Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Top Chef Morocco?

So I’ve talked a lot about food since we’ve been here, but it’s mostly been about eating the food, not about cooking it. Now I get to talk about the other side of it - this past Sunday was our first chance to get in a Moroccan kitchen and cook some food!

Justin and I had been talking with our host family for a little while now about cooking them a meal, and when we asked them specifically what they wanted us to cook, there was 1 request: pizza. Coming from New York where pizza is king, we were reeeeally nervous about how to go about making pizza in Morocco, but up to the challenge. We decided to pair the pizza with a very American dessert – apple pie – and the menu was set.

Now, this is not the type of easy process where in the U.S. I might just find a recipe and then go out and buy whatever I needed. Here, there are some ingredients that I just couldn’t find anywhere in our area – In this case cider vinegar, nutmeg, and brown sugar for the apple pie, and basil and a bay leaf for the pizza sauce – So we just had to adjust the recipes to cut out those ingredients. Beyond that, the only cheese sold in our small community is the Laughing Cow triangles and I would not be allowed back in the state of New York if I tried to put that on a pizza – so luckily Justin and I found cheese in Fes on a quick overnight trip for training. Oh yes and I forgot to mention that since the concept of pre-made pizza dough or pie crust does not exist, we were making everything from scratch – the dough, pie crust, pizza sauce, etc. None of which I have ever done before. So I was more than a little nervous that I might disappoint my family that makes every amazing meal from scratch.

So our ingredients and recipes were set, and we went to our local market the morning of our big meal to get everything needed (here, people just buy whatever food is needed for each day which by the way I LOVE). We were able to get everything that we needed and we went back to the house to start cooking. This was the first time that Justin was fully allowed into the kitchen, which was exciting. Up until now the family has only let him bring dishes down from the kitchen to the dining table – I’ll talk more about gender roles in another post. As we cooked, our family sat around and eagerly watched – even 2 of our host brothers, who rarely come into the kitchen and certainly don’t stay for very long, watched excitedly for about 3 hours’ worth. In keeping with the American theme of the day, we put on some of our own music. Our youngest host brother (8 years old and adorable!) seemed to be really into Marvin Gaye and Al Green which was cute.

The cooking process presented a lot of obstacles which just required some flexibility and patience. For example, the ovens are hooked up to gas and are lit with a lighter and there’s no chance of trying to calibrate that thing to a particular temperature (not to mention that the door is falling off of the oven so it needs to be rigged up a bit when cooking). So, we just had to keep a close eye on everything to make sure it was going well. And, we had to find cooking supplies in the kitchen that we could use, many of which were very different from what we might use in the U.S. (for example, no pizza or pie pans, but we found things in the kitchen that would make do). Beyond that, we had to deal with the family watching our every move and trying to help when they could (my host mother laughed at how slowly I diced an onion and she took one and literally did it in 5 seconds flat – she really should be on Top Chef!).

But overall, we found everything that we needed to make it work and the food was GREAT! I was actually truly surprised by how good it turned out. It was a huge learning experience for Justin and I in what goes into cooking in a Moroccan kitchen, and the importance of flexibility and advance planning when figuring out what recipes might work here and what might not. And, I think it was fun for our host family to be a part of the cooking experience. Enjoy the photos of the final results! 
The ingredient list - that’s my handwriting in Arabic script on the right!
The apple pie before going into the oven
tomato sauce from scratch! sooo good
pizza with peppers and onions on top
plain pizza
Moroccan-style pizza - half olives and half harissa
close-up of the Moroccan-style pizza
the whole spread!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A training update

The weeks are going by faster and faster! It has now been 5 weeks since Justin and I arrived in Morocco, though it feels like months with all that we have done and learned. In 2 weeks, we will find out our permanent site placement for the next 2 years, and in 1 month, we will (hopefully) be sworn in as Peace Corps volunteers and leave for our final site. 

I’m very much looking forward to having my own space and exploring a new community, but there’s a LOT to do in our training site between now and then. Every 2 weeks a new “Phase” of training ends and a new one starts (there are 4 Phases total). Right now I am in Fes with our full training group to mark the end of Phase 2 and the beginning of Phase 3. In Phase 2, we conducted in-depth community assessment work to try to understand some of the issues that youth in our community are facing (we are Youth Development volunteers, so all of our work is very youth-focused). We had a number of interviews and meetings with community leaders along with creative exercises with youth. 

