Eat, pray, love and... eat!
There is a word in Moroccan Arabic for “hospitality,” but it might as well be “food.”
On our first day in the country, the Peace Corps Morocco medical team broke the bad news to us Volunteers: on average, they see a 15-pound weight gain over the course of 27 months in country. But just in females, of course. Our reaction was denial. Who has ever heard of a Peace Corps Volunteer gaining weight?
Then we met our host families. Denial was no longer an option. On a daily basis, there were fresh fruit juices, savory and sweet tajines — meats, vegetables, and spices named for the terra-cotta dishes in which they are slow-roasted — and hot couscous on Fridays. Holidays saw sweet chebekiya, or fried dough soaked in rose oil and honey, rich white harira, a porridge of sorts, and the most delicious kebab sandwiches that can only be described as grilled chunks of meat wrapped in fat. Always served with a glass of piping hot mint tea, I was assured that this sugary drink would negate any of the fat that I had just consumed.
I eagerly anticipated rafisa, my new comfort food, which consists of layers of fried bread soaked in lentils and topped with chicken. My newly-acquired Marrekchia status — a woman from Marrakech — meant that I was to learn how to cook a tangia, another dish of meat, oil and spices named for its vessel. This one, however, is packed and then set in the embers of the local public baths, where it is cooked slowly over the course of five hours. Most of the dishes are served with freshly-baked flatbread, a staple that every Moroccan kitchen claims to have perfected.
There were also stomachs, brains, intestines, cows’ feet, liver, eyeballs, head and tongue... never have I eaten so much non-mysterious meat in my life (brains and feet are pretty true to their assumed form). Nothing causes more of a double-take than walking into a Moroccan home, complimenting them on whatever smells so good and having someone proudly reply, “We’re cooking cow’s udder! Will you stay for dinner?”
The ingredients for these dishes are all fresh and as local as you can get — usually they’re grown by a neighbor who owns a farm on the outside of town. Walking around any souk, or local market, will fill your arms with free samples of the most tangy-sweet tangerines you’ve ever tasted and a handful of dates to welcome you into the country (no matter if you’ve been there for a day or a year). Navigating through the mountains of fresh spices, fried doughnuts and animals running around easily makes shopping in Morocco one of the most sensory-overloading experiences one can have.
The only disadvantage to living in a culture that equates food with hospitality is the fact that humans only have one stomach. It is borderline offensive to turn down a meal or to not eat an enormous portion. A simple “I’m not hungry” or “I just ate” is met with “You don’t like the food, do you…” or a concerned “Are you sick?? Here, drink this…” Peace Corps Volunteers learn to suck it up — literally — and show their appreciation in the most effective way possible: by gaining 15 (or more) pounds.
Now that I’m back in America desperately trying to recreate my favorite Moroccan dishes from neatly-packaged chicken breasts and abnormally large eggplants, I’ve realized that Moroccan food is, in essence, site-specific: it needs to be prepared and consumed in a culture that values taking time to make and enjoy it. What good is a three-course meal without a mandated two-to-three-hour break during which I can savor it and take a nap afterwards? And what about the refusal to begin meetings or start classes until everyone has finished their breakfast? We all know T. S. Eliot’s line about measuring out a life with coffee spoons, but what about cups of coffee — made with whole milk, instant coffee powder and half of the sugar jar? In Morocco, I could quantify my time socializing by how many coffees I had consumed in a day. Or by how many kaskrots (snacks) I had enjoyed. Or by how many Turkish soap operas I got to watch — while enjoying little cakes and other biscuit. Or by which pairs of pants no longer fit properly.
Morocco, others may not be able to see how you nurtured my soul, but there is absolutely no question about how you nourished my body.