Thursday, October 21, 2010

Morocco, The Caliph's House and Kefta Tagine...Here's Looking At You, Kid.

When I was in the second grade, we had a show-and-tell session at school, which was followed by a parent-teachers conference. At the dinner table that night, my mother calmly asked me to recount what I had told the teacher that morning about the last vacation we had taken.

 "Uhm, I dunno," I mumbled back.

 "Really? Because the sweet lady asked me how our trip to MOROCCO and MAURITANIA had been?!" my mother countered, staring me down from across the table.

 My dad chortled, I feigned innocence and everyone returned to their dinner. The story hasn't been forgotten, and I still get teased about the incident to this day. I, on the other hand, still cannot fathom where those two exotic and yet inaccessible countries had entered into my otherwise staid schema of normal 7 year old activities like dolls, fighting with the neighbors kids and stealing chocolate cake.

Had I been subjected to re-runs of the movie Casablanca as a baby?
I distinctly recall Sesame Street characters from my infancy, but definitely no Bogart.

Had a caregiver incessantly sung "As Time Goes By" to lull me to sleep? Highly unlikely, the constant stream of nannies that had passed through our household had not known English too well to be able to master that feat.

Chalk it up to unsolved mysteries (not so much, my parent's theory was that we had visited Mauritius earlier that year, and unable to bend my tongue around that name, I had come up with two fairly similar but highly unlikely destinations to enthrall my class with), but the fact remains that Morocco and the mysterious splendour that is Casablanca has been high up on my bucket list of places to visit (there is is an insatiable 7 year old in all of us, right?)

The Caliph's House: A Year in CasablancaSo I could totally relate to this months book choice at This Book Makes Me Cook which was The Caliph's House by Tahir Shah. Tahir Shah gets increasingly frustrated with his monotone, humdrum life in England, where the incessant grey skies and the conformity and boredom of his staid life starts to threaten his sanity. Against the warnings of his well-wishers and even family, some of whom ironically wish they could escape the same monotony that Shah detests, he packs up and sets off to Casablanca with his little daughter and heavily pregnant and highly sceptical Indian wife.

Morocco had always been refuge for Shah's wanderlust, he had travelled there as a child, and its mystery, landscape, heritage and culture re-ignites his passion for life and sets him on an even more personal and deeper quest, to retrace the last days of his grandfather's life there.

Ominous signs throughout the authors endeavour would have scared off lesser mortals like me. The day Shah signs papers for a derelict Moroccan mansion known as Dar Khalifa, a suicide bomber ignites a bomb, killing several innocent by-standers and Shah is grazed slightly in a terrorist attack that jolts the otherwise secular country into the throes of fundamentalist strife. It only gets worse, the princely house he has acquired is in a state of complete decay and borders a shanty town or bidonville, complete with rogue characters and a crumbling infrastructure.

The house also comes with three resident caretakers, part and parcel of the deal and who cannot be shaken off, who then appear to sabotage the authors every move to renovate the house, due to their unwillingness to change their ways and their steadfast belief that the house is possessed by jinns, supernatural beings that are honored and feared in North African Islamic culture.

The book is a lively account of everything Tahir Shah, his children and what sounds like his long-suffering wife, go through in restoring the house to some sense of normalcy. It is no lie that we deal with inept technicians and shoddy workmanship at times in the Western World, but they are small fry compared to the cast of characters, some ghoulish and some absolutely comedic, and outlandish scenarios that befalls the author as he tries to convert his dream into reality.

Interspersed with Shah's very light-handed account of his trails and tribulations is a fairly insightful look into how things are done in the mystical country of Morocco and the day-to-day life of its citizens, some of which may seem obtuse and unimaginable in our minds, but is reality in that part of the world.

There is a silver lining to this story, while it may not seem apparent as you read through the book. Here is a glimpse of the renovated house in Casablanca from NY Times and BBC reports of the place, which the author has turned into a bed-and-breakfast type resort.

While I enjoyed the book thoroughly, the parts where the author tries to find out more about his late grandfather and some of his secret dealings felt a little out of place in this story and lacked depth for me.

Le Souk Ceramique 10 inch Serving Tajine, Honey DesignAnd to cook something from this book, I chose the tagine, which is the signature dish of Morocco. Typically a stew of protein and vegetables that is lightly spiced, the dish gets its name from the use of a special dish with a turret lid, which slowly re-utilizes the vapors of the food to produce a fork-tender product. In that case, since I am woefully lacking a tagine dish, I should have probably renamed my dish Kefta Calphalon Non-Stick. But, as in my second grade show-and-tell, lets just pretend we went the authentic Moroccan way.

When I went to source a recipe for kefta tagine, my first stop was the remarkable Sousou Kitchen, your one-stop shop for all Moroccan goodies. And if blogging wasn't hard already, you should check her site out, she has VIDEOS of every recipe prepared! I also wanted to incorporate what I had seen at Almost Bourdain's fantastic site, where her spicy egg and meat tagine had caught my eye.