The 2 most pronounced concerns for youth that have come out of our assessment work are education (primarily English education) and empowerment of women. In our community, students are only required to go to school through the 6th grade. We have a school for students from the 7-9th grades but many students in the community are not able to continue going to school, typically because they must work outside or inside of the home to help the family. There is no high school in the town, so after 9th grade, students have to take a bus or taxi every day to Fes to continue their education. For most families, this is a financial strain and there are also concerns for girls’ security, so few students in the community continue their education after 9th grade. Particularly for women, there’s not a lot of encouragement for education or the pursuit of their skills and talents. In my host family, I have two sisters age 16 and 17 who are no longer in school but are working in a women’s center in the community that is helping them train to become dressmakers… but in many families girls don’t even have these opportunities. 

Our group is planning a program at the end of our training to help address the issues of education and female empowerment. I’m planning an activity geared toward young girls, helping them to think about and discuss their individual talents or talents/skills that they would like to learn, in an open and supportive environment. It’s a bit frustrating that we are only in the community for another month and as such there is only so much that we can do for them, but at the same time I’m happy that we’re able to give something and to gain lessons that will help us in our permanent site.

 More to come on our training and the program planning as the weeks go by! I’ll end with a few more photos from the past week:

View of our community from the mountain - so beautiful!
My host sisters dressed me up on
Sunday in a traditional Moroccan dress!
Then they paraded me around town
and got me some henna - on the side
of my hand is "Layla," my Moroccan name here :)
An example of a daily "traffic jam"
in our community :)
your weekly allotment of food photos!
This is a tagine with kfta, onions
and olives... soooo good!
I miss everyone very much, and hope all is well!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Lots o Learning

Before coming to Morocco, I read a book called “Culture Shock” which is geared towards Americans coming to Morocco and some of the many adjustments to expect in daily life. Almost every aspect of Justin and my lives have changed, from the type of place in which we are living (4,000 people total is a big change from 8 million!), to our 6 meals a day (if you missed it, you can read all about our MANY meals in my last post), to even the process of showering and using the restroom (public baths called hammams and squatting toilets have taken some getting used to but have quickly become a routine part of our lives). But the most significant, and definitely the most interesting adjustments for me, have been learning about cultural norms and values for Moroccans. Some I have been fortunate to learn from our “Language and Cultural Facilitator” Malika (or LCF as we call it – Peace Corps has a LOT of acronyms); others have been discovered through a faux pas or two on my end… but all have been an important part of learning and respecting all the aspects of our home for the next 2 years. There are many, many cultural lessons that I have learned and I hope to pass them all along in time! For now, just a few…

One of our first language lessons upon arriving in the country focused on Moroccan greetings, and it was a very long lesson! I was absolutely amazed at how many different ways we learned to say “How are you?” but once we got into our training community and began to have conversations with family and friends, it made much more sense. Here’s an example of a typical greeting and the translations – and I am seriously talking about just a walk-by hello with our local shopkeeper (abbreviated SK):

Me: Salaam Ealykum! (translation: Peace be upon you, i.e. Hello)
SK: Wa Ealykum Salaam! Kif dayra? (translation: Peace be upon you too! How are you?)
Me: Labas, Hmdullah. Labas? (translation: Good, thanks be to God. Are you good?)
SK: Labas, Hmdullah. Bixir? (translation: Good, thanks be to God. Are you fine?) *Here’s where the conversation gets funny. They start to ask about 15 ways if you are SURE that you are fine, and if everything is fine, and if you are absolutely certain that everything is great.
Me: Bixir, shuqran! Cinq cinq? (translation: Fine, thank you! Are you all good?)
SK: Cinq cinq, Hmdullah. Swiya ulla mizyan? (translation: All good, thanks be to God. A little or very good?)
Me: Mizyan, Hmdullah. Unta? (translation: Very good, thanks be to God. And you?)
SK: Mizyan, Hmdullah. Kulsi mizyan? (translation: Very good, thanks be to God. Is everything very good?)
Me: Kulsi mizyan, shuqran, kulsi bixir? (translation: Everything is very good, thank you, is everything fine for you?)
SK: Kulsi bixir, Hmdullah. (translation: Everything is fine, thanks be to God.)
Sometimes they will even repeat the same word over and over just to be absolutely certain that everything is okay... such as (him) Labas? (me) Labas. (him) Labas? (me) Labas. (him) Labas? (me) Labas, I promise!!!! (I don’t actually say the last part but I definitely think it!)

