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Food Matters

Some of you are wondering, no doubt, about the food situation here in Morocco.

You can be sure of two things:

1) It is nothing like American cuisine
2) It is nonetheless delicious

I've posted about food before, but now that I've been living here for two months (and eating with Moroccan families), I can update you on the chow-down sitchiashun.

The first thing a newcomer will notice at the Moroccan dinner table is that the times are quite different. Moroccans have breakfast, of course, when they wake up, but lunch is typically served later than noon - maybe 2:00 or 3:00. At 7:00 or 8:00, a mini-meal called kaskrout is served, typically consisting of sweets, bread and jam, tea, and occasionally a treat like mlwi or bgrir, things I will describe later. True dinner is served very late, sometimes 10:00 or even as late as 11:30.

Once the meal times are adjusted for, the visitor will next notice the preponderance of bread. Moroccans treat bread reverently, as they believe it is a gift from God. They have it at virtually every meal, and besides being consumed with jam and butter or dipped in olive oil at kaskrout and breakfast, it is also the primary utensil for scooping up the main dish, whether it be beans, lentils, rice, a tajine, or even salads. The upshot of all this is that for an American not used to so many Carbohydrates, the body is shocked by the amount of bread consumed.

Mind you, the bread here is absolutely delicious. My host mother makes her own bread, many loaves at a time, and her fresh-baked bread is some of the most delicious I've ever tried. I've even grown accustomed to the quantity. It is normal for me to eat an entire mini-loaf in one sitting and feel totally satisfied.

In my house, tajines are common, which is perfectly fine with me, as my mother's tajines are killer. Think onion medallions, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, olives, and lemon all cooked in a thick sauce. Scoop it up with some warm home-made bread - simply delicious. Aside from the main dish, we typically have smaller dishes with mixed salads, some consisting of finely chopped mixed veggies with a salt and vinegar dressing, and some with a mix of cooked veggies - usually tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant with plenty of spices. Olives also show up at meals on their own little dish. All in all, mealtimes are exciting times for my palate.

Aside from little utensils for the various salads, there is typically no silverware for the main dish. The notable exception would be couscous, by far my favorite dish and also the one most difficult to consume sans silverware. For all of the talk about couscous being "Morocco's national dish," it isn't cooked very often. Rather it is considered a treat, usually to be eaten on Fridays for lunch, after mosque.

What about drinks? At the dinner table, you will find a bottle of water which is poured into and sipped from a communal cup. At meals like kaskrout or breakfast, the drink is either tea or coffee and milk (a lot of milk and a little bit of coffee, by American standards). Both drinks are sweetened a lot, something that really threw my body off for the first several weeks in country. I found a French press in a shop around the corner and decided it would be a worthy investment, so for breakfast I've been preparing my own personal stash of black, unsweetened coffee.

After the meal is over, cleanup begins. Personal plates aren't the norm here like they are in the U.S., so the table top is treated as a surface for bread or discarding olive pits, seeds, or bones of any kind. At the end of the meal, all of the food is wiped off of the table, but any pieces of bread are picked out separately, because it is a sacred thing and should not be thrown away with the other trash.

One last thing: all meals begin with the phrase "bismillah," one of a plethora of Arabic "God phrases" which are peppered through day-to-day speech liberally. Bismillah means "In the name of God," and besides being used to begin meals, is uttered when one starts off with any task: getting into an automobile, starting a project, stepping through the doorway of a house, exchanging money for merchandise at the local hanut - you name it.

Now, some highlights of Moroccan cuisine:

mlwi - Mlwi is one of the many kinds of Moroccan bread. It is flat like a pancake, has many layers, and is fried so that the outside layer is somewhat crispy and the inside is delicious and chewy. They can be found at many Hanuts scattered throughout my neighborhood (and anywhere you go, really).

bgrir - This is kind of like a pancake with little holes that wasn't turned over. One side is kind of like a pancake and the other has a catastrophic geography, positively covered in ridges and bumps. Moroccans might drizzle some oil and honey over the top (which tends to leak through the holes and all over my hands) or a little butter or mild cheese (ricotta, possibly?). It is really good.

atay lwiza - This is a sweet tea made with an herb called verbena. When I order tea, I tend to order this one. With a little bit of sugar, it reminds me vaguely of the taste of fruit loops, and Moroccans say the herb has many health benefits. Just so you know, there are three main types of tea here: all are made very sweet, and all have a different taste. Besides lwiza, Moroccans also drink their tea brewed with what we call mint leaves in the U.S. and a third variety brewed with the leaves of absinthe (wormwood), which makes for a very bitter-sweet tea.

tajines - I mentioned the tajines my mother has made above. All of the tajines I've tried here (and I mean ever single one) have been phenomenally delicious. They can be cooked with beef, chicken, goat, or no meat, with onions, sweet fruits, hot peppers, tomatoes, potatoes - everything. The only common factor is that all tajines are prepared in a conical dish and the ingredients are cooked down so that there is a rich sauce in the dish, which I eagerly mop up with my bread.

maqoda - So here is how it works. First, you mash up a bunch of potatoes and add several things - garlic, cilantro, parsley, and many spices - hot pepper, saffron, salt, cumin. Mix it all together and form cookie-sized medallions. Coat the medallions in a batter and fry them in olive oil until the outside is browned and the inside is gooey potato goodness. In a separate pan, stew some tomatoes along with several spices. Once all is prepared, cut open a mini-loaf of bread and stuff it with the medallions, along with a healthy dose of the tomato sauce. It makes a super-delicious sandwich. Seriously yummy.

harira - I've mentioned this soup before. It is loaded with flavor, and my family has made it several times, always for dinner. I love the soups here, because they are so much more flavorful than the soups in the United States. Cooks here know how to use their spices.

One added benefit to the cooking here is that I live literally right on the edge of the major souq for my town, so right outside my house are cart upon cart upon cart loaded with every conceivable fruit and vegetable, along with fish and red meat. Every morning, live chickens are delivered to the store right around the corner. Everything is fresh.

That's it for now. I'm going to get some food.
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