Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Stalk

I did not grow up where rhubarbs grow. I hadn't seen a single stalk of it till we lugged our life and luggage to England. Then, suddenly there they were, lying in their market stall. These lounging, stretching, graceful stalks. Pink and slender and as foreign as flamingoes. So, I admired their beauty, and skirted around them the way one skirts around beautiful, foreign things.



But when you live in this country, rhubarb will find its way to you. Rhubarb in ice-creams, rhubarb in pies, rhubarb with its feisty kick aimed at the corners of your jaw. Who'd have guessed? That this slender thing in its pink cocktail gown could kick like a ninja.


Now don't get all uptight about me peeling that pink off in the next photograph. I know: you'd never do that to your rhubarb. Who'd do such a thing? I'll explain in a bit.


So. It kicked like a ninja, and I loved it. I loved the coy exterior and the tart within. (Pun? Nah!) Rhubarb has personality. It is what it is; you either like it, or you don't. It's Marmite vegetable.

And to me, it's as English as Marmite too. In my technicolour rhubarb-imagination, I can see it's delicate stalks stewing on an AGA in an English country kitchen, then put in a pie and served to a lady, who, as the camera zooms in, I see is Beatrix Potter putting the finishing touches to Tabitha Twitchit's prickles.

But what if you invited this English Rhubarb into a different kitchen, into my kitchen? I bought six pink and well-mannered rhubarb stalks last week. D and Chotto-ma used half of the stalks to bake me a lovely cake on Mother's Day.

And I had my way with the other half.





Rhubarb & Red Lentil Soup with Ras-el-hanout

This soup! It's a very, very, very fine soup. We've had it on a loop for a week. It's a great example of why rhubarb needs to be thrown into savoury recipes more often. The recipe was inspired by a tangy dal we had growing up - a simmered mix of red lentils and raw mango. This soup has the same tart edge, balanced by the natural sweetness of carrots. The ras-el-hanout, which we carried back freshly ground from Morocco adds a beautiful North African moorishness. (You can, of course, buy ras-el-hanout, as well as the turmeric in the recipe, in almost all supermarkets and Middle-Eastern grocers.)



Ingredients

250 gms red lentil, washed
2 stalks of rhubarb
2 carrots, chopped into small cubes
1 medium onion, also chopped small
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 tsp coarse black pepper (crushing a few with a pestle is even better)
Bunch of parsley, chopped (or coriander - both work well)
1 1/2 tsp ras-el-hanout
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tbs olive oil
Salt




Cut off the head and tail of your rhubarb stalk; the leaves are toxic, so must always be trimmed off. Not cut your stalks in 1-inch pieces. (Usually, I leave my rhubarb unpeeled and pink, but for the soup, white looked better than the final watered-down pink, so I peeled the stalks. So there! Feel free to leave the pink on with rhubarb that is very fresh and firm.)
Heat the olive oil in a deep pot. Throw the onions, garlic, carrots in together. Stir for two minutes, then add 4 cups of water.
Add the lentils, rhubarb, half of the parsley (or coriander), ras-el-hanout, bayleaf, pepper and salt.
Cover and simmer till the lentils have split evenly. Add more water if needed.


Taste for salt, simmer for a minute more giving it a good stir.
Serve hot garnished with the rest of the chopped parsley (or coriander).






















COMMENT CAVEAT: Many of you have written to me saying that comments you leave here are often not published. So, a little note: if you don't see your comments here in 24 hours, please know that they have not reached me at all! Blogger can play up, and I hate to think that words you've taken time and care to write down have vanished. So please, email me your comments if you find them missing, at peppercornsinmypocket@gmail.com, and I promise to post them them here, and write back.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Stereotypes and cake

I have the week off. I get almost nothing done when I have time off. For the past hour, I've sat on the sofa staring at this lion that Chotto-ma drew a few days ago. It's such a beautiful lion, isn't it? It has kind eyes. A zebra might have another opinion, but it has kind eyes. It also has a bow on its head, if you peer in closely. What's a big beast of a lion without a little red bow in his mane, right?


We like breaking stereotypes in this house, and ste-reo-types is a word Chotto-ma learnt early. Because, by lord, we're surrounded by them outside, we drown in them when we walk out the door!

We went to the John Lewis store to buy pyjamas for Chotto-ma the other day. Chotto-ma loves dinosaurs, and she loves sharks and penguins and anything that moves on all fours or sixes. But no sir, John Lewis begs to differ. Every interesting pyjama with dinosaurs and sharks had a sewn-in tag saying John Lewis For Boys. Wait. What's wrong with John Lewis For Kids, if you must assume I'm size-blind? I'm sure people can decide if they'd like to buy it for a boy or girl based on the child's personality and taste rather than sex? Yes, there was one lone dino-print pyjama in the girls' section, bless their generosity - but no points for guessing its colour. No, it wasn't pink. It was Very Pink.



And that brings me to the country's great, unspoken colour-code. Pink and Blue. When you have a baby, don't you dare confuse those two! Girls must gurgle in their prams in pink, boys in blue. Cover a little girl in a blue blanket only if you want to hear, "Aww, what a handsome little boy!"

