Monday Meal Review: Morocco

As I set our Moroccan Global Table I know something is wrong.  I know because I’m doing it on purpose.

The table sits outside, under a tree, covered by dappled shade and a soft cotton cloth. I tuck the benches right up to the table, so Ava can eat without a giant void between her and the table.

I look at the clock; Ava’s friend Isabel, her sister Emma, and her parents will be here any minute.

After a moment of hesitation, I make my decision and quickly place seven dinner plates on the tablecloth. This is where I go wrong. This is what I should not be doing. To make matters worse, I continue by placing seven sets of silverware on the table and seven cups. The table is loaded to the brim.

If I were living the traditional Moroccan way I would not be using all these dishes. We would tear off pieces of bread and use it to scoop up the lamb from the communal tagine, straight into our mouths. In fact, Moroccan water vendors carry a strand of shiny metal cups around their neck, sell a cup of water and then take back the cup for the next customer. There’s all kinds of sharing going on in Morocco.

The timer goes off. Beep. Beep. Beeeeeeep. As I lift up the conical lid, the scent of saffron and cinnamon fills my home and drifts out the window, over the table. Perfect.

Once dinner begins we all eat with our own silverware, on our own plates, and our own glasses. We still laugh, we still feel community – but the real experience of “digging in” is missing.

Our hands are tools. Give humans a pile of food and we can pick it apart – no silverware required. Even soup is no obstacle, with the right determination. I’ve seen it all over the world. When we don’t use our hands enough (whether for eating, building, sewing, gardening, or painting), we lose that connection to what we can do on our own.

This week I desperately wanted to eat the tagine with our hands. We’ve eaten like this for other Global Tables, but things are changing around here.

When it comes to toddlers, consistency is key. Ava now knows that every Thursday she’ll be trying new food from around the world. She knows it’ll be fun, a bit unusual, and there’ll be a video camera. But what she can’t yet figure out is why sometimes she’s allowed to eat with her hands and sometimes she’s not.

This can create quite a bit of confusion at dinnertime. When she was a baby, occasionally eating with her hands worked because… well, .. she occasionally ate with her hands. And when she’s a little older, no doubt, eating with her hands once in a while will work again. But at two years old, it’s hard to enforce eating with a fork 6 days a week, only to undermine myself on the remaining day.

It confuses her and it confuses me. And it would have confused our friends and their kids. Oh the chaos. I can picture it now (which is why I put out those plates and silverware).

I’m curious and looking for advice. How does your family handle eating with your hands? What about family style, from one shared plate (think pizza, ice cream, popcorn)? Do you do it at all? Why or why not?

Moroccan Lamb Tagine with Sweet Honey Figs [Recipe]

What I love most about this dish:

Oh sweet goodness – this is cinnamon and spice and everything nice. The meat on this tagine is so tender, we literally didn’t need our knives – we simply just pulled a little on the meat and it fell apart. I adore how the honey figs and chestnuts complemented the meat. But the best complement of all? Everyone had thirds. Even Ava, despite the fact that all she wanted to do was play, play, play.

What I love least about this dish:

There’s nothing difficult about it, except the desire to keep peeking under the tagine lid. Try not to do this much, or you lose all the heat. One other note – chestnuts can get expensive and are by no means required for this dish to be amazing.

Moroccan Carrot & Orange Salad [Recipe]

What I love most about this dish:

There is something so incredible about adding sugar, orange juice and cinnamon to carrots. It’s like having carrot cake, but for a salad (and not as sweet). I could not believe how much of this Ava’s little friend ate – two entire glasses. In fact, everyone seemed to like it, even the girl’s mom who has a slight allergy to carrots (I found this out after dinner).  And even Mr Picky (see the collage of his tasting experience). I like that the flavors can easily sit overnight, making this salad an obvious option for a travel-themed potluck or party.

What I love least about this dish:

Not much. Next time I make it, I want to grate the carrots even finer, to make the salad more traditional. While you can easily eat this a couple of days after you make it, the color dulls somewhat the longer it sits.

Moroccan Semolina “Crater” Pancakes [Recipe]

What I love most about this dish:

Every. single. thing. Seriously. This tastes like fresh baked bread, but with the buttery honey spiked with orange blossom water? Forget it. This is how I plan to spend the next several Saturday mornings. I served these after dinner, way after the kids were long since full, yet they all wen to town on these as if they didn’t have dinner thirty minutes earlier. I also made these for breakfast on a weeknight (by mixing the batter up the night before and refrigerating it). Easy peasy!

