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.