We GOTTA Talk About the Food
(Beef with dates and walnuts)
The excitement I felt eating Moroccan food for the first time blew my American mind. Sure, I come from a family of foodies, but there's only but so much we have access to in America where authentic cuisine and fresh food is not always our strong point. There is a lot to discuss when it comes to my food experience in Morocco, guys. Let's get into it!
Refuse it or accept it?
You know when you go to your aunt's house and she asks if you're hungry? And even if you refuse the food she offers, she'll rifle through the freezer to find something you may want to eat? And if you still refuse, there can be an air of disappointment or discomfort or tension lingering around the room?
Well, that's how I felt in Morocco.
I feel as though the gesture of offering someone food is essentially offering to nourish someone's body, one of the purest and oldest ways of saying "thank you". That said, when someone offered me food, I felt obliged to take it out of respect and appreciation. Even without my hippie-dippy feelings about gifting food, though, I often accepted what was offered to me out of curiosity, hunger, and the desire to experience as much of the culture as possible. Even if I was given food I wasn't sure I wanted, I accepted it just to try it, and if I tried it and didn't like it, that was okay! Remember, lots of people simply don't like certain foods, so don't feel bad if you don't like the taste of something. Spitting out squash because you dislike it is completely different than refusing a plate because you simply aren't interested in tying it.
If you've got to refuse food because of diet restrictions—or allergies, or you're feeling sick, or maybe simply aren't hungry—just tell your hosts. Though they may be strangers, they are still people who understand. I know this all sounds like common sense, but I really had to remind myself not to panic about things like that.
(Vegetable tajine: Olives, potatoes, zucchini, and carrots over couscous)
But if I eat that I'm going to get sick!
I came into the country fully prepared to try whatever food someone was willing to offer me. After all, eating is one of the best ways to experience another culture! Yes, I was very, very paranoid that I would eat something great, get terribly sick, and be forced to live out the remainder of the trip in a very nice, but very boring hotel room. I thought I'd be restricted to eating dry bread and French crackers for the rest of my adventure.
The truth, though, is that I didn't get sick at all from the food. I mean, I had a slight allergic reaction that one time, but otherwise I was good to go!
The best rule for not getting sick is not to consume the tap water. That includes glasses of water, ice cubes, and food that may have been rinsed in water (like apples with the skin still on them). Anything cooked is totally fine to eat and every dish I encountered in Morocco was cooked, even the salads (sounds weird, actually isn't). If you stick to that, you'll be golden. And don't worry, bottled water is plentiful and inexpensive.
However . . .
The food is so good it might make your stomach hurt.
Your body may spend some time adapting to the food in a new environment. It has different bacteria, it was grown in different soil, it ate different fodder . . . in short, the food is just different. It doesn't mean the food is going to make you sick, it just means that your body might go through an adjustment period, which can physically manifest itself in different ways. It all depends on where you're coming from, what you're used to eating, and what you're eating in the new country.
(Food and fruit carts are everywhere. This is in Rabat.)
A few people on the trip had a slight issue with the meat, which was mostly lamb, beef, and chicken. The problems they had with the meat wasn't due to it being spoiled or under-cooked or low quality; their problems came from it being high quality. It was fresh and all natural, whereas the American meats they were used to eating was often over-processed and packed with antibiotics, steroids, or preservatives. Plus, American animals are stressed out; those huge, crowded farms do not make for a happy chickens and there's something about eating a stressed animal that doesn't seem healthy.
In Morocco, however, mega-farms aren't really a thing. The chickens, the cows, the lambs, the eggs, the food all comes from small farms that set up shop in the market. Sure, there are still grocery stores where you can buy packaged meat, but they aren't around every corner like they are in America.
So, what was my point? If you feel a little sick for a few days, it's probably not because you ate something bad, but because you ate something good.
So what did you eat and where did you eat it?
That's the important question, right?
By May 2017 I had been a pescatarian for three years, which meant that meant that for three years I had a slightly difficult time finding food I could eat. Even with the miles of grocery stores and fast food joints America has to offer, I had to face the fact that we're a country of dollar menu carnivores whereas I was a college student with little time to cook, $20 bucks in my purse, and a choice to make between the $4 bag of salad or the $5 pack of wild caught frozen fish sticks.
In Morocco, however, there was always something I could eat. Some combination of fish, fruits, vegetables and grains came with every meal and was always fresh.
Traditional dinners were my favorite meal. They were always composed of at least three courses, essentially an appetizer, an entrée, and then dessert/tea time. The first course was either cooked salad or an array of cooked vegetables, while the entrée was typically a bowl of meat and vegetables with couscous. Sometimes they served it in the tajine, the ceramic cones that the food is cooked in. That said, the food is almost always hot as Hades when it reaches your table. I literally had food come to me that was still boiling.