What I love least about this dish:

Like any pancake, there is always a bit of time spent fiddling with the temperature gauge. I lucked out and had no trouble figuring out how hot to set the stove – it’ll be a lot like your pancake setting. Don’t worry though – if you mess up the first 1 or 2 figuring out the right temperature. You’ll eventually get the hang of it. The key is to raise the temperature if holes don’t form and lower it if the bottom burns before the top dries out.

Ava’s Corner:


  1. I have no advice for the eating with the hands thing – interesting the kind of difficulty parents face! I am curious to read other comments about it.

    but the whole meal seems simply amazing! I’ve done carrots this way, but not shredded, and felt that even sliced thin, they were a bit too crunchy for my taste. I think how you cut the carrots matter a lot, and I intend to follow your method next time

    (the composite photo of the tasting was great!)

    • Sasha Martin says

      Yes, go even finer than myself and you’ll probably love it! Thanks re: the composite. It’s so funny to me that he always smells new foods (I’m not even sure he’s aware of it) 🙂

  2. Jessica Bennett says

    I understand the confusion of when to eat with your hands and when not to eat with your hands. Although, I don’t see why it’s only for your global meals. As you point out, there is pizza and popcorn and other things which you do eat with your hands, and I assume children at any age learn which foods are hand foods and which ones require utensils (and which ones can be either, like pizza). It is your choice as a mother to decide what you would like her to do. Our country is mostly flexible with these matters, unlike some countries. Etiquette of other countries is something that Ava can learn later.

    • Sasha Martin says

      You’re right in some ways… and she has figured out that pizza is okay with her hands… hmm. Maybe it’s like you say – and if we eat tagine often enough, she’ll figure out that it’s okay to eat with her hands, just like when the pizza peel comes out… and that is a good excuse to make several more tagines 🙂 But I do think there has to be some logic tied to it – like the vessel it’s cooked in, because otherwise a meat dish is simply a meat dish to a kid, and they don’t understand why one time the meat would be eaten with forks (say at a restaurant) and one would not be (say when we eat like an Ethiopian).

      • Jessica Bennett says

        You’re right; it is complicated! There is no right or wrong way, but it seems that you’ve found your solution for now, and that will change as she gets older. What I do know is that whether or not to use utensils will be one of the easier decisions you will have in raising her 🙂 But I love that you brought up this topic. From what I read here, you sound like a terrific mother!

  3. Looks like a lovely dinner! I’m so happy you enjoyed this weeks’ meals. I really was intrigued by the story about the dishes and silverware so I had to write my own post about it (live tomorrow). Ready for Mozambique!

  4. Very coincidentally, by cooking group is doing “Morocco” tonight! I am cooking Chicken B’stilla and my house smells amazing!

    • Sasha Martin says

      Ohh how wonderful! Save me a (virtual) seat 🙂 Also, I’m interested to hear how you do your cooking group – do you always pick a country, or are there other themes? And how do you decide who picks what?

      • There are only four of us and we take turns hosting. The host picks the theme. Each of the other three do dessert, appetizer and side dish – though there is some flexibility there. We haven’t been doing this long – so we are still kind of feeling our way. We have done an autumn themed dinner, South American,
        Colonial Christmas, (then 2 of us went south for the winter so we have just picked back up) – last month we did Malaysia and this month is Morocco. We have planned a bit ahead – I will be hosting in Sept. again and have already said that I want the theme to be “local foods”. The host in October has set “Transylvania” as our country – what fun! I hope to have some pictures of tonight’s gathering on my blog on Wed. – I’ll let you know!

        • Sasha Martin says

          Oh goodness – I wish I had a group (and the time) for something like that! I love all the creativity. And very curious what comes out of Transylvania!! I’m thinking your group might be interested in submitting global gingerbread houses later this year – a decorating party might be right up your alley. Anyway, looking forward to seeing your pictures from the dinner.

  5. Pingback: Digging In {Eating with Your Hands} |

  6. where can u get rose water in US? esp. if there are no middle eastern grocery stores near u?
    where did u get your tajine from?

    • Sasha Martin says

      I used orange blossom water – you might have some luck at an Indian market or Mediterranean grocery. I find it easiest to call around, instead of driving around. You might be surprised what google pulls up. I never would have thought I’d have 2 African markets in Tulsa, OK! If you can’t find the water, you can still make the recipes without… especially the tagine, where it plays the smallest role of the three recipes. The tagine is from Williams Sonoma for about $50.

