We have many things we like about our school: the kids; our colleagues who have become friends; being one of five schools in Morocco that is recognized by both the U.S. Department of State and the Moroccan government; waking up to the sound of donkeys braying in the morning from adjacent land; the school’s ideal position for growth and improvement over the next few years; the beautiful ocean view that also overlooks the King’s summer palace; the chickens that waltz freely along the entry road and around the parking lot after slipping through the bars of the front gate; the chemistry of the new leadership team that our Head of Schools built with us and a handful of other key admin folks; and lots more. One simple thing that we like especially: working in the same school so that we get paid to lunch together regularly.
No longer mild competitors in schools across town, we now work happily on the same team with offices 10 feet apart. (That will change in April when the administrative offices will move into the new Library/Media/Technology Center edifice our school is completing this Spring. When that move occurs our offices will be about 40 feet apart, but with glass office walls we can wave to each other from opposite sides of the building wing.) It is quite easy for one of us to pop a head into the office of the other and ask, “Have you eaten yet?…Wanna go now?” And so we do, not every day, but usually three or four days a week as our schedules allow. Better still is that our food service is led by a person who spent years running restaurants and cafeterias in NYC before he brought his Vermont farm girl wife and their kids back home to Morocco. Poor us: In addition to lunching together, we have to suffer through meals like grilled swordfish, Rosemary chicken with a balsamic glaze, and lamb tagine with couscous.
Last Friday, after a long and busy week, we had planned to lunch together at noon. Then Badiaa, the high school coordinator, appeared around 11:30 am to tell us urgently, “Come now, there is rfissa!” Having no idea what that meant, we each dropped what we were doing to see what dire problem we needed to help her solve. Walking out from our offices into a common area, we saw a table laden with a huge clay tagine more than two feet in diameter filled with a culinary masterpiece. This was a really good problem to help solve.
Seven days ago our school received the joyous news that Aziz, Charlotte’s fabulous Arabic teacher and one of the nicest people we have met in Morocco, had welcomed into his family a new son. Badiaa explained that Aziz had brought in a tagine of rfissa that his mother had made for him to share in celebration on the seventh day after his son’s birth. (In fact, we learned, Aziz brought in not one but two tagines, one in our office area and one in the teacher lounge.) Unlike in the West, where people load gifts upon new parents and the biggest gift back is passing out cigars, in Morocco the seventh day after the birth marks a time for new parents to celebrate their healthy child and recognize their friends and family by providing rfissa. As we sat enjoying the feast, we learned that there is not unanimity on when to serve rfissa, with some families actually serving it on the third day after a birth, then slaughtering and roasting a sheep on the seventh day. We also learned that direct gifts to the family are often discouraged, but deftly slipping some paper currency into the clothes of a baby while holding him or her is perfectly acceptable. Still learning so much about Moroccan culture, and whatever the details such learning brings, we could not wait to dive into the tagine and start pulling golden pieces off the chicken and scooping up the accompanying goodness. As we approached the table, others gathered around as well, trying not to drool too much at the sight.
The tagine was loaded with a base of m’semmen (a sort of Moroccan layered flat bread that Charlotte has for breakfast most mornings) shredded into paper-thin noodles; cooked lentils piled on top of that; two golden-brown boiled-then-roasted chickens in the center surrounded by a ring of hard-boiled quail eggs; topped by scrumptious and ubiquitous tfaya (caramelized onions, cinnamon, ginger, saffron, honey, and raisins); with whole almonds scattered across everything. Some rfissa recipes we have seen online since Friday have the chickens boiled with the lentils and other ingredients, so that the result is a visual hodgepodge with flavors shared throughout. Our rfissa appeared to have each element of the dish prepared separately, then constructed into the magnificent presentation we saw and cooked in the tagine a bit longer to let the chickens brown and the flavors start to blend.
Badiaa and Rim, her middle school coordinator counterpart, had set up Aziz’s tagine with plastic forks stuck into the m’semmem noodles around the perimeter. This, Rim told us later, was so that the expats would not be grossed out by eating rfissa the real Moroccan way: grabbing handfuls of m’semmen and chicken and tfaya and lentils and almonds and eggs and putting them into your mouth before grabbing more handfuls for more mouthfuls, everyone gathered around the tagine reaching in and eating together. With the addition of forks for western comfort, that is what we did.
It was good. It was really good. It was really, really, really good. People would come into the upper school office because they smelled food, and they would grab a fork. Those who had never seen rfissa would eat in awe. Those who knew it would say, upon seeing the tagine, “RFISSA!!!” and then tear into the tagine. With each person who came to eat rfissa, there was more conversation: reminiscences of other times eating rfissa and who makes good rfissa; recollections of celebrating babies; special things about family, here in Morocco and elsewhere in the world. It was warm community time, spoken in English, French, and Darija (Moroccan Arabic). In the end, the tagine was decimated, our bellies were more full than even our school lunches could fill, and our hearts were flavored with Moroccan spices.
After celebrating Aziz’s new son by gorging on the rfissa made by Aziz’s mother, three things are clear.
First, we need to learn how to make rfissa.
Second, from perusing online recipes and their photos, none of which came close to measuring up to our feast celebrating Aziz’s new son, to learn how to do it correctly we will have to find a Moroccan mother or grandmother willing to school us in her kitchen on how to do it properly.
Third, and most importantly, rfissa is a metaphor for Morocco, a celebration of life and family full of rich flavors and health and passion. There is generous sharing, as there is also fighting over who gets the last quail egg or bit of tfaya. In the end there is satisfaction not only for having eaten, but for having spent time together in community and knowing you are better for being part of that community.
On your mark…get set…here we go!