By Hind Rahali (YES 2021-2022, Morocco, placed by IRIS in Hampton, IA)
While packing for my exchange year in the US, I was determined to take only what I truly needed. I heard that so many alumni took too much and ended up spending more time deciding what to keep and what to leave than enjoying their last moments abroad. So instead, I decided to bring only what I needed: spices and herbs.
I had heard a lot about American cuisine - mostly how different it is from what I am used to back home in Morocco. I was excited to try new things and discover new tastes, but I was also a little apprehensive. I'm used to a very flavorful cuisine, mainly influenced by North African culture. I was afraid that I would find American food bland and boring compared to the diverse cuisine I was used to. I was worried about handling the different weather, getting used to new cultures and people, and if I would be accepted since I felt I was so different from most people in my host community. But I was so wrong!
The people in Iowa were so welcoming and kind. I quickly realized that Iowa was the place for me. I was able to connect with people from all walks of life, and I learned a lot about the state. On top of that, I was able to try new things and explore Iowa in ways that I never thought I would. I learned a lot about the agriculture and got to experience the freezing weather and snow, with all the fun that comes with it- like sledding, walking on a frozen lake for the first time, and the warm fires (which were my favorite part of winter).
I never thought I would have such a fun time experiencing all the things that I was so worried about in the beginning. I was also surprised to find out that my host family had a bigger, more adventurous cuisine than I did. I was introduced to new foods and flavors I would have never thought of before, like mole. Mole is a dark brown Mexican sauce that uses an enormous amount of ingredients - some are roasted, some are grilled, some are boiled, and some are even lit on fire. My amazing host dad took on the persona of an old Mexican woman for a day and spent eight hours making a truly homemade mole that was very different from the flavors I know. Mole is now one of the best things I have ever tasted in my entire life still to this day. I had the chance to try food from every part of the world in our home in small-town northern Iowa, something that I would never have expected. After months of learning and trying new cuisines, I had favorite recipes from each country. But when it comes to American food, there's nothing I love more than a good, juicy steak!
We ended my year by creating a Moroccan pizza, which was our last culinary adventure together. The flavors surprisingly went together very well. I don't think I will ever recreate that recipe by myself, but I also would never forget those flavors nor the experience with my host family. Living with an adventurous host family was a completely new experience. I had to challenge myself to try different cuisines that were far outside my comfort zone. I learned that it is important to challenge yourself by doing new things, even if you are hesitant. Now I try new things regularly, and if I don't enjoy them, I don't have to repeat the experience. That was one of the most important lessons I learned through my culinary adventures with my host family.
By the end of my stay, my host dad told me to pick a cookbook from his large collection to take home. I picked the Mexican cookbook because it was my favorite cuisine I was introduced to while abroad. When I returned home, I shared my new culinary knowledge with my family and friends by cooking for them, sharing recipes, and teaching them how to make the dishes. I am so glad I did because they have enjoyed everything I’ve made so far.
Because of this experience I am now curious about the different cultures and foods of the world. Whenever we cooked a meal from a different country I always wondered if it's similar to how it tastes in its native country, and that's why I want to travel the world to explore and learn about different people, cultures, and food.
My host family and I have been thinking about doing family reunions together along with the exchange student they had before me. I want to reunite with them in different parts of the world, so we get to try everything we made together in its native country. I would like to thank the US Department of State, IRIS, Amideast/Morocco, and my wonderful host family for giving me the opportunity to have this delicious experience.