Moroccan Chef Brings Taste of Marrakesh to Taipei

James Baron
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A Moroccan native makes his way in Taipei by making mouths water.

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For Hicham Baba, rustling up custom for his fledgling food stall was no trouble.

“Taiwanese are very willing to try,” he says. “As soon as I opened, there were many people interested.” Serving up ciabattas with a Moroccan twist, Baba's Crazy Kitchen is incongruously located across the road from Qiyan MRT station in Taipei's Beitou District.

Like many purveyors of unfamiliar foreign fare in Taiwan, Baba needed to make some slight adjustments before setting up shop seven months ago. “I had to change the flavor a bit,” the 39-year-old Marrakesh native admits. “In Morocco, we use more spices, but it wasn't much problem.” The only real thing that bemused him was the geographical ineptitude of some of his customers.

“A few times, I had to tell people, 'No, our prince did not marry a famous Hollywood film star,'” he chuckles. For those who were able to distinguish an African country larger than California from a tiny European tax haven, there were other points of confusion. “One guy asked me how I used to travel at home. He thought we must go everywhere by camel, because the whole country was desert,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief. “I told him we had big cities, airports, but he couldn't believe it. I had to show him photos.”

Baba has trodden a circuitous path to reach Taipei. He met his Taiwanese wife while she was traveling in his historic hometown back in 2012. “We were in a coffee shop and she was asking questions about Moroccan culture. We got talking and I took her to see the markets.” A relationship blossomed and she returned a second time.

When they realized they wanted to be together, he had a decision to make. It became obvious that it would be too difficult for her to live full-time in Morocco, so he took the plunge and made the move to East Asia in 2015.

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James Baron

Finding work as a driver for the Saudi Arabian Representative Office in Taipei, Baba spent most of his time ferrying the head official's children to and from Taipei European School.

Subsequent work included a stint selling Argan oil at Tianmu Creative Market. The oil, which has culinary uses in the Mahgreb but is generally used only in cosmetic products elsewhere, is sourced from the kernels of the fruit of the Argan tree, endemic to Morocco.

Spells as a chef at French and Moroccan restaurants in downtown Taipei followed before Baba decided to strike out solo. After scouring the curbsides across town, with the assistance of his brother-in-law (who lends a hand at the stall), he found a breakfast stall vendor who was willing to sublet his spot out when he knocked off at 10 a.m. It was a reasonable price and, says Baba, a good deal for both parties.

While the menu at Baba's is basic,the food is tasty and certainly seems to appeal to local palates. It's well past lunchtime, but there' still a steady flow of customers There are four main sandwiches – beef with bean sauce, chicken with a tangy lemon relish, tuna with tartar and a vegan offering, which is essentially a hash brown with vegetables and a beetroot sauce, with prices ranging from a very reasonable NT$80 (US$2.68) to NT$120. There's also homemade yogurt and a vegetable soup at NT$50 and NT$60 a pop, respectively.

Baba, who says he learned to cook by helping his grandmother out in the kitchen, also makes his own couscous dishes to order for customers. While he hasn't yet started selling some of the stuff he produces at home – tagine, pastries and crepes among other items – he says he is more than willing to fill specific orders for interested customers.

Despite his best efforts, though, he confesses it's not quite the real thing. “They don't have all the spices and right ingredients here,” he laments. “I really do miss the food back home.” This, and the fact that “a new generation of cousins and nephews is being born that I haven't even met” have informed his decision to return to Morocco in August, for at least a month.

Having recently met a Frenchman selling crepes at Beitou night market, he is aiming to wangle a spot there on his return.

“The guy has to share a space with another vendor,” he says. “They are squashed to together side-by-side in a space that's only meant for one.”

He smiles when he thinks of the famous markets of his homeland. “Marrakesh is completely different. Yes, you can buy anything at the night markets in Taiwan. But in Marrakesh, it's one big market. There is just so much history and culture and just so much to see. There, you have the biggest open-air restaurant in the world.”

He pauses, momentarily carried away with the reverie. “Still, that guy is selling a lot of crepes,” he says “I'm going to get something there when I come back.”

Read next: The Long Poem of Walking Taipei

Editor: Morley J Weston

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