Rabat - As an American living in Morocco, I have been both confused and delighted by a variety of cultural differences. One common activity in both cultures is infused with tradition and ritual: dinner. A true Moroccan dinner is an experience that no foreign should miss.
Rabat – As an American living in Morocco, I have been both confused and delighted by a variety of cultural differences. One common activity in both cultures is infused with tradition and ritual: dinner. A true Moroccan dinner is an experience that no foreign should miss.
The first difference to note is dinner time. My Moroccan host family eats dinner around 10:30 each night, which I soon learned was rather early. This was quite a jarring gap to breach, shifting from an American dinner at 6:00 in the evening. Fortunately, the street offers plenty of pastries, fruit, and casual meals to hold over any wanting appetite until dinner.
The meals themselves are often traditional dishes with cultural significance behind the ingredients, the eating methods, and the treatment of a dinner guest. Most common among my dinners was tagine, a mixture of vegetables (especially potatoes), meat, and sauce prepared and served from a large pottery dish also called a tagine.
The food, especially the meat, is gathered in the center like a small mountain. Each diner has a zone to eat from, like the closest slice from an imaginary pie. Instead of Western utensils, Moroccans eat with khubz, the classic round bread. It is broken into pieces for each person, and used to scoop sauce and food like an edible spoon.
The ways to eat are notable as well: the right hand is almost exclusively used to handle food. However, after several failed attempts to tear khubz with one hand, I was relieved to learn that both hands were allowed for this task. Khubz itself carries cultural weight beyond its affordable price. As the cornerstone of all meals, it is seen as emblematic of all food and should never be wasted.
One member of the family says “Bismillah,” or “By God’s will,” and the eating begins. The culture of hospitality places the burden on hosts to ensure that their guest is full. Continually passing more food, especially the finest portions, to their guest is normal. This leads up to the greatest challenge a guest will face at the dinner table: a full stomach. Regular choruses of “Kul, kul” (eat, eat) are always recited towards the guest, whether the guest is eating or not, and complying with every order to eat is a fast way to become stuffed past capacity.
Demanding that a guest eat is a host’s duty, not a judgement on the guest’s appetite, and should be responded to as such. If guests want to continue eating, they can continue eating. Insisting that you are full with a polite “Ana shbet, hamdulillah” (I am full, thanks be to God) along with compliments for the meal, should eventually end the encouragement to eat.
The host may insist the guest continue eating, but any guests should feel comfortable insisting that they are full. Especially delicious food, as in my circumstances, made this even more difficult. The first battle was between my mouth and my stomach, the next battle in my attempts to convince my family that I was full.
Couscous, the Friday dish important enough to merit early dismissal from work or school, has its own set of rules. The grain-like food is also prepared and served in a tagine, and is mixed with vegetables and even meat. Again, the diners each have a zone, and again they rarely encroach on someone else’s territory except to offer them a particularly tasty morsel. Some eat with spoons and some prefer to ball the couscous with their hands.
Alongside this traditional (and quite filling) dish is lben, a form of buttermilk. Foreigners often find it revolting, but after suffering through it for two Fridays (although I could have politely declined), I discovered that it was an acquired taste. Now, I cannot eat couscous without my lben.
Finally, it is the host’s role to clean the dishes. Any attempt from a guest to help will be dismissed, since it is the guest’s role to be served. Complimenting the food is the proper way to thank a host, while forcibly clearing the dishes can insult hosts’ abilities to accommodate their guest.
Eating dinner in a truly Moroccan style is an essential part of learning local culture, as well as an enjoyable and delicious experience. While I cannot speak for all foreigners, I have taken to Moroccan cuisine with gusto, and plan to take a few recipes home with me. The depth of traditions and culture wrapped up in Moroccan dinner add gravity to an already delightful daily ritual.
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