Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Edible treasures

It is now the night of January 18th, and I am sitting on the bed in my petit chamber. Actually it’s bigger than the cold cell I rent (with the help of my parents of course) in Allston, so I will make sure to enjoy these quarters while I am here. I have barely been in the country for a week, so it is hard to make accurate generalizations and descriptions of life in Morocco. I will instead share with you some of my experiences so far, though you must keep in mind my location and perspective (the American 20-something male, somewhat educated, lens of Rabat that is).

Meals are some of my favorite times of the day, and I have a feeling I will return in May with a few extra pounds on my frame. However, all of the walking I will be doing will help combat the rich and delicious fare. I have not had a meal I disliked, and I have greatly enjoyed most of them so far. I will describe a few of the highlights:

-Tagine (perhaps tajine? I have not seen it spelled, and I cannot read Arabic yet): the word describes the conical ceramic ware used to cook the dish of the same name. Because there are so many kinds (you can put anything inside) it seems to describe the vessel more than the food inside it. The first night at a restaurant we had a chicken and green olive tagine with preserved lemon, very tasty and I believe what my dear mommy was imitating at my going-away party (She came pretty close!). Preserved lemons are tangy, salty, and oh so interesting, mmm one of my favorite things so far. My host mother, whose name is Farida, has also served a beef and celery (I think it was celery, comment on dit celery en francais?) tagine and a garlicky chicken and potato tagine. The latter was very tasty, and my fingers are still tinted yellow.

-The Method: At the center last week for orientation we the Americans were well fed and watered, pampered by the jovial cook Ibrahim, and we ate almost entirely western-style with plates and silverware. The exception was our last dinner, on Saturday night, when we ate Bastille with our hands. We were told during orientation that most Moroccans eat with their hands, and so far I have found that true. But it’s not only the hands that are used, and there is an important style that I am still trying to master. A triumvirate (more coordinated than the Romans) of the right thumb, forefinger, and middle fingers are used to escort food from the communal dish to one’s mouth. Though one’s hands are washed, it is important that the fingers don’t fully enter one’s mouth, because those fingers will soon be back in the dish.

The triumvirate can function on its own, but it is more often than not accompanied by Hobbs, the Darija word for bread. It comes in thick disks of varying diameters, and the texture and taste is pretty close to French bread (baguettes are also widely available). The bread is torn into small pieces, and those are used to scoop up a bite of food. Mothers are the bread-keepers and distributors, and the bread is very freely given (especially to guests). It can be tricky to keep the morsels on the bread, but I am sure my skills will improve. Its fun to eat with your hands.

Also a quick word on the communal dish. Like in others parts of Africa I have experienced (and probably many other parts of the world), imaginary zones known by all are ascribed to the dish based on the number of people at the table. One only takes from the zone in front of them, for it is improper to cross into another person’s zone. The choicest morsels do however seem to find their way into my zone when I am not looking. I guess it pays to be a guest.

-Couscous: We were served couscous once at the center for lunch, and it was toute seule, accompanied by a thin gravy. I ladled some of the sauce and stuff from other dishes onto it, but I am not sure about the different ways it is prepared and served. I will report back. It seems like it is not a normal accompaniment to tagine, but I could be wrong.

-Bastille: Ibrahim made this for our last dinner at the center, somewhat of a special occasion. A big pastry that combines layers of a chunky and sweet almond paste on top of scrambled egg (like what you might find in a quiche) resting on a bed of shredded savory chicken. He showed us how to attack it with a stab of the triumvirate, and hilarity ensued as we tried to emulate him. The dish comes from the country’s Analusian heritage, hence the name. Ibrahim also tried to put more sugar on top, but I found the almond layer quite sweet enough. It is definitely a dish to try, though he said it is usually reserved for special occasions.

-Soups: I have tried two so far, and both were quite excellent. Haveva or Halela, I’m not exactly sure how it is said or spelled, I got with my family at a little restaurant near our house. It is tomato-based as far as I can tell, with little chunks of many vegetables. I could only recognize a few, but the chickpeas stood out loud and clear. I am also told it usually has lentils, but I did not find them in my bowl. Farida says that her version is better, but I will have to take her word until I am able to put it to the test. I am told haveva is a staple during Ramadan.

Farida prepared Sob’a (perhaps Sop’ba?) for us, a soup with many vegetables including carrots, green beans, skinny green zucchinis, onion, garlic, parsley, and probably a host of others. It is then pureed or blended to a smooth brothy texture, and it can be drunk or spooned depending on your preference. It was salty and tasty, very good to dip bread in.

-Fruit: By fruit I mean citrus fruits, and by that I mean oranges. So good, the best oranges I have ever tasted. And I don’t think I am just saying that because I am putting a spin on everything I eat. Even if I hated it here (which I don’t!) I would stay for the oranges and the orange juice. We got OJ with our ‘continental’ breakfast (hot beverage, cold beverage, croissant) every morning at the hotel, and it was oh so tasty. I was even forced to drink 2 glasses a couple of mornings, woe is me. I don’t think it will be a regular fixture at my house, but no matter, there are plenty of juice stands around where I can get a glass for 4 or 5 dirhams (7-8 dirhams per dollar).

Actually there are plenty of other fruits here, and they are probably all just as good as the oranges. I may be somewhat biased. After every meal fruit is served, a course that I always have room for (my dessert stomach has become my fruit stomach). You have to use a knife to help peel your orange, and most other fruit (apples, pears, etc.) are peeled too. I even tried a banana. It was ok, maybe better than the ones we get in the US, but I don’t think I have been converted just yet. Same story with pears.


  1. Yay, a blog at last! How I missed the first one is a mystery (well, lack of email might explain it), but I'm glad to have gotten here. Lovely descriptions, John David. I'll print them out and mail to Grandma Mac, too.

  2. long form...nice. remember that papa doesn't have facebook though. looks like a sweet blog. i will be reading and referring people to it

  3. Comment (on facebook) from Martha McManamy:
    John David,
    I will read your Musings with interest (I like the alliteration!) Not least because I'm hoping to take a trip to Morocco with the fam next fall. A quick thought on the Sob'a - could the word have been an Arabic translation of sopa, the Spanish word for soup? It sounds like a ratatouille a bit.
    Yours culinarily,
    Martha McManamy

  4. John David, this is wonderful. I can't wait to read more about your experiences there. Thank you for sharing.

    Aunt Barbie