Things I Wish More Americans Knew about Morocco

When I was in the U.S. over the summer, I got a lot of questions about my life in Morocco.  Here are some things I wish more people knew about where I live.

1.  Morocco is not just desert; it also has ocean, forest, and mountains.

Beautiful snowy Ifrane

Beautiful snowy Ifrane

2.  Casablanca the city is nothing like Casablanca the movie.  Rick’s café was actually filmed in Hollywood.  I’ve showed the Casablanca trailer in several of my English classes, and every one of my students has been surprised that there is a movie about their city.

3.  Morocco is a developing country, but you can still find outrageous displays of wealth.

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Morocco Mall: one stop shopping for all the designer brands

4.  Morocco is very peaceful.  When there are protests, they mostly consist of men sitting on old cardboard boxes in front of parliament.

5.  Morocco has a more generous maternity leave than the U.S. (which isn’t hard, since the U.S. has no paid maternity leave).  Of course, jobs are harder to find in Morocco, and more women work at home.

6.  There is a Christian minority in Morocco, and a large network of churches.  Most of the churches were started by French people during colonization, but now most of the members are African.

 

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Rabat’s Catholic Church

7.  Moroccans are extremely welcoming and hospitable – but that doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t exist here.  Finding work and getting documentation can be close to impossible for a lot of African migrants, despite recent government reforms.  I myself am having trouble getting the basic documents from my employer to apply for my residency card, so imagine how difficult it can be for someone who doesn’t hold an American passport or have the special status of being a native English speaker.

8.  The fruits and vegetables (and eggs and olive oil) taste quite a bit better here.  Everything is organic, and food comes more directly from the farm.  I swear, even the carrots are slightly sweeter in Morocco.

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Fruits and vegetables will always be my favorite thing about Morocco.
I hope my readers will something new from this post.  Anyway, I’m going to go eat a fresh pomegranate.

The Land of Opportunities

When I was about to land in Chicago, the TV screens on the airplane showed a video welcoming passengers to the U.S.  It showed green lawns, kids chasing golden retrievers, and people of every skin color.  Despite having lived the majority of my life in America and already knowing exactly what it looks like, the video made me pretty excited about arriving in the land of opportunity.

The photos in this post are of bread I've made.  This is yogurt bread and date-sesame bread.

The photos in this post are of bread I’ve made. This is yogurt bread and date-sesame bread.

America isn’t really as perfect as it looks on that video, although that’s not much of a surprise.  However, after being away for a year, there are several things that have surprised me.  First would be the no guns allowed sign all over Chicago (thanks to the conceal and carry law being passed), which is on a lot of public buildings; it’s odd to think that people need to be told that weapons do not belong in public buildings.  Not that I wanted to take a gun into the library, anyway.  Men wearing their pants so low that their butts hang out is not new, but it is still kind of surprising to see after not seeing it for so long (maybe some of them could use a djellaba).  Occasionally getting catcalls when I’m walking to my internship on the South Side is also not new, but is pretty disappointing – I thought I was going to have a break from that!  It is much easier to go for runs or walks here without worrying about what I’m wearing, but it’s not as different from Morocco as I was imagining it to be all of last year.

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Oatmeal bread

Another surprise came to me at Walmart.  I made my first ever trip to the all-American store last weekend, and only now do I really understand the purpose of giving up sugar.  Walmart is full of packaged foods, nearly all of which have sugar or High Fructose Corn Syrup.  It’s in cereals, peanut butter, bread, yogurt, and pre-prepared meals.  Someone shopping only at Walmart would truly be challenged to totally give up sugar.  And what’s more, the food doesn’t taste the same here, even if bought at fancier stores than Walmart.  The carrots aren’t as sweet, the eggs aren’t as rich, the olive oil doesn’t taste like olives, and the Philadelphia cream cheese has ten ingredients instead of the four in Morocco’s (or Spain’s) version of the exact same brand.  These were difficult discoveries for me when I arrived; I love cooking and baking so much, so I want the ingredients to taste good!

Challah (egg bread)

Challah (egg bread)

I know from working with refugees that new immigrants (and even those who have been abroad for quite a while) have trouble adjusting, unfavorably comparing everything to equivalents in their home country.  It takes a long time to get used to little differences and to both appreciate what is better in the new country and to stop comparing it to the old.  It’s oddly not that much easier when the new country is also where you are from.  I guess I’ve got six more weeks to work on it.  Well, at least my bread loaves are pretty!

