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?)
So 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.
And 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.