So much of travel writing relies on sensory memory – the aroma of spice and fire in Mumbai, the sound of crickets at dusk in Maine, the feel of still, humid Caribbean air.
Thinking back through my years there, it would seem a natural conclusion, then, to write about Morocco through the lens of taste. The more I think about it, the more I realize how much of my life there revolved around food–much more so than here. At home in the U.S., I’m hardly a creature of habit when it comes to food; breakfast is what’s cheap (usually oatmeal), and lunch is often what’s left over. The remaining meal is only slightly more elaborate, but is ten times more likely to be channa masala than a cheeseburger: Americana just isn’t my thing.
But in Morocco, food for me becomes emotional. I suppose it happened on my first day there, when I drank a small cup of black espresso for the first time, pretending it was no big thing; espresso became my defense mechanism. My first Friday couscous established a ritual: I would spend the whole week looking forward to Friday, the best and most filling meal of the week setting off the weekend. A cup of café nous-nous became something I’d leave home early for on my way to work; a treat to sip in silence while preparing my lesson plans.
Harsha, those small, round semolina pancakes that can’t possibly be that hard to make, have always been my favorite. I bit into one for the first time in Ifrane on a hot late-May afternoon, thinking it would taste like cornbread. It didn’t. Still, I fell in love and each day would try it with different toppings. Harsha avec miel? Yes, please. With La Vache Qui Rit? Absolutely. With maple syrup brought to me from Canada? Hell yes. There was this small harsha shop around the corner from my first apartment that kept weird hours. The woman who worked there was tall, blonde, gorgeous, not Moroccan-looking at all (whatever that means), and I remember being surprised to discover she spoke not a word of French. I would pop over after an early class, fingers crossed. I would buy one or two harsha cakes and a little packet of cheese and eat it standing there, still hot. Later, after I’d moved to a new apartment, I was pleased when a little harsha and melwi shop opened about halfway between my home and work. Vive le coincidence.
And that new apartment? It was located directly above a bakery. On hot summer days, I’d get up as early as 4 am, unable to sleep, jarred awake by the overwhelming aroma of baking bread. Khubz. I’d wait until the shop opened at 6 or so and would run downstairs, djellaba tossed over my pajamas, for a loaf and a couple of pastries. Oh, how I lived on pastries! I could never do that in the U.S., but somehow in Morocco weight never seemed to be a problem. I’d stuff my face with chocolate croissants all morning then stuff my face with couscous at noon, and never gain a pound.
It wasn’t just pastries and huge lunches, it was everything. What in hindsight looks magical was likely just the “magical” metabolism of a 23-year-old. I drank regular soda, ate cones of almonds, took my coffee with three sugar cubes. A marrakshia, that beast of all pastries, chocolate on the outside, something kind of like Bavarian cream but thicker on the inside…and usually the size of your hand, was barely a force to be reckoned with (fun fact: in the last edition of the Lonely Planet Morocco, the author thanks me for showing him around Meknes and bestows upon me an imaginary marrakshia).
Nostalgia through food. Foodstalgia. I haven’t been back since 2007. I’m quite sure that the food hasn’t changed a bit, but the places, the names, the faces most certainly have. I hear there’s a Pizza Hut now. I hear Chinese food is taking off. With globalization always comes crappy food.
One last story. When my parents came to visit, I was eager to show my daring father Morocco’s culinary delights. One evening near Place Hedim, as we were looking for a taxi to return home, we stumbled across a man selling snails. His setup couldn’t have been more rudimentary: he was seated on a bucket in front of a small table, on which a giant pot bubbled atop a small sterno flame. The bubbling pot, of course, was filled with escargot, which you were expected to eat by stabbing them with tiny safety pins offered by the seller. I could tell from the look on my dad’s face that he was icked out by the hygiene (or lack thereof), but daring is daring, and so he did it. As we snacked on snails (much to my mother’s horror) in the middle of a busy street, it occurred to me how ordinary such things had become, and I realized that what makes a place feel like home is your comfort level with the food. If you can’t eat like a local, you’ll never fit in. Vive les escargots!