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Food, Food, Henna, Food, Tea, Food

MOROCCO | Sunday, 22 June 2014 | Views [546]

I've now been in Morocco long enough that I'm forming definite preferences about food beyond “I like this, I don't like that.” One of these preferences is for their fried bread (I believe it's called “rif”) over the more bread-rolly bread. So I was rather happy to be served that for breakfast. (This is the bread I had the first day, which is spread with cheese and maybe other things, rolled up, and eaten.)

Another, more acquired taste, is for olives on the bread. After I'd been here a few days, they started bringing out black olives and encouraging me to eat them. These olives were very strong, and pretty salty, and initially I would only take a few, carefully placing them so that when I rolled it up, the last bite would be olive-free. Then I found myself missing the taste of the olives and realized I was no longer eating them merely to be polite.

I still haven't quite gotten the hang of opening the cheese. I can usually fake my way through it well enough. But I remember that when my host mother was showing me how to open it, she used two red tabs. Although I can see the second red tab, I have no idea how that's applicable. But I haven't ended up with the foil wrapper on my bread since the third day, so I'm making some progress.

After breakfast, I waited while my host parents found a good back to put the djebella and food for the program in. (Two days earlier I'd given them a letter from IES, written in Arabic, saying as much. Presumably. Natasha: “It feels like I'm delivering a secret message, because I keep giving them these envelopes with letters that I can't read inside.) And then I went to school.

Lunch was the spicy meatball-like dish that I'd had the first day, an extremely overripe banana, a “why is fruit here so much sweeter?” apple, and pistachio yogurt. I'm probably going to miss the pistachio yogurt, if not the fruit, since I tend to like my fruit on the rawer side.

We'd been told that we would walk together to the house in the Mdina that the cooking lesson would be in. It was in the house of one of the families that worked with IES, but not any of our host families. They probably have a lot of those, given last semester there had been 24 students who needed host families. So after class ended, we went outside and hailed down taxis.

We got 3 different taxis, and all ended up in a slightly different spot. I ended up in the taxi with 3 students, one driver, and no adults. So when we arrived (we stopped at the Sidi Fata meeting point) we paid the driver, got out, and waited for someone else to show up.

Eventually, Fatima did, and we followed her. We met up with Nathan and Mahjid, and a bit later Erika, Cynthia, and Nisrine, and then we walked to the house. It was beautiful, like all houses in Morocco I've seen the inside of.

We went into a room to change into the djebella that our host parents had given us, then came back out and sat down on the coach, waiting for something to start. And it did.

Nisrine told us that she would teach us how to make a chicken tajine. (Tajine is the equivalent of plate, only more bowl-like. The word can refer to either the physical dish, or the dish and the food in it. Just like plate.)

Natasha said that Nisrine was just like Rachel Ray. “I like Rachel Ray,” Nisrine said, “but when she cooks, she only mixes the ingredients together, and then there's a complete dish.”

 Moroccan Rachel Ray

Nisrine added vegetable oil, olive oil, and onions, stirred, then put in the chicken. The chicken had been rubbed with lemon juice, salt, and ginger, then kept in the fridge for at least two hours. As it was cooking, she added some more salt and ginger. Then black pepper and saffron (cubes, which meant they also had some salt) and ground garlic. She mixed everything well, and it turned a yellow color from the saffron.

Yellow. I'm sorry, Saffron

I've known about saffron from an academic perspective, and had it in a few dishes before. But I don't think I had the same appreciation for saffron before coming to Morocco. It feels like much more real here.

Then she added parsley and cilantro, and tomatoes that were somewhere between being minced and mashed. Finally, she added a bit of water, covered it, and took it away to the kitchen so it could cook for 50 minutes.

That was the salty side. The chicken tajine was supposed to be sweet and salty. So she took out another pan and added some water. Then she added dried apricots and raisins, and two scoops of cinnamon. Sugar here comes in rectangular prisms that range from “the siI'd prefer eating at home, but I'm flexible if someone else would preferze of two sugar cubes” to “the size of a lot of sugar cubes.” Nisrine added three of the “size of a lot of sugar cubes,” and then explained that each of those was equivalent to one tablespoon. More water, and then it was supposed to cook until it turned thick and the fruits became somewhat puffy. Basically, cook until it became a syrup. That pot went away to the kitchen as well.