This isn't bread!  It's South African Bobotie, a dish made with lentils (or meat), bread crumbs, and egg/milk/banana topping.

This isn’t bread! It’s South African Bobotie, a dish made with lentils (or meat), bread crumbs, and egg/milk/banana topping.

Three Weeks of No Sugar

It has now been three weeks of no sugar, but thanks to melon season, my life has not been lacking in sweets.  I got an 8 kilo watermelon a few days ago and am already more than halfway done with it (don’t worry, I shared!)  I’ve also felt like I enjoy natural foods more, like peanut butter and plain yogurt, and have less desire to eat sugary dessets.  The No Sugar Rule has twice given me an excuse to refuse pastries I didn’t want, which I often find difficult when someone baked something themselves.

A rainbow of sweetness

A rainbow of sweetness

I am realizing how difficult it is to avoid sugar when you are not making all your own food, particularly in sauces, breads, and drinks.  Even in Morocco, where high fructose corn syrup is unheard of, sugar is lurking where you might not expect it.  But with the dawn of cherry, peach, and melon season, my life is plenty sweet.

I have three weeks left of the No Sugar Experiment, and I am curious to see if sweetened foods will taste sweeter when I start eating them again.  I’ll let you know!

Chefchaouen

After a long stretch of working with no breaks, we finally got a week off from school to travel or rest, and my mom came back again to visit me.  And after several instances of nearly getting run over by cars and motorcycles, we were happy to spend five days up in the quiet of the mountains.

We went to Chefchaouen, which is in the north of Morocco, up in the Rif mountains. It is known for it’s blue walls, beautiful scenery, and expansive reefer plantations. My mom and I thoroughly enjoyed the two former aspects of the town, taking lots of pictures and getting daily calf workouts.

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I never knew how many shades of blue there are.

Coming from a very flat place (Illinois), I’ve always loved trips to the mountains. Every time I visit a mountainous area I start to make plans for how I can live in the mountains in the future.  However, we quickly found that mountains are beautiful but inconvenient. In Chefchaouen, produce is brought in from across the mountains and sold only on market days, Monday and Thursday. To buy produce, you must go down to the lowest part of the old city, and then lug it back up to your home. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of the fruit and vegetable carts in Casablanca, and that kind of convenient fresh produce was not available in Chefchaouen.

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A beautiful yet strenuous hike between mountain villages

Finally, I decided to return to my life in Casablanca in lieu of setting up in the mountains and going on long hikes every day for the rest of my life. I missed the melon man, the whole-wheat bread seller, the Philadelphia cream cheese corner store, and the daily vegetable truck.  I also thought it might be a good idea to go to work on Monday.  But it was a wonderful and restful week, and fun to see the countryside of Morocco.  The ocean breeze welcomed us back to Casablanca, and I feel just a little bit more confident about dodging motorcycles on the way to the vegetable cart than I did before.

Pretty view, pretty windows.

Pretty view, pretty windows.



But You Haven’t Eaten Anything!

In many cultures, it’s considered to be a sign of hospitality to encourage others to eat.  The best way to make a guest feel at home is to bring them plates of food until they can no longer move, and then to exclaim, “but you haven’t eaten anything!”  Or to ask someone who has eaten modest portions why they haven’t eat much and if they might be ill.  I certainly enjoy situations like this on occasion, because it makes me feel like royalty; not to mention the fact that there are some truly phenomenal cooks in the world.

But if these situations of being encouraged to eat too much happen on a regular basis, it becomes a burden.  It is difficult too eat enough to please your host without making yourself sick, or to praise the food profusely enough that you can get by without offending, or to come up with a convincing excuse, often a lie, as to why you can eat no more.

We're having pastries for dinner tonight! (If only my mom had ever said that...)

We’re having pastries for dinner tonight! (If only my mom had ever said that…)

Nutrition is certainly a confusing thing, and new studies still come out on a regular basis with new information on what we should or shouldn’t eat, how we should eat, or when we should eat.  I have made it one of my goals to teach my students (and their parents) about proper nutrition, but I’ve realized that one of the major obstacles is that many people just don’t know what good nutrition is.  I think this is the same issue with food as hospitality; it is unclear whether eating more is good or bad.  In some situations, eating more might give you the necessary nutrients that you might not otherwise have gotten, and if you do not have enough to eat normally, it is helpful to be served too much every once in a while.  But if you make a point of eating only healthful foods and in appropriate quantities, being to told eat more can be annoying or offensive.