Kefta Tagine (adaption from both Almost Bourdain's Moroccan Kefta Mkaoura and Sousou Kitchen's Kefta Tagine (this is a video link)

For the kefta/meatballs:
1 lb ground beef
2 Tbsp parsley, chopped fine
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper powder
1 Tbsp olive oil

1. Mix all ingredients except oil, and form small balls. Heat oil in non-stick pan, add meatballs, and toss till cooked and lightly brown on all sides. Remove from pan, drain on paper towels and reserve. Wipe pan and re-use for sauce.

For the Sauce:
1 medium onion, chopped
3 medium tomatoes, diced
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp black pepper powder
1 heaped tsp crushed garlic
1 large potato, diced into large pieces
1/2 tsp turmeric
large pinch saffron
1-2 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 - 1 cup warm water
chopped parsley/coriander for garnish
Salt to taste
* cooking times are approximate given how thick you want your sauce to be

1. Heat oil in a non-stick pan. Add onion, saute till they become soft, then add garlic.
2. When the garlic and onions have started to brown, add in the spice powders (except saffron and salt) and stir. Add tomatoes and continue frying over medium heat till the oil starts to separate out. Add potatoes, give them a quick stir fry and then add some warm water to form a gravy. How much water you add depends on your preference as to how "soupy" you want the stew to be. You may have to add some more water later on as the potatoes cook, so do not add too much water at this step.
3. Let the sauce simmer, covered,  for about 10 minutes to develop the spice flavors..
4. Add salt to season the sauce, and add in the meatballs and the saffron. Adjust the sauce consistency by adding more warm water if you wnat more gravy or reducing it further in the next step.
5. Let the sauce cook further, covered, for about 5- 10 minutes to let the kefta absorb the flavors of the sauce.
6. Remove from heat, adjust for salt, garnish with parsley or coriander.
Serve with middle eastern flatbread or rice.

So we read stellar books every month at This Book Makes Me Cook, chaperoned by the very efficient Simran

There is yet another  internet Book Club that also Cooks Their Books (who knew?) and they sweetly asked if I could be a guest judge over at their place as they read Madhur Jaffrey's Climbing The Mango Trees.
Confused? Yes? No? Read my guest post over at their place , and then you can also read our reviews too.


An Open Book said...

gosh casablanca is such an awesome movie..i can watch it again and again

Simran said...

I just finished reading the book. Now just need to cook something before I post my super-late review.

Your tagine is lovely!

Aparna said...

The flavours and your dish are just right. :)
I just read the blurb and knew I was buying this book, and I wasn't wrong. Loved it too.

Marisa said...

Lovely review - sounds like a captivating book!

I like using meatballs in a tagine - have not tried that before. (Of course, mine is also a make-belief tagine).

Srivalli said...

Ann, that was lovely to read. You guys really push me so much to take part in this event. Wish I could, really..but you have taken me through the book no doubt..nice pictures for the story that your family picture?

Ann said...

@Srivalli - gosh no, thats not us! That is the author Tahir Shah and HIS family ...LOL!

Kulsum@JourneyKitchen said...

I had one and broke it and haven;t been able to replace it. This reminded me of how badly I want one. New to your blog and loving it :)

Bharathy said...

I am so sooo happy to see your comment in the wine post! :)
in fact I had been checking on your reply almost everyday!! :)

yes yes yes..there will be some sediment, Ann...dont worry abt it..even I remember getting them when I made them and asked two of my wine expert friends who had replied to me not to worry abt it and asked me to just ignore the sediment and pour the clear part onto to a wine can always keep it out and mine stayed fine even after two years!! :)..
even I didnt caremelise the whole leave it that way!
waiting impatiently to see the wine you made, Ann..any chance??? ;)

P.S- I have to read this fabulous post later when I really get I cant wait to post this comment :)

Tiiiiight hugs :)

Bharathy said...

Ann..I am getting back after asking my best pal abt the wine sediment.
According to her, Californian grapes are the best to make wine..
the sediments will be cloudy and will take some time to settle down...since you have filtered it once, leave it undisturbed for few more days...if you still see little wine on top get back to me..
I have never used a filter paper nor my we can make use of it as a last abode!..fine??

No this is not becose of using a wet spoon or anything Ann..don't bother abt it..may be it has something to do with the fibre content of the grapes we use...mine was light pink coloured 'with seed' varietied local ones ;) and had very less sediment too..

Sarah Naveen said...

oh Casablanca is such a classic..thoroughly njoyed reading the post..

btw.. i used frozen drumsticks this time..Thought it would be soggy too..but luckily it was pretty good...

tasteofbeirut said...

I feel silly admitting that I have yet to visit Morocco; it seems like everybody has already done so and tells me I have got to go! Well, at least, I can semi-do it with your recipe (yummy) and this book and the beautful pics!

permanent magenta said...

oh How exciting. I just finished the Caliph's House, getting ready fora trip to morocco myself, and loved it. So nice to find your story, review and RECIPE!!!! Thank you.