Early on in my traveling life, I realized that I have a strong aversion to the word tourist. It evokes, to me, the image of someone who is on the outskirts, gawking and snapping photos of what is within. I have always preferred trying to dig a bit deeper wherever I am, learning the customs, rhythms and language that are local to a place. This characteristic has served both positively and negatively throughout my travels and living abroad. At my best, I converse with locals, impressing them with colloquialisms and walk around the city as if I know it by heart. On my worst days, I get overly snarky when Moroccan vendors in the Kasbah holler Hola! and Bonjour Mademoiselle! as I walk by to do some grocery shopping. Every character trait has it’s flip-sides I suppose.
Upon moving to Morocco, slipping into the skin of Tangier life has been something dearly important to me. I refused to be one of those foreigners who creates an American bubble within a different country, too afraid to come out of their comfortable little shell. Not to say that I have completely shed my American-ness (I still love peanut butter way too much), but without losing my core sense of self, I have consistently attempted to adapt.
I have done my best to learn the mannerisms and customs that are prevalent in daily life here, such as taxi hand signals, formalities and phrases to say when entering someone's home, and how many kisses to do on another woman’s cheek according to how well you know her. I have gained a decent grasp on the local language- perhaps too much so since M always laughs at how my voice goes up five notches and suddenly becomes all sing-song-y whenever I speak Darija. Most notably today, however, is my ongoing process of learning to cook like a real Tanjawia.
My integration into Moroccan life seems to always have started with food. The first vocabulary words I learned in Darija (besides the basic greetings) were fruit, vegetables, spices and anything that I would need in order to bargain and gather in the souks. WaHed kilo frissa afak (one kilo of strawberries please) was a regularly used phrase from day one. I bonded with friends by having them teach me how to make Moroccan sweets and tea. I won the collective heart of my family-in-law with a fudge brownie cake and was in turn enchanted by my mother-in-law’s couscous. I would like to think that the process of making, serving and eating food together brings out the best of everyone, no matter how vastly different their backgrounds may be.
Food is a vital part of any culture and it has been a major way in which I have cozied myself into authentic Tangier life.
Zaalouk was the first Moroccan food I ever attempted to cook on my own. I had eaten it too many times to count in my favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant and felt fairly confident in replicating it. However, my first attempt was nothing but a cumin overload. By the second time around, it was rich and flavorful perfection.
Once you get this recipe down, it is ridiculously simple to make and can be eaten for virtually any meal. I have had this warm and richly-spiced eggplant dip for breakfast, serving it with a fried egg on top and lots of crusty bread, for lunch with a green salad on the side, and as a dinner side dish paired with kefta meatballs. I even made a giant batch of zaalouk for my Minneapolis engagement party to bring a little bit of Morocco to the Midwestern potluck. Basically, if you are going to learn at least one Moroccan recipe, this is a good one to keep in your pocket.
Zaalouk / Moroccan Eggplant Dip
Makes about 4 servings , vegan + gf
- 2 large eggplants, cubed (you can leave the skin or peel it off. I personally like the texture of the skin, but it's totally up to you)
- 1 diced tomato
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tbsp olive oil (if you can get your hands on Moroccan olive oil, the stronger more peppery flavor is amazing)
- 1 tbsp parsley, minced
- 1 tbsp cilantro, minced
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 1 1/2 tsp sweet paprika
- salt + pepper to taste
- 1 1/2 cups (350 ml) water
In a large pot (or tagine if you have one), heat your olive oil and add the minced garlic. Sauté until fragrant, then add the tomato, eggplant cubes, herbs, spices, salt + pepper. Stir over medium heat until the eggplant is thoroughly covered in spicy goodness. Pour in the water, bring to a boil, then cover, turning down the heat to medium-low and let it simmer. Stirring occasionally, cook for about 25-30 minutes or until the water has evaporated down and the eggplant is completely soft. Remove from heat and using a fork, mash the eggplant and tomato together until it looks like a chunky sauce. Serve in a tagine or on individual plates, topping with extra parsley or cilantro, a squeeze of lemon if you like, and/or an extra drizzle of good olive oil. It can be eaten salad style with a fork, but if you want to be truly moroccan, get yourself some fluffy bread and dip away.
*The Arabic equivalent of Bon Appetit. Literally, "may god give you health."