Cultural diversity and food: local chef brings a taste of Morocco to FMS students

FMS students had the opportunity to taste a Moroccan chicken, beans and rice dish from local chef Aneesa Waheed. Chef Waheed owns Tara Kitchen, which has a location in Guilderland.

Lunch at Farnsworth Middle School went international on Wednesday, Jan. 17 as Chef Aneesa Waheed from Tara Kitchen – a Mediterranean and Moroccan restaurant in Guilderland – hosted a sampling event in the school’s cafeteria. Students were able to try boneless chicken marinated in an apricot and prune sauce, as well as rice and green beans seasoned with “ras el hanout,” a traditional Moroccan spice blend. The objective of the event was to provide students the opportunity to taste more diverse foods.

“I feel like food is such a good way to bridge culture and begin a conversation,” Waheed said. “I like doing these events with middle school students in particular because they’re ready for information. They’re not too young to understand the culture behind food or too old to maybe not care enough. So this is a great age group not just for culinary diversity, but for all different kinds of education.”

Woman waving hello.
Chef Aneesa Waheed.

Located in North Africa and bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, Morocco and its cuisine is heavily influenced by countries like Spain, Italy and Greece. Many of Chef Waheed’s creations are vegan, halal and free of gluten, nuts, dairy and soy. She chose this specific chicken, rice and beans dish because it’s something “that’s been very popular in lots of other middle schools in the Capital Region.”

“I have kids in sixth and seventh grade, so it kind of started out because my daughter came home one day and said ‘Mom, how can we have this food at school?’ And then I went to the school district and they were very excited to potentially have this food on the menus. So that’s how this whole story started about a year ago,” Chef Waheed said.

Students lined up to sample food.
Many students rushed to be the first to try Chef Waheed’s Moroccan food.

FMS students were immediately enticed by the savory aroma of Moroccan spices as they entered the cafeteria for lunch that Wednesday afternoon. After being introduced by Principal Michael Laster, Chef Waheed briefly explained her background and described Moroccan food to students, specifically the three items she brought to sample. Principal Laster then called students up by house (Hiawatha, Mohawk, Seneca, and Tawasentha) to the sampling table, with many rushing to be the first in line.

Walking from table to table, it was evident students were thoroughly enjoying Chef Waheed’s food. For most, it was their first time trying Moroccan food and feedback was very positive according to the following student reviews:

Student smiling with a "thumbs up" while holding a plate of food.

  • “Guys, this is delicious!”
  • “If they put this on the lunch menu, I’ll actually get it.”
  • “The food is like really good and it reminds me of home because my dad makes this kind of stuff.”
  • “I really like…the chicken, the rice and the green beans. I don’t usually try new foods, and when I do, I don’t really like them. And this was a new food that I really liked.”
  • “I like the sweetness of the chicken.”
  • “I really like it. I like the sauce and the flavor of the chicken and beans.”
  • “If they had way more servings, I would eat it all.”
  • “So this chicken with the apricot sauce, I think it’s really yummy. It’s a really sweet taste. Then when you mix it with the rice, it’s like so good.”
  • “I think this food is so good, like literally it’s a ‘W.’ I don’t know who wouldn’t want to eat this. And it’s my first time ever trying Moroccan food. This is the best experience ever!”

As clean plates began to appear on tables, students expressed how they would like to see FMS offer different types of cuisine for lunch, such as Moroccan food. Some students even said they would bring money in specifically to purchase a meal like the one they sampled if it became part of the regular lunch menu. One student provided her perspective, saying “I think it’s really really great. I’ve never really had something with this kind of flavor before, and it’s definitely unique. I think a lot of kids would really appreciate having something like this at lunch.”

Student smiling towards another student.

“I think that culinary diversity is very important because it’s a good way to do cultural diversity. So if somebody eats the food of a country, especially children, …it’s easy for them to connect to those people. So if you eat Moroccan food and you’re like ‘oh wow this is really tasty, I like it’ the next step is ‘Where is Morocco?,’ ‘Who are the Moroccans?,’ ‘What’s the language?’ It really starts a conversation,” said Chef Waheed.

The collaboration between FMS and Tara Kitchen was a unique way for students to experience food from a different culture and connect with a local Guilderland eatery. Not only did students enjoy Chef Waheed’s creations, but many stated they wouldn’t have tried Moroccan food had it not been for the sampling event. Most importantly, it was the first step for the Guilderland Central School District to offer food that begins to reflect the culture of its students, which supports its diversity, equity and inclusion initiative of creating welcoming environments in its school buildings. By hosting similar events in the future, the district has the opportunity to diversify its food offerings and build menus specific to its student populations.

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