While the food was cooking, Nisrine explained a bit about henna, and then we had it done.

The history of henna has two purposes. First of all, it represents the “best good luck you can wish for anyone.” It also served as a substitute for jewelry, because it was a good deal less expensive. A common time that henna is applied is during weddings.

On the table were the adornments of different boxes and containers for weddings. They were glittery and gold, and included candlesticks, a box for all of the jewelry the groom is going to give to the bride, an inverted cup that should be filled with sugar (of course) to represent the sweetness in their lives, an egg stand for fertility, a henna bowl, an inverted box for milk to show the purity of their love, and a tissue box cover.

 Don't you want to marry a Morrocan now?

Additionally, the TV in the background was playing footage from a Moroccan wedding. It seemed like a hint. It might have been a better one if the wedding looked like a happy one. Until we saw the bride, we were trying to theorize what it was that had so many people look bored, so many children look angry, and only a handful of people dancing and smiling. Then we saw the bride in one of her many beautiful dresses (they change 7 times during the wedding) and the groom looking out of place and underdressed beside her, and we figured it out.

While the woman hennaed Erika, the rest of us girls discussed whether that kind of ceremony would be nice or not. On the one hand, it was a bit excessive and it was clear from the video that the long ceremony bored the guests, on the other... those were really pretty dresses. (Megan: “I'm not going to lie. That sounds like a wonderful day, just needing to change into gorgeous dresses and sit on a coach.” Me: “And hopefully marry the man you love.” Megan: “Eh.” [She did not mean it in the Darija way.])

Then it was my turn. I opted to have my right hand hennaed (everyone else chose their left) and tried to keep that hand as still as possible while using my left hand to take pictures. The woman used syringe to apply the henna, which sounds a lot worse than it was. (She used the syringe to draw the design, hovering it a bit above the skin.)

 Henna with a syringe: not as painful as it sounds

Erika and I got geometric designs. Everyone else (female) got more floral ones. The floral ones looked prettier while the henna was drying (she sprinkled them with glitter. Geometry got green and gold, flowers got green and red, which made them look a bit like real flowers) but ultimately the geometric design probably suits me better. Nathan got a scorpion, and he got it on his upper arm. Which really wasn't fair, since he had the use of both of his hands and none of the rest of us did.

After the henna was applied, we needed to keep our hands as still as possible, and especially not brushing against anything. (I did end up brushing my hand against my notebook, rubbing some of the henna off. So far it has made no difference to that part of the hand, but a huge difference to the notebook.) Which made it especially cruel that only then did Nisrine bring out the food that our host family had brought.

Some of my favorite foods:

- A cylindrical crabless crab rangoon. Also less fried, just wrapped in a thin dough. The cheese inside tasted similar, though.

- Djerre(?)siah (I was writing what I heard with my left hand. The name is pretty much a guess.) which was fried or boiled flour with honey and sesame. I'd seen it served in streets in Rabat and Fes, but this was the first time I'd had some.

- The chocolate/banana cake Natasha had brought. Natasha is a huge fan of anything banana flavored, though she doesn't like the texture. When her mother had been preparing the cake, she'd described it to Natasha, though the only word she'd caught was “chocolate.” That was enough for her. Nathan tried it first. “I think this has banana in it.” Natasha's face lit up, and she asked for some. Even without being as fond of banana flavoring as her, it was still very good.

We also learned how to make traditional Moroccan tea. The first dinner we'd had in Morocco, when they'd brought out tea, Nisrine had said it was made “the Moroccan way,” but when I'd asked what the Moroccan way was, she'd just smiled and said “you'll find out at our cooking lesson.” So I'd been looking forward to this part for almost two weeks.

The long-awaited tea lesson

To begin, you pour one cup (cups, or glasses, in this, and all future cases, means a Moroccan tea cup. They're cute and small, which is about all you need to know about them) of boiled water into the tea kettle. Then you add one spoonfull of tea leaves and pour that cup of water back out.

