Friday, April 1, 2016

Sheep's Head - Morocco

In Marrakech we had a guide by the name of Abdul Aissaoui who was fabulous. All through Morocco our guides had taken us to safe tourist restaurants where we were served tagine after tagine with table after table of European and American tourists. The food was good, but we wanted something more unusual, more local. We told Abdul we were adventurous eaters and would like to try something more exciting. He thought about it for a bit and then asked if we would be interested in eating sheep's head? I went giddy. "Yes, yes, that would be fantastic!" He left me hanging a little bit saying, "I'll have to see if I can arrange it." 

Around lunchtime we ventured into the famous Marrakech square known as Jemaa el-Fnaa (or Djema el-Fna or several other variations). I struggled with how to say it. Abdul worked with me and I finally got it down as "Gem-elph-nuh." Later we listened to an Andrew Zimmern episode in Marrakech and he referred to it as "Gem-ahh-el-fen-ahh." Of course, that was easier for me as it had a bit of a rhyme to it and was spoken by an American. We took a slanted road off the square to what is known as Mechoui Alley. It had a row of stalls that all sold sheep across from the olive vendors. Several had cooked sheep heads resting on the top of clay jars known as tangia crock pots.  
Sheep head on a tangia pot. 
Abdul told us that the owner was a cook for the king of Morocco for many years and that he perfected the cooking of lamb. The restaurant is named Chez Lamine Hadj Mustapha (it had a Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence hanging on the wall - the only way we could tell what the name was), and the best I can tell the name means the home or business of Lamine Hadj Mustapha, those three words all being part of the owner's name. I find that Mustapha or Mustafa cooked at the palace for King Hassan II who ruled Morocco from 1961 to 1999. We also learned that if a name has "Hadj" in front of it it means that person has taken the hadj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that each Muslim is supposed to make at least once during his lifetime. 
Judy and Abdul (in green) out in front.
I read on-line about sheep heads and Morocco and I find many variations about how they are cooked and served. The best I can tell our sheep head was steamed for about five hours. A man at the front of the restaurant had a hole in the counter near him which apparently contained sheep heads. He appeared to pull the sheep head out of the hole, then pull off the outer skin. We ordered a half sheep head and did not get to see them split it, but I've read that they use a large meat cleaver. Our sheep head did not include the brain. I've read that the brains are sold separately at a different stall. 
The hole with the sheep heads is just to the left of the man.
When the half sheep head was brought to our table, if I'd not known what it was, I'd not have been able to identify it. It just looked like a mass of meat with different textures. It was also covered liberally with salt and cumin. We discovered that Moroccans love their lamb slathered in cumin. I did not like cumin initially, but quickly acquired a taste for it. 
The sheep head. To the left is what I believe is the sheep horn partially broken off. The cinnamon colored spice is a mixture of salt and cumin. 
Judy and Abdul at the table.
Abdul started pointing out parts of the head and directing us to rip off bits and try them. "There is the tongue, it is very tender, try it." The tongue was tender, juicy and very flavorful. "Try the cheek meat, it is very fatty and wonderful." 
As pieces of flesh are removed the sheep's skull comes into focus.
He pointed to the place to pull off the meat. He said that the head is very fatty and must be eaten while it is hot. I'd eaten pig eye before and found that it was not bad, so I sought out the sheep's eye. The eye socket was deep and hot and the eye was very large. I plopped the entire eye in my mouth and found it very moist and tasty. Abdul was a little surprised, I don't think that he eats the eye. 
The eyeball just pulled from the socket. It was very large, juicy and flavorful.
We picked and picked at the head and eventually the sheep skull came into focus. 
The sheep skull, now mostly stripped of meat.
I loved it. It was something I've never eaten before, it was fatty, flavorful and had tremendous mouth feel. I liked it so much that Judy agreed to go back there for lunch the next day and we had lamb head again. The novelty had worn off and it was not quite as wonderful the next day, but still very good. I did notice the second day that most every table in the place had one or more sheep heads on plates on the table. This will go down as one of my favorite foreign eating experiences. 


  1. This was lots of fun and very novel, but I still prefer the sheep's body cooked in the underground oven that I'm sure you're going to write about next.

  2. It is called "Machoui" Judy. Amazing story.

  3. You describing yourself as "giddy" at the thought of eating lamb's head strikes me as a gross understatement. Kudos to Judy for keeping up with you. Looking forward to more!