James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Morocco’s Answer to New York’s Bodega Breakfast Sandwich

Morocco’s Answer to New York’s Bodega Breakfast Sandwich

Egg sandwich in Morocco

Most Moroccans may start their day with one (or three) glasses of atay, that uniquely Moroccan blend of green tea, fresh mint, and tons of sugar. But in my travels around the country, especially in the bigger cities of the north, I discovered that mornings are also about a simple egg sandwich, accompanied by a café nuss-nuss or a jus d’avocat (an avocado milkshake).

These are best found in a local mahlaba, a combination snack shop-juice stand that derives its name from the Arabic word for milk (haleeb) and is a sort of neologism from the French laiterie.

Mahlabas are best defined by their bright décor: stacks of colorful fruit, or posters of stacks of colorful fruit, display cases of yogurts and cheeses and a Spam-y, halal “charcuterie” that I don’t recommend. I do recommend the fresh fruit juices—but the classic, 9 a.m. Moroccan move would be a glass of hot milk flavored with a bit of coffee, and a simple sandwich of hard-boiled egg and spreadable cheese.

The sandwich itself could be Morocco’s answer to that New York City staple, the bodega egg-and-cheese. You can get it anywhere. Even if your nearby corner store, or hanut, seems to offer no prepared food, rest assured that the proprietor has a basket of hard-boiled eggs, a knife, a small dish of salt and cumin, and plenty of the ubiquitous La Vache qui Rit spreadable cheese triangles.

Wherever you go, the prep is similar: the person behind the counter will pull out khobz, or, if you’re lucky, batbut, a sort of Moroccan take on the English muffin but cooked on a hot griddle. He’ll run his knife through the bread to open up a pocket and insert one or two wedges of cheese. Then he’ll peel one or two eggs (your choice), drop them into the pocket, and use the blade to slice and mash everything up. He’ll ask if you want a hit of salt and cumin. You do. (Even an Egg McMuffin at a McDonald’s in Morocco comes with salt and cumin.) In general, you pay only for the ingredients—1.20 dirhams for the khobz, 1 dirham per cheese triangle, 1.20 for each egg—just as you would if you were buying groceries. That’s about $0.35 for the whole thing.

Besides the unbeatable price, the beauty of the sandwich is its simplicity.
Like your basic fried egg draped in melty American on a roll, it works despite the relatively low quality of ingredients: fatty, too creamy “cheese,” big crystals of salt, the heft of the boiled eggs, the light funk of cumin, and dense bread. The best breads have a chewiness not unlike pizza dough, with little air pockets to catch the slathers of cheese and crumbled yolk. You could wash it down properly with a café nuss-nuss—a half-half coffee-milk combination. Or opt for dense jus d’avocat, in which case you won’t be hungry again for some time.

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