Now pour another glass of boiled water into the tea pot. Keep in in for several minutes, moving the pot around in circles, etc. This is to make sure that the leaves are clean inside as well. Pour this cup back out. This is the “dirty tea.” You only serve it to guests you really don't like. However, the “clean tea” (the first cup of water you poured out) can be poured back into the pot.

Now you add mint (a lot) and sugar (even more. About 3 tablespoons, or the equivalent amount of cubes.) Pour the hot water back over the leaves, and keep it on medium heat until the tea starts to boil. Then you pour one cup out, then back into the pot to mix it. Now you're ready to pour tea for the guests you like.

For the guests you really like, you should pour the tea from a higher distance. I'd noticed Saida doing that before without really understanding why. She would begin pouring a normal distance from the cup, than she would lift the pot higher and higher. It's to show esteem to the guests you're serving.

Apparently Nisrine doesn't want to show us that much esteem, because she barely lifted the tea pot, complaining “it's heavy.” (Having never been trusted to handle one of these tea pots, I wouldn't know.)

Once we had eaten and drunk some tea, we went to take a group picture. From there, we were forced into dancing. The woman who was leading us in dancing hadn't been hennaed, which gave her a significant advantage in terms of doing things like clapping and bending her fingers.

We danced until the food arrived, like we had the first night. Somehow, I had less energy than I'd had the first night. My hand was kind of numb by that point from holding it in similar positions for hours, and anytime I bent my fingers I could feel the henna cracking. Finally, the dancing was done and we could eat.

The food was brought out, chicken spread with sauce and even topped by walnuts, which we'd never seen added. Nisrine: the Moroccan Rachel Ray.

The chicken was good. Sweet, which was to be expected. I also learned that I still don't like apricots, or at least not dried ones. The raisins were good, though. As was the chicken, though I had to eat left-handed due to my right hand having henna and glitter over it. Then we went to the bathroom to pick it off over a sink (but not wash it,) thanked our host, photographer, henna-person, and dance-leader, and went back to our host homes to drop stuff off with our newly-hennaed hands.

After I could actually move it again Yeah, I have no idea what the back of my hand looks like right now.


When I came back after preparing the debate, my host mother asked me if I wanted tea. She also noticed that my laundry needed doing. While I was gathering that in a bag, she saw the stuffed animal that I'd brought with me and brought it out for tea too. (Just to clarify, my dirty laundry went somewhere different and did not join us for tea.) 

Two of Abir's cousins were there. One of them spoke really good English, one of them didn't. It gave me a chance to practice my Arabic for “what's your name?”

There was a bit of Arabic I didn't understand revolving around my stuffed animal, and then the room divided into two words. Several people were saying one word forcefully and with conviction, and, with just as much conviction the other group was saying the other word. I could tell they were arguing about what my stuffed animal was.

Finally, the English-speaking cousin explained they were arguing about whether it's a bear or a monkey. Monkey? “It's a bear,” I said, and he repeated that in Arabic. Either that or he said “it's a monkey” in Arabic and presumed no one would correct him on that.

 Definitely a bear

The bread for tea was different than what I'd had before. It was glazed and less substantial than most of the other breads I'd had. Light and,not quite sweet, but not really anything else either. The flavor of the cheese came through more strongly than usual.

After tea was over I retreated in my room to prepare my politics presentation tomorrow, some figures for the debate, and still squeeze in the reading for literature class. I only came out for dinner.

Yes, after all of that I was still served dinner. It was another chicken dish, this time slightly spicy. (I've heard it explained that, as you go farther north in Morocco, food gets sweeter. As you go farther south, it gets spicier. In Rabat, you can often find both. That was certainly true.)

When I was done with that (“Shbett, Shbett,”) she brought out watermelon. Eh, that was almost a substitute for water. I had several slices. Then I said I was full of that too, and she brought out cherries. I had a few, and then stopped. But my host mother kept taking cherries and handing them to me.

Saying “I'm so full I couldn't possibly eat this piece of fruit smaller than my thumb” sounded silly, and besides which I don't know that full phrase in Darija, so I accepted it each time she offered it to me.

This was, of course, my fifth meal of the day. How much food does one girl need? In Morocco, a lot, apparently. But at least now I theoretically know how to prepare food too.

Tags: bear, food, henna, tea

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