The cooked salad and the vegetable tajine came from Tajine wa Tanjia in Rabat, which was rather inexpensive and had a mix of both locals and tourists eating in the space. They also had live music, which was very exciting to say the least. The other dishes, which were my absolute favorites, are from the Riad Ghita, our "hotel" in Fes. The food was amazing, the space was intimate (and beautiful!), and everyone was kind.
Just . . . Regular Dinner
Not every meal could be authentic Moroccan cuisine. Sometimes it was just school cafeteria food, as was the case with my first meal in Morocco at the Université Internationale de Rabat. Since it was the summer and there were no students around, the meals were . . . lackluster. Though broccoli, coke, and french fries wasn't as mind blowing as what I would later encounter on the trip, I was overjoyed that someone was allowing me the comfort of not being hungry. Plus, every morning they had breakfast ready for us too, which was very nice. Remember, I'm in college; I'm easy to please and eternally grateful.
Also in Rabat was this restaurant:
At El-Bahia Cafe Restaurant I had a really good fish skewer. The sides were give or take, but the fish was excellent. A perk of having a city by the coast.
There was also 2Ciels Boutique Hotel in Marrakesh which had a restaurant on the bottom floor with very fresh food. It was a little expensive (it's attached to a five star hotel after all), but the food was good and the atmosphere could be both calm and energetic depending on the night.
(The photo may not be the most descriptive, but that's a tray with their seafood options for the evening. I told you it was fresh).
Our group rarely ate lunch; we were typically too busy exploring or sitting in our van on the highway during lunch hours. The one time we did eat a full lunch, though, was when we were hosted by the Handicraft Room in Meknes (outside of Fes). That lunch? That lunch was AMAZING.
I felt like a princess, like visiting nobility. An honored guest whose presence was so much appreciated that they sought to thank her by serving only the freshest of local delicacies, plucked from the fruit trees by angels and prepared with care by the royal chef.
That's how satisfying that lunch was, you guys.
The first course had a few light, but hearty foods like boiled eggs, rice, and some kind of tuna salad. That was great, but it was nothing compared to the variety of seemingly perfect fruit piled up on a shiny silver tray. It is truly a uniquely American experience to eat fruit that wasn't shipped over thousands of miles or genetically modified in a creepy, unnecessary way. I ate the best pineapple of my life in Morocco.
One Moroccan fruit even usurped the coveted title of "Nia's Favorite " from the reigning champ. Yes, the mystery fruit known as the medal kicked American apples to mere second place after a 15 year winning streak.
I call it a mystery fruit because I simply can't find any evidence on the internet that it exists. You see, when I was given the tiny, pitted citrus, I asked the man what it was called. He said "medal, like the medal you wear around your neck", only it's pronounced "meh-dhal". Yet, no matter how many names, spellings, descriptions, or reverse image searches I plugged into a search engine, I couldn't find evidence that the fruit I ate is the fruit I ate.
I'm sure one day the truth will surface, but until then, I'm just happy to have tried it!
I especially remember thinking about how all of the fruit seemed oddly small. I had never seen a banana or a pineapple the length of my hand. Later it hit me; it wasn't their fruit that was small, it was American fruit that was disturbingly large. Yikes.
No matter how tiny the fruit was, though, it always guaranteed a completely different and arguably more "accurate" taste. Seriously, eating a Moroccan orange just made American oranges taste wrong, like American fruit was the off-brand version of Moroccan fruit.
Moroccan fruit was to PopTarts as American fruit is to Toast-em-PopUps.
But enough about the fruit, right? What was the main course, where was the meat, dammit?!
Well, the main course was beef with dates and walnuts.
Now, do you remember when I said I'm a pescatarian? That means that the only meat I eat is seafood, right? Well, here's my thing: I want to experience as much of the world as possible, even if that means breaking from my usual diet. That said, you had best believe I tasted some of that authentic Moroccan slow cooked beef.
Did I eat an entire piece? God no, that would have made me sick. After all, not only was my body not used to eating meat, but until then I had never purposefully consumed beef. That's right, until May 2017 I had never willingly chosen to eat a cooked cow. Yes, that includes steaks, hamburgers, hot dogs, and whatever that stuff is Taco Bell claims to sell.
Though my first beef experience did not convert me, it was definitely a tasty piece of meat. When it was all gone, our host instructed us to take the rest of our bread and wipe up the leftover meat oils at the bottom of the bowl. It was just like using the rest of a Hawaiian roll to sop up the gravy on your plate on Thanksgiving . . . except it tasted ten times as good and didn't come with any awkward holiday origins.
I'm not really a breakfast person, but that didn't mean the food I was served wasn't GREAT! It was mostly composed of a variety of bread with a variety of spreads (my favorite was the orange marmalade). There was also yogurt, fruit, juices, tea, and once there was even a baked egg served up in the tajine. I sound surprised about the egg because it was the first (and only) time I saw an egg with breakfast during the trip.
