Friday, January 11, 2013

Cooking and food in Morocco

I just finished writing my monthly letter to pen pals in Connecticut (I do this as one of Peace Corps' three goals, to educate Americans about our host country - you can read this previous blog post for more info). This month's letter was all about food in Morocco - and it got me thinking a lot about how living here has really changed my relationship with and perspective towards food and cooking.

If you read my blog post at the beginning of this year, then you may have seen that I've lost a lot of weight since moving to Morocco (close to 50 pounds at this point). And Justin has lost over 30 pounds. Now granted, both of us gained a lot of weight in the months leading up to our departure from America--mainly because we were trying to enjoy the food and drinks as much as we could before we left! But even so, a lot of this weight loss has come from having a more active lifestyle and adjusting the way that we cook and eat. I wanted to talk about a few of the things that have changed:

Use of Meat vs Vegetables
In Morocco, meat is expensive, relative to other food. For example, a pound of tomatoes might be the equivalent of $0.60, while a pound of chicken (is about $1.50 and a pound of ground meat is close to $5.00. So it might be for this reason that people eat far less meat than in the U.S. - or maybe it's also a difference in cooking styles. The biggest difference that I've noticed is that here, people do not seem to plan their meals around the meat. I remember often planning meals in the U.S. thinking about what meat I might make, and then adding sides/sauces/accompaniments to go with that meat. Here, people plan the meal itself (most typically a vegetable or bean-based meal) and sometimes meat is added into the mix, sometimes not. For example, on Fridays, families eat a massive plate of couscous that is LOADED with vegetables (photo example below)... sometimes meat is placed on top or in the middle, it's eaten last, and only a small amount is consumed per person.
I've found that while Justin and I don't typically eat traditional Moroccan food (I have yet to learn how to make couscous Moroccan-style), we have adopted the approach of eating far less meat. We get protein from eggs, beans, and other legumes and we eat meat only a few times a week, and that's probably still more often than many Moroccans. 

Processed vs Simple Foods
This is the big one for me. I think often about my lifestyle before moving here and how weekday dinners often consisted of a mix of takeout and frozen meals. Here, it's rare that I use a single "processed" ingredient in cooking - if I want tomato sauce, I have to make tomato sauce; if I want an American-style bread, I have to bake it; if I want lasagna noodles, I am rolling them out from scratch. I know that when I return to the U.S., I won't have nearly as much time for cooking as I do in Morocco.  But for me, finding a middle ground that will allow me to still prepare healthy, vegetable-focused meals, and not rely on lots of processed stuff, will be crucial. That's a big goal for me to begin figuring out as we move closer towards the end of our service in the fall.

Low Fat vs Full Fat
I have to say that it's been nice to live in a place where I'm not constantly bombarded by the diet wagon - low fat, low calorie, the newest diet fad, etc. I was explaining to a Moroccan friend recently about the pressure that people face in the U.S. to eat "healthy" and we were discussing what "healthy" really means. Is it worth it to eat low-fat foods that have lots of added chemicals, or high amounts of added sugar and salt? I'm not a doctor so I can't really say for sure what the answer on this is, but I've been eating full fat yogurt, milk, and butter for the last year (in moderation) and I feel healthier than I have in a long time. 

If you're interested in learning about the types of foods that Justin and I eat here, I keep an ongoing cookbook with all of our favorite meals. You can download a PDF of the latest cookbook by clicking here. It's a work-in-progress but I am excited that I'll leave Morocco with a thick stack of papers that might help to continue to improve my lifestyle back in the U.S. If you have recipe suggestions or other thoughts about this blog entry, please leave them in the comments section below! This is a topic that I've become really passionate about while living here, so I welcome your thoughts and feedback.

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