a guy griddles them out on the street. They have a passing resemblance to Turkish gözleme or French crêpes. They are served with either butter/oil and honey or spreading cheese (the type that comes in triangular shapes in a round box).
Harira is a traditional North African soup made from a tomato base with chickpeas, vermicelli pasta and coriander, seasoned with cinnamon, cumin, paprika and ginger. It has a velvety consistency achieved by the addition of flour right at the end of cooking and is sometimes made with lamb. It’s warming and hearty – like a meal in a bowl – and so it’s no surprise that it’s often eaten to break the fast during Ramadan.
The combination of savoury harira soured with a little vinegar and sweet msimen is a surprising winner. At least the shoppers, shop keepers, corner huggers, heel kickers and general masses of Essaouira seem to think so. The little café, with 3-4 low tables downstairs and 5-6 upstairs is always packed and is a real social leveller: everyone just grabs the next available seat, sharing a corner of a table as it becomes free. Grannies sit beside teenagers; tourists beside jellaba-d businessmen and the young and the old dig into the sticky msimen with their fingers.
I think the secret to the success of the msimen café is that it brings people together. It’s cheap, so everyone can afford it, and the food is homely and comforting. It reminds young male migrant workers (who may not have the facilities or the expertise to cook in their accommodation) of mum’s home cooking, yet a quick snack won’t spoil the appetite of those lucky enough to have a cooked meal at home. And in bringing people together, this small café, with its trip hazard stairs and cramped accommodation enables the local Swiris to engage in their favourite hobby of chatting, gossiping and generally catching up on the day’s events.
Msimen Café, Avenue Istiqlal, Essaouira
(It’s on the left if you’re walking away from the beach, a bit further than the bank and on the other side, before you reach the souks)
© Lynn Sheppard (photos: Yassine Houmdi)