When I first thought about writing about the food in Morocco, I was overwhelmed by all that this seemingly small topic encompasses. If I really wanted to explain all the awesome dishes I’ve had or all the cultural nuances that come with everything that involves food, I’d be here for about a week writing a book. However, I’ll try to consolidate it to a length that won’t leave you sitting here reading it too long. Hopefully, by the end, your mouth will be watering, just as mine is, as I sit here and smell dinner being cooked. Tonight, my host mom is making chicken tagine. With, I might add, a rooster that only a few days ago was crowing and running around the kitchen as my roommate Mary and I were trying to play with it. Our host sister brought it back from her trip to the countryside, along with some super fresh butter and eggs. I was really sad when I soon realized that this chicken was not going to be a pet to chase around the house, but a meal. People have a much different relation to food here. In America, we are so far removed from where our food comes from, but here there is no mystery. Every year, families slaughter lambs for a holiday whose name means Feast of the Sacrifice, so I guess it’s not that weird to have a chicken go from clucking one minute to on your plate the next right in your home.
We were shown how to prepare this delicious tagine, so named for the vessel it is cooked in. This giant clay base and conical lid sort of act as a pressure cooker, with all the ingredients stewing inside. The first thing to do is put some olive oil in the base of the tagine until it starts to bubble. Then, the chicken pieces go in. After they have been slightly cooked, in go the spices: salt, pepper, ginger, cumin, and turmeric. After that, add chopped onions, parsley, and cilantro, then a huge bowl of purple and green olives with a preserved lemon. Then only a little water is needed to steam everything up and the cone lid is placed on top. This then cooks for anywhere from half an hour to an hour, or until the chicken is actually coming off the bone. When this is ready, the smell is maddeningly delicious. The food I have had at home is a hundred times better than anything I’ve gotten at a restaurant, although there are still some quite good places to eat out here.
Tagines are always served on a communal platter, eaten with bread. Our host dad says that the forks are your fingers. At first, I was kind of weirded out that everyone ate with their hands, but now it just seems natural. The protocol with the bread is to first soak up some of the sauce in the dish, then using bread as one side of the clamp and your thumb as the other, pick up the desired piece of food. I have come to enjoy eating like this, but using bread as my utensil is sometimes hard because it seems like I never stop eating bread. All day. Breakfast is normally a baguette with some spread, like cheese or jam. Lunch often includes a sandwich or a big square of reif, which is a flat, flaky bread that women make on flat grills on the street. Tea time, which is at about 7pm in our house, always includes little round loaves of bread or baguettes, and sometimes these little circles of semolina bread that are kind of the consistency of dense cornbread, or maybe some kind of little cake. Then at around 9pm, we have dinner, and you already know the story there. In summary, bread is ubiquitous and inescapable. In my Contemporary Moroccan Culture class, our professor told us that Morocco, with a population of about 32 million people, eats four times more bread than the United States, with a population almost ten times bigger! No wonder I feel like I’m drowning in bread.
A good lens to understand Moroccan culture through is with couscous. It is traditionally served on Fridays for lunch, with the whole family coming home to eat it. This says a lot about the huge importance of family and spending time together here. Each individual ball (one might call it a single cous) is made by hand, pressing the flour mixture through mesh and then rolling the little pieces around in a towel to break them up. My favorite couscous is served with a heaping mountain of vegetables in the middle, which often conceal a piece of meat underneath.
The legend goes that couscous became a Friday staple when husbands came back from the mosque for the midday prayer, and they might take many friends home with them. The wife knew that couscous could feed as few as two and as many as a whole table full of people, so it was a safe dish to make. Couscous can be eaten with hands, but the process of making a stable mass of it to eat is quite complicated, so we just use spoons. You have to stay on your side of the platter, digging out a trench that leads from your edge of the plate to the center.
Couscous is said to be like a neighborhood. You stay in your area and try not to disturb your neighbors, even though they may have something on their side that you really want. Although, they might scoot a little piece of squash over your way if you’re really nice to them. When I first heard this, I thought it was so fitting. Everyone shares what’s available in the community, but you only take what won’t inconvenience others. I wish all food had a story and moral behind it like this. I know when I go back to the US, I will sorely miss having food like this every day, but I will definitely try my best to replicate it, and maybe in doing so I can pass on some of the Moroccan life lessons that come with it.