Hayder Alijanaby eats brains with businesslike tidiness. He squeezes a piece of hemisphere into a wad of bread, then pushes it into his mouth. As he works his jaw I see his scrunch-eyed satisfaction, but he has none of my thrill.
It's nine at night and we're sitting at Counter 49 at Djemaa el Fna, the plaza beside the souk in Marrakech, Morocco. Strings of bare light bulbs light the scene: the world's greatest street fair. It's an extraordinary transformation. During the day, juice stands crowded the square with pyramids of oranges. Snake charmers blared horns in the faces of limpid, black cobras. But the plaza was mostly empty, aside from squinting tourists shuttling from the spice market back to their riads.
The Moroccans come out at night, when the juice stands are replaced by hundreds of open-air kitchens. Only then does the plaza become part circus, part outdoor barbecue festival—acrobats leap off each other's backs, magicians sell cures, and chefs slice into the soft meat of heads of sheep. Each of the open-air kitchens has a steamer the size of a pickle barrel. Inside each, pale, bloodless sheep faces cook until they're bronze brown and ready to be served.
At the counter before me, four rows of heads face the sky. Their eyes are seared shut. Their wooden-looking teeth jut from open mouths. And at the centerpiece of this vignette is a piece of poached brain, about the size of a tennis ball, a glutinous bauble that reflects innumerable yellow bulbs of lamplight.
For the chef, Hasan, a 30-year veteran of the daily fair, this is a demonstration of the freshness of his food. Alijanaby tells me that before five years ago, kitchens like these garnered a bad reputation—people were getting sick. Then the food inspectors clamped down. Presumably, most locals now salivate at the sight of sheep heads, but I associate it with travel TV and all those shows where the subtext is, I can't believe he's going to eat that.
For reasons I don't understand, the shows are magnetic, so magnetic that this year Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizarre Foods (the title speaks for itself), won a James Beard award for Best TV Food Personality. If there's such a thing as a money shot in this genre, it's when the camera zooms in on a fatty/buggy/slimy thing just before Zimmern slurps it up. Viewers can only imagine what it tastes like by analyzing the masticating contortions of Zimmern's bald head.
For the same reason those shows draw an audience, I pay the equivalent of four dollars for a dish. The brain's glistening yellow juices give me tremors of anticipation. But why the thrill? I know a girl who won't eat chicken on the bone because chomping skeleton demonstrates that she isn't quite as delicate she'd like. Maybe I don't think of myself as someone who'd eat a sheep's brain while its empty skull watches.
More likely, eating sheep brain—or any food, really—is about context. And without context most food just seems odd. During grade school, friends and I would play a game in the lunchroom where we'd try to gross each other out over the contents of our lunches. We'd moan in disgust over eggs—the stuff of unborn chickens. Cheese was a Petri dish. And mushrooms, of course, were just shit blossoms.
Watching Alijanaby eat beside me offers an object lesson not just in eating technique, but in context. Whenever he's in Marrakech he stops here because the meal reminds him of home. Alijanaby tells me he was a fighter pilot in Saddam Hussein's air force before he defected to Denmark, then Morocco in 1997. "We did it slightly different. The tongue with sauce. The lamb head we did in soup."
Alijanaby is not alone in his associations. Elizabeth, a woman from Manchester, England, sits to my right and tells me, "My father used make this. Never see it anymore." For these two, eating sheep brain is a nostalgic experience. For me it's TV.
The moment I scoop into the brain, its complex folds and ripples disintegrate into gray mush. It melts into the bread, and when I bite into it, it coats my tongue and the roof of my mouth with a flavor equivalent to chicken fat. It has the creamy, sticky texture of brie, and after three bites I've had enough. This article should be an ode to mint tea.
But there's something else on the plate, something I don't recognize—it looks like sliced brown sponge. I take a bite. It's as dense as bread pudding and as tasty as steak.
"What is this?" I say in broken French.
"Mamar," shouts the chef, pointing to his chest. "Mamar!"
I gesture like I'm milking a cow.
He nods his head.
Here we go again. Cow teat.
Brendan Borrell helped report this story.