The Provencal port city of Marseille has historically been associated with bouillabaisse, and, to a lesser extent, whores, thieves, and the usual debauchery that goes with being a sea port. Things started to turn around about a decade ago, and today it’s a safe, vibrant, thoroughly charming city whose cuisine and culture reflect its past as a colonial trading port with North Africa.
When France acquired Algeria in 1830, Marseille, the second largest port in Europe, saw a major influx of immigrants from North and West Africa that continues to this day. You can even take a ferry to Tunisia, 550 nautical miles away.
I was in Marseille researching a bouillabaisse story when I serendipitously discovered the Noailles, the city’s Arab quarter. It’s located a short walk from the Vieux Port, Marseille’s bustling, bar-and-restaurant-lined waterfront, off of the main artery of La Canebiere. It was like stumbling upon a Moroccan souk: narrow, cobbled streets lead away from a central square that is home to a daily outdoor produce market. Small, dark, cluttered shops sell tea sets and spices; markets carry everything from meat and seafood to Middle Eastern pastries, dates, pistachios, glass-like, crystallized whole fruits, and tubs of olives and harissa, a fiery red North African chile paste. It’s the ideal place to pick up edible souvenirs or picnic fixings.
Men in djellabahs sit at outdoor cafes, talking loudly over bracingly strong demitasse’s of coffee, while women draped in sifsaris paw through bins of vegetables. The quarter is a kaleidoscopic mélange of colors, sounds, and smells: rotting produce, incense, sizzling kebabs of chicken and lamb, and the comforting aroma of baking flatbreads and sugary almond cookies. My favorite part of this untouristed neighorhood, however, are the tiny Egyptian, Tunisian, and Algerian food stalls and bake shops that specialize in mahjouba–giant, rectangular-folded crepes filled with sautéed tomato, red pepper, onion, and harissa.
The takeaway shop Le Soleil d’Egypte makes a particularly delicious version, as well as selling a variety of North African flatbreads that are baked fresh throughout the morning. Mahjouba are a satisfying, inexpensive (under two dollars) snack–I was so besotted, I even took a couple on the train to Cassis with me. But they’re also special in that they’re a nod to the Marseillaise love of street foods.
All over the city, particularly near the port, street food vendors sell everything from croque monsieur and pissaladiere, to panisses–delicate, fried chickpea flour cakes. I love them all, yet visiting the Noailles for mahjouba is my pick. They’re a quintessential–if little known–Marseillaise treat: a melding of sunny Mediterranean vegetables, classic French cuisine, and North African culture.
For a harissa recipe, click here.
[Photo credits: man shopping, Flickr user Trilli Bagus; buildings, Flickr user Marind is waiting for les tambours de la pluie; rooftops, Flickr user cercamon]