My brother-in-law’s family in Guelmim, Morocco, at first gave me forks and spoons to eat, but it was clear it was just a courtesy for me-they rarely used them. Instead, they used their hands to tear up the meat, vegetables, and grab small portions of couscous. It wasn’t long before I dropped my utensils and tried my own hand at the art of couscous eating. The first step is to grab a piece of meat or vegetable (usually squash, potato, or carrot) and then a handful of couscous. Then, you gently toss the contents in your hand in a rolling motion. It takes a while to get the exact motion down-tosses that are too soft will only spread the couscous all over your hand, and tosses that are too hard will break your couscous ball apart. However, couscous is always served with a sauce that not only tastes delicious, but helps the couscous to form into a ball, as well. After you have your couscous ball in your hand, you roll it in front of your thumb and use your thumb to pop it into your mouth so you avoid having your mouth all over the hand that is about to go back into the communal serving dish.
Not everyone uses their hands to eat, especially in the cities. As much as I enjoyed trying to partake in the culture, (and besides, it was a bit fun-its almost like playing with your food, which like any kid I was forbidden by their mothers from doing) I never quite mastered it and typically just ended up making a mess. While the eating styles may vary from region to region or family to family, nearly all families use a large serving dish that everyone eats out of simultaneously. This may be my favorite aspect of Moroccan eating-the perfect harmony with which a community-family, friends, or both-conducts an essential process. Using bread (I’ve never ever seen a meal without the delicious, round loaves of bread), you grab vegetables and meat from the small area of the serving dish in front of you. One friend even described the meal as living in a neighborhood: each person has their own lot of land and doesn’t bother their next door neighbor.
I think this style of eating indicates a lot about the culture. Perhaps most importantly is that the concept of community is still highly valued. A whole family might crowd around a single tajine (conical dish in which meat and vegetables are cooked) to eat. Vegetables are a staple in every dish which confirms that they are cheap and easy to buy thanks to an abundance of local markets and farms. While Morocco has several large, modernized cities, like Rabat, it still retains some distinct characteristics such as a strong agricultural sector comprised of many small, independent farmers. I even had the amazing opportunity to go with my program to a local organic farm to both learn about and take part in its daily operations, which include milking cows and baking bread. God willing, Morocco will always retain the strong sense of community that is evident in an activity as simple as eating.