      • Lilah says

        You could make your own. Look online for rosewater recipes–the easiest I found (on short notice) has you barely simmer rose petals in distilled water for about an hour. If you don’t grow roses yourself, I think you could ask a florist for old organic roses. (Most recipes seem to call for two or three quarts of petals, though, so you may need to downscale quite a bit.)

        Hope this helps!

  7. We have always eaten a wide variety of foods at our house from countries all over the world. I think it’s an important part of an education for my children. My aim is/was to have children that would always accept any food graciously and hopefully recognise foods from all over the world and enjoy them.
    My two oldest children are now adults and will eat pretty much anything ( this was not always the case when they were little) – they take a pride in being able to find their way around menus from almost any country and continue be adventurous in their choices. My oldest daughter recently told me how much she appreciated her “food education” at home as a child (she is now 23).
    They know which meals they can eat with their fingers, how to use chopsticks and how to set a table with a full set of cutlery ( well perhaps my daughter more than my son on that one!)
    I have a 7 year old too that is in the ” learning ” stage of eating from around the world.
    I do think it is about exposure to different foods and different ways of doing things on a regular basis. My 7 year old is amazing with chopsticks because every time we have a meal that comes from a country which uses chopsticks that is what I put on the table. He loves telling serving staff that he doesn’t need a fork in Japanese and chinese resturants! He has had chopsticks presented to him since he was 3 years of age.
    If we are having indian food I do not put cutlery out – but huge amounts of indian bread to pick up and eat the meal with etc. We use times when we have international meals to discuss customs and things about that country. Our youngest does not always eat all of what is put in front of him – but the rule is ‘ you need to try before you decide” Often he is surprised with what he likes. This week we had a venison pie – which he really loved.
    I think the key to teaching when it is ok and when it is not ok, is just to teach by example and make it happen on a regular basis. Your kids will thank you for it later 🙂
    Sorry for the long post – I am just so excited for your children getting to learn all about the world food culture 🙂

    • Sasha Martin says

      It’s so great to hear testimonies like this, from people with grown children who not only appreciate what their parents have done, but continue it themselves. I have been given some great encouragement in these comments and will be trying some new techniques with our finger/utensil approach. Perhaps by the next country that uses hands, I’ll have a new report. Thanks for sharing your story!

  8. Eating with hands/silveware is a harf concept to teach. Our 6-yr old eats pretty much everything with silverware and we tell her off when she sticks her hand into her plate. But then there are things she is allowed to eat with her hands, say chicken on the bone (when it is just family), olives, artichokes, foreign foods… and to make it even more confusing, her 2-yr old brother of course eats almost everything with his hands. We try to explain there are things we can do at home that we don’t do if we are out and that all cultures have different eating habits and that her little brother isn’t able to use silverware that well yet. It is obvious why a lot of “adult” rules make absolutely no sense to children.

  9. Ruby Libertus says

    In Sri Lankan we always pretty much eat with our hands, probably more than anywhere else in the world. It is interesting because it affects work too- people go to a room and dig into rice and curry with everyone, rather than eating salad at their desk in front of a computer-sort of forces you to do that-taking the time to eat and eating along with others. In Pakistan it was great coz when we ate Karahi from one big pot in the middle and everybody dug in with the naan.
    Yes, it is kind of confusing for Jassy-to use chopsticks, fingers or a fork, but I guess I have given up on the consistency thing and bringing her up more so to accomodate at any moment to anywhere- maybe because I grew up in different places and had to assimilate constantly.

  10. Erica Birky Rios says

    You picked great options for your Moroccan dishes! My partner is from Morocco and these dishes are things we’ve either made or talked about. I can’t speak much to the eating-food-with-hands versus utensils with kids issue, except that I would think that whatever you set before her would seem to guide her eating. Utensils on the table, that’s what you eat with. No utensils, you eat your hands! (course, my kids are big now and I haven’t had to struggle with young kids at the table for a while now). One interesting thing that I can comment on is when we enjoyed beef & vegetable couscous with friends and family last month. My mother, daughter, son, his girlfriend, my sister and Naoufel were at the table. I knew that my son’s girlfriend probably wasn’t going to feel comfortable eating out of a communal dish with her hands, but that my sister would like to, and Naoufel and I wanted to. We ended up dividing the table up by eating style. At one of the table, we ate around a communal dish, and at the other end, they each off their own plates! I felt like it worked out for everyone! Just heard about your blog today on Travel With Rick Steves on public radio! So happy to have discovered your site, what a fantastic endeavor to share with the world!

    • Erica Birky Rios says

      Hahaha, eat WITH your hands! … each ATE off… good reminder to reread before hitting ‘post’!

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