I found that Moroccan breakfast shares very little in common with America's idea of breakfast. No cereal and milk, no bacon and eggs, and that was just fine with me. In fact, if American breakfast was more akin to what I had in Morocco, I bet I'd be more inclined to eat before noon.
Dessert and Tea!
The last course of most dinners was usually mint tea with occasional dessert cookies. The cookies were not nearly as sweet as anything we are accustomed to in the U.S. and, to be honest, I wasn't a fan. The fact they were essentially all almond based wasn't appealing either having that I've got a non-life threatening, but very noticeable nut allergy that seemed to get a lot worse in the country. It was like the nut products in Morocco were . . . nuttier. They seemed more flavorful—more concentrated—which evidently made them more capable of inciting a rapid release of histamine throughout my body. That one bite of almond cookie I unwittingly ate made me avoid all desserts for the rest of the trip.
So instead of desserts, I happily enjoyed a small glass of tea after every meal. Tea in Morocco (and many other countries come to find out) is a standard part of any meal. You drink it after eating to help your food digest a bit (a wonderful alternative to the antacids America has trained us to use). Though I was a pretty big tea drinker before I went to Morocco, no hot leaf water I had ever ingested compared to Moroccan mint tea. It was unlike anything I had encountered in America simply because the Moroccan mint plant (unsurprisingly) tastes more like mint than anything America pumps out.
It's my new favorite tea, you guys. And you could get it everywhere.
(Almond cookies and mint tea at the Café Maure near the Kasbah of the Udayas in Rabat. Heads up, though: They do this thing where they offer a tray of cookies in a manner that seems complimentary based on American customs, but really they charge you for it. Additionally, the cafe is incredibly touristy, but it's got a nice view)
What other food did you see in Morocco?
Aside from that beautiful hot street corn outside the Kasbah I wish I had seen before trudging onto the bus, I had no desire to partake in the street food scattered about the markets. There were just too many flies—an absurd amount of flies—like the flies that hang around the potato salad at summer cookouts or our neighborhood Subway. Even though I'm all about experiencing the food of other cultures, I couldn't bring myself to eat a sticky bun that attracted so many maggot mamas.
So if street food isn't your thing, you could always opt for . . .
Gas station fast food
Alright, that sounds weird, suspicious, and maybe a little gross when considering the 99 cent pizza slices American gas stations provide. However, none of the seven rest stops I encountered along the Moroccan highways were dirty, shady, or deserving of any amount of side-eye. Some of them had tiny kitchens where they cooked french fries, hot dogs, hamburgers . . . it reminded me of a diner. Don't get me wrong, a gas station hot dog is not going to be a gourmet meal, but it was fresher than the $5 rotisserie chickens that sit beside the candy displays in my neighborhood.
Besides, there's always a McDonald's around
Hey, fast food may not sound super exciting as part of a Moroccan adventure, but when it's 10pm and you've only got 50 durhams in your pocket, that McDonald's looks beautiful.
My mind was BLOWN seeing how nice the McDonald's in Morocco were. It's not that I expected them to be trashy because they were in Morocco; I expected them to be trashy because (many) American McDonald's are trashy. The floors are sticky, the fries are cold, the restrooms have wet brown mold between the tiles, and, naturally, the ice cream machines are broken. My expectations were low.
The first McDonald's I went to in Morocco, however, was stunning. The decor was colorful, the tables were clean, it had touch screens everywhere, and there was a full fledged bakery attached. The french fries were hot, the ice cream was available, and their version of a fillet-o-fish was twice as big and actually edible. There's even the option of scheduling an appointment to get a tour of the kitchen, essentially inviting customers to make sure their facilities aren't caked in burnt grease and dirty napkins.
Hey, maybe other McDonald's in America are polished like this too, but not the ones in Richmond, Virginia, that's for sure.
Other fast food joints I passed by included a KFC, a Q Burger (basically McDonald's), some pizza joints, Chinese food places, and sushi restaurants. In fact, Marrakesh had a large collection of these (because Marrakesh can be terribly touristy).
Is there anything else left to say?
I hate cooked cabbage.
So when I found out that cabbage the yellow pile of mystery vegetable was in my cooked salad, my entire perspective changed. Moroccan cabbage simply is not American cabbage, not in the way it was grown, prepared, or delivered. I know it's not about the cabbage, but it is about not limiting yourself and experiencing all you can (especially if its edible). I left the country with a new definition of what food could taste like.
Like I said, I come from a family of foodies, so I was familiar with the idea of eating foreign foods. To eat Moroccan dishes in Morocco, though—or, heck, to eat American food in Morocco—was unlike anything I could ever hope to experience in the U.S.