"Cooking & Communication," by Alexandra Hyatt
It seems cliché, but I think one of the best places to build relationships is in the kitchen. While cooking with my host mother, I not only learned how to cook some delicious Moroccan foods, but I also learned how to get over a language barrier and my own shyness. When I first got to Morocco, I was a bit anxious. It was my first time leaving the United States, and I didn’t speak a word of Arabic. Neither me nor my host parents spoke French fluently, so in the beginning, conversations were often stunted to be frustratingly basic.
I wondered how I was going to get to know my family if we couldn’t communicate. I spent several hours each day outside of class practicing my French and darija, but I felt like I just couldn’t learn fast enough. In the meantime, I was lucky enough to find another way to communicate with my host mom: through food. During the hours we spent together in the kitchen, my host mother, a fascinating person with a huge heart, became less and less of a stranger and finally became a dear friend.
Things started out slowly. The first time I helped my host mom in the kitchen, it was simply to cut up a bitikh, a yellow melon, to have for dessert after couscous. In Morocco, at least from my experience, dessert is a big plate of fruit.
The first thing she taught me how to make was harcha, a Moroccan “pancake”/bread made of semolina flour which tastes a lot like cornbread. It is one of my new favorite foods. It was fairly simple to make, though I admit I will have to look up a recipe the next time I make it. My host mother never used written recipes or timers when cooking. When making bread, she could tell the dough’s readiness by the texture of the dough and the sound it made while being kneaded. As for cooking times, she could tell when something was done just by smell and appearance.
Most of the breads, cookies and “pancakes” we made required semolina flour of varying textures. Another important and recurring ingredient was vanilla extract, which comes in a powder in Morocco rather than a liquid like in the US. By the time we made bread together, both my French and darija had significantly improved. I was able to tell my host mom about all about the breads I liked to make at home, and she told me how her family had a flour mill in the mountains when she was little.
The whole apartment building smelled delicious when we made bread together. My host mom explained that personal home ovens are a fairly recent thing in Morocco. In the past, and in many places still today, Moroccan women would prepare bread for their families in the morning and then take it to be baked at the communal neighborhood oven by the professional bread baker who worked there.
I also learned how to make one of my favorite Moroccan foods of all time, taktouka, a salad made of cooked vegetables, garlic, and spices. I liked taktouka so much that I ordered it at several different restaurants in Rabat during my stay. Honestly though, no restaurant made it nearly as well as my host mom!
My host mother fell ill and needed surgery during the time I stayed with them. On the days leading up to her surgery, even though she wasn’t feeling well, my host mom spent hours preparing all kinds of cookies and sweets for when her family would visit her in the days following the surgery. I tried my best to make myself useful in the kitchen, and in return, I learned how to make some delicious sweets.
Among the cookies I helped make during that time were feqqas, often called “Moroccan biscottis” by foreigners. They do taste a lot like biscotti, with anise seeds and ground almonds. Once the dough is made, it is put into a long, triangular mold and then cut into slim pieces before baking. This is what gives them their characteristic triangle shape. We also made several varieties of lemon cookies, dusted with powdered sugar, and a type of bundt cake soaked with honey and tasting strongly of fresh oranges.
The day before my host mother’s surgery, upon coming home from school, I saw that she had made upwards of 40 or 50 meloui, a type of flakey semolina flatbread. Making meloui is a pretty laborious process that requires several hours of standing. My host aunt had also brought several boxes of biscuits and crackers. I thought, “No way! Is she planning to feed the whole neighborhood?” Well, practically yes, as I found out.
The day after her surgery, there was a non-stop stream of people crowding into the apartment. Relatives both close and distant, friends, and neighbors came visiting from the late morning often until after ten at night. There was enough food for every visitor; mint tea and coffee were served all day. It was four days before things began to calm down in the house, but visitors still came regularly for several weeks. There were definitely over a hundred well-wishers who came to support my host mother while she recovered. She told me that to her, when family is around, she feels a special feeling of calm in her heart. All of her hard work was worth it, to feed all of her loved ones who came to visit. The whole experience made me reflect on the importance of family on our well-being and health.
As my time in Morocco came to a close, my host mom taught me some of the most quintessential Moroccan recipes. I learned how to properly make mint tea, which is actually a pretty complicated process. During the last week of my homestay, the whole family had the flu, so my host mother also taught me how to make a special tea that is good for soothing flu symptoms.
The Friday before I left Morocco, she taught me how to make couscous, the iconic Moroccan dish. Eating it together was bittersweet. Even though my time in Morocco is over, I will be able to relive and share my experience with my family and friends back home through the new delicious foods that my host mother (now dear friend) taught me to make.
Alexandra Hyatt is a student from Macalaster College who studied in the Regional Studies in French Program in Rabat, Morocco in Fall 2018.