Look at all of those fruits and vegetables!  I'll trade in my pastries for some of those clementines.

Look at all of those fruits and vegetables! I’ll trade in my pastries for some of those clementines.

When I cook for myself, I like to make dishes like lentil soup with cauliflower instead of potatoes, or bread with yogurt instead of butter in order to make them a little healthier.  But that doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy some pastries every once in a while.

‘Tis the Season

Now that Thanksgiving is over, my roommate and I have been able to shamelessly deck out our apartment with Christmas decorations.  We play Christmas music constantly, put cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger in everything we eat (or drink) and turn on our flashing Christmas lights in the evening.  Last night when just the Christmas lights were on and I was drinking tea by the window, I felt the same Christmas rush I used to feel for weeks leading up to the holiday when I was little.

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The only snowman you’ll see in Casablanca

Last year, I really missed the US after being gone for several months, partly because I missed my favorite foods.  However, this morning I went running by a sushi restaurant and a Mexican restaurant, and did not feel any (or very much) longing for those familiar cuisines (there are a lot of Asian restaurants in my neighborhood in Chicago!).  My secret, you ask?  Seasonal foods.  I mentioned that I’ve really been enjoying pomegranates.  Well, I’ve also been enjoying pumpkin, first in jack-o-lantern form, then in soup, and most recently in bread.  Bread!  And this morning, as I was listening to Michael Bublé’s All I Want for Christmas is You and chopping vegetables, I thought, why not put more vegetables in bread?  So now I’ve got zucchini bread and carrot bread.  And I’m feeling generous, so I’m even going to share my recipe with you.

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Zucchini on top, carrot underneath, deliciousness everywhere.

1 cup mashed pumpkin/grated zucchini/grated carrot (choose one)

1 cup flour (I used white flour because that’s all I had, and I actually substituted 1 cup of semolina in the carrot bread, which gives it a nice nutty flavor and some more texture)

1/2 cup plain yogurt

Baking powder

1 tsp salt

3/4 cups sugar

2 eggs

1/4 cup oil

1/4 cup water (I used lemon-ginger juice instead)

1 big spoonful of ginger and of cinnamon (I like it with more spice!)

Mix together and bake for about 45 minutes, and then eat your vegetables!  I guess now you know why I’m not a food blogger…my recipes change each time I make them depending on what I have, what sounds good, and what my mood is.  Have fun experimenting!

The Strange Fruits of Casablanca

Every week, I try to bring a guest vegetable into my kitchen.  This past week I branched out and instead tried a new fruit: Kaki, also known as persimmon, and also as disgusting.  Kaki has a pretty good taste, but it has a weird chalky texture that makes you feel like you need to brush your teeth immediately.

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A few weeks ago, my guest of honor was fennel.  I got it for free from the vegetable seller who probably thought I was ridiculous for being so perplexed by it.  Fennel is pretty funny-looking, but if you can look past appearances, it’s delicious in salads.
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Beets, sweet potatoes (native to Africa, not the same as American yams), green beans, cabbage, and eggplant have also made a debut in my kitchen.  Last week I had pomegranate in my morning yogurt, continuing with the fruit theme.  Next week, I am going to have my sister stay here as a guest instead of vegetables, which should be a much different situation.
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A beautiful but time-consuming fruit.
In the spirit of discovery that I’ve been enjoying here in Morocco, my boyfriend and I have been working on developing two original recipes: Eggsta and Magic Menu.  Eggsta is a whimsical combination of eggs and pasta, making a kind of swirled omelette.  We have been cautiously introducing more vegetables to the dish, one at a time.  Magic Menu, an equally droll creation, is a pudding-like dish made of couscous in leben (another mysterious food) that can be infused with a number of delicious fruit combinations.
This week, I have a super exciting holiday-related guest vegetable: pumpkin!  Cleaned out thanks to a team of hardworking kindergarteners who aren’t afraid of a little mess.  Got any pumpkin recipes?!
IMG_3574Some of us thought there would be pasta inside this guy (which would have been good for Eggsta!) but in fact he was filled with pumpkin.