That’s before asking anything else – And once you ask about their family, it starts ALL over again! This is a very standard way of greeting people and I find that I need to leave extra time to get somewhere to allow for long greetings along the way. There are many other cultural norms with greetings – For example, when coming upon a group of people, even if you know only 1 person in the group, you greet each person with the same level of friendliness and enthusiasm, and you greet from right to left. Women typically kiss, sometimes 1 on each side, sometimes 1 on the left and 2 on the right, sometimes 3 on the left and none on the right. Once I even got 5 on the left side. All of this as you can imagine is a BIG change coming from New York, but I’m happy to say that we have adjusted well and have embraced 20 minutes of saying hello :)

Similar to the warm greetings is the amazing hospitality that the Moroccans we have come across have shown us. I read in my “Culture Shock” book that you should be careful about complimenting something of a Moroccan or he/she will try to give it to you. Well, I am reporting that this is very true and has already happened to me! I complimented a small sculpture hanging on the wall in one of my host brothers’ rooms, and he immediately took it off the wall and tried to give it to me! Justin and I pleaded for a while and finally got him to put it back on the wall, and now I try to restrain my urges to give too many compliments out!

I have a long list of other cultural lessons that I have begun to pick up on here and I’m sure you will be learning along with me as the adventure continues! I’ll end with a few unrelated pictures so you can see what we’ve been up to.
A place called "Lalla Shafia" on top of the mountain near us; I will tell the whole story about it another time!
Our town is well-known for their mineral water, so lots of cool looking bath products are sold here
The Blue Gate, the entrance to the Old City in Fes
There was a lot of love for the food pictures so I will keep including them!
Beautiful tile design on the wall in the home that we use for training
The "Dar Chabab" (House of Youth) where we work
A sheep being brought through town on top of a donkey

Monday, October 3, 2011

A Day in the Life...

It’s been just a little over a week in our home through November, but it feels like months!! Since I last wrote, we left our full Peace Corps training group of 40 to move into what the Peace Corps calls “Community-Based Training,” in a town about 20 minutes outside of Fes.

Our full training group in Fes
We are in a beautiful town built on the side of the mountain, with only 1 road for cars to pass through, and the rest of stairs – lots and lots and lots of stairs. It’s a town of about 4,000 people, small enough that we run into someone we know every single time we leave our house!

Sunset over our mountain!

Our training group in Fes before leaving for our town
Our typical day involves waking up around 7 or 7:15 for breakfast from our host mom Fatiha (that’s meal #1, keep track because there are MANY). Breakfast typically consists of Moroccan bread with some combination of olives, olive oil, honey, butter, cheese, eggs, a kind of pink round processed meat that Justin and I can’t quite figure out, and sllu (a sweet ground-up mixture of sugar, peanuts, sesame, and almonds). To drink I have hot milk (they seem to only have whole milk here, which has taken some getting used to but is a nice treat!). Justin has coffee, which is more like 1/6 coffee and 5/6 milk (he’s tried to ask for more coffee but it hasn’t worked too well). Then we leave to walk to our LCF Malika’s house where we meet our fellow 3 other trainees.
Our usual sighting in the mornings - lots of donkeys here
Morning training consists usually of language (right now we’re learning how to conjugate past tense verbs). We take a break around 10:30 for a second breakfast (that’s meal #2, keep counting!), which is usually more Moroccan bread (we buy it fresh baked and still hot from a store next door, so good!), some olive oil (which by the way is FAR better than in the U.S.), cheese, yogurt, and mint tea. After the break it’s more language study until lunch around 12:30 (#3). Lunch is an AMAZING spread of vegetables, fruits, meats, all with Moroccan breads and olives.

Our couscous lunch on Friday- so good!
The afternoon activities depend on the day, but it has been a combination of meetings with local government officials and youth-focused organizations, discussions and lessons on cross-cultural experiences (more on this in a future blog post), tours of the community, and lessons on Arabic script – a long and difficult process but I’m thanking my mom for the artistic genes that has made writing these unusual characters much easier!
View down from near the top of the town and the youth center we work at
We take a break in the middle of our afternoon for more mint tea and a snack (that’s #4!), usually cake, more bread and oil, or fruit and yogurt. Moroccans call this meal kaskrot, a “snack” between lunch and dinner. We end classes at 5:30 and then usually go to the market to buy groceries for our next day (more on food in another post too).

shopping at our local market
Then we go back to our host family for the evening. We get home just around 7, when our host family is having their kaskrot and Moroccan culture doesn’t acknowledge “we’re full” very well, so that’s meal #5. Then we spend 3 or so hours studying and spending time with the family. Then comes meal #6, dinner. Yes, you did the math right, that is 10 in the evening! Sometimes dinner is even later – I think we once ate at midnight. It’s a bit hard to get used to but we’re trying. Then off to bed for another whirlwind day.

So that’s a quick idea of what our days are like. I have SO much more to write about, like some of the many cultural lessons that I have picked up on, the food, what it’s like to be back in a learning environment again, and an initial idea of what we’ll be spending our next 2 years doing… but I’d say I’ve given you enough for the day, and besides, I have to get going for my next meal! :)

Rooftops of our town and the mountain at a distance
 * Thanks to my fellow trainee Sarah for a few of these photos – she’s been better at taking photos than me!