And of course, there's the conversation I had at the hairdresser's some time ago. There was a lovely girl cutting my hair, and Chotto-ma trying to catch my chopped, wet strands before they fell to the floor. The hairdresser and I were chatting about this and that, as we usually do. She was talking about her job at the salon, so I asked her how she'd gotten into hairdressing. And she said: "You know, I was never much into school, so I did what girls do. I got into beauty."



And then there's the fact that Chotto-ma went to a birthday party where all the girls got little purple coin-purses in their party-bags and all the boys got large bugs preserved in glass cubes. And she came home a little sad. She'd really wanted the bug with its black hairy legs and cool shiny green body, but she was a girl, so a purple purse it was.

And there's the fact that at Chotto-ma's after-school club, when she and a friend were once playing with a box of Lego from the Star Wars series, an older boy came up to them, took the box away, and reminded them they they had the 'girl Lego' to play with, and that these were for the boys.

And there's the fact that you might know a little boy who loves playing with kitchen sets but you also know that you can never gift him a kitchen set for his birthday, without incurring the shock of his parents. He must be gifted a car, poor child. Or a football at the very least.

And the fact that a local children's magazine I was leafing through had an article called "Party Ideas for Boys and Girls", where the page was split in two - Boys / Girls, and the boys' section had science experiments, pirates, football and space. While the girls' section had a tutu party, flowers and fairies, cupcake baking, princesses and mermaids. Chotto-ma is obsessed with space and planets and all its galaxies, just as I was when I was young. She loves science experiments, which we often do at home with kitchen ingredients. But never mind all that - let's just put all the girls in sparkly mermaid costumes, shall we?

It's hard for children to find their own voice when the world seems to be so organised in their stereotypes. When they're seen as Boy or Girl, instead of People. Girls, especially, are constantly given subliminal hints about their 'role' in life. When you gift a girl a Barbie (I could write an entire post on everything that's wrong with that doll), and you buy a book called 'Facts on Fossils' for a boy, you are sending her a strong message, which will have far deeper repercussions than one might think. [Link to an interesting article on that below]

We do what we can to balance Chotto-ma's world at home, even if it means breaking the smallest stereotypes. I have a blue toothbrush and D has a pink one. We went out and bought them after telling her how people couldn't be coded by colour, how no one had to follow any set notion of 'Obvious'. And when we came back home from the hairdresser's that day, I showed her a photograph of the scientists who built Mangalyaan, the Mars orbiter. The photo showed a group of Indian scientists, all women, in beautiful silk sarees and flowers in their hair, punching the air as they made history in space technology. They'd probably also packed their child's lunch before coming in to work to build that rocket.




Chotto-ma sees D cooking as many meals as I do; because dinner is cooked by whoever has the time to cook it that day. And the house is cleaned, and clothes folded, by whoever has the time to clean the house and fold the clothes that day. There's nothing more to it - apart from the fact that you'll probably eat a little better if I cook the dinner. And you'll probably also get a slice of lovely cake after.

Are there stereotypes that bother you? Moments when you have found them frustrating as a parent, grandparent, uncle, aunt? Stereotypes that annoyed you when you were a child? I'd love to hear your stories, for surely I'm not the only one who has them? My stories come from being the parent of a girl, but which ones do you face as the parent of a boy? I'd love to know, and it'd be good to have this discussed - please share the blog link on Facebook and elsewhere if you like.

And in the meantime, I'll give you a recipe for a mean orange-almond cake, which goes well with good old talk about things that matter. I've baked it thrice in three weeks. Well, Chotto-ma and I baked it together, even as we talked about planets, bugs, prehistoric creatures and other so-called 'boy things'. Because, there might be a set recipe for a cake, but there ain't no set recipe for a girl. Or a boy.



Added on March 10, 2015: A kind lady emailed me an article yesterday after reading the post. This article is from a US perspective, while mine is from the UK, but they say the same thing. It shows why seemingly small, market-created stereotypes can do deeper damage to our social structure, and handicap girls and women. Here's an excerpt from the article

"...contributing factors, according to academic experts I interviewed, include a culture that encourages young women to play with dolls rather than robots and pursue traditionally female careers, as well as the self-perpetuating stereotype that a programmer is a white male. Sometimes women can feel like they don’t belong in a technical world dominated by men.
Those stereotypes are based on reality, according to data released by some of the largest tech companies. Among the top employers in Silicon Valley, including Facebook, Google, Twitter and Apple, 70% of the workforce is male. In technical roles, the disparity is even greater. At Twitter, for instance, only 10% of the technical workforce is female."
You can read the complete article here.


Orange and Almond Cake





Ingredients

1 cup plain flour
1 cup ground almond
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice, pulp in
2 tsp zest of an orange
2 heaped tbsp of butter
2 heaped tbsp yogurt
1/4 cup oil (vegetable or sunflower)







Preheat oven to 160 degrees C (320 degrees F).
Grease cake tin with butter, keep aside. (I like my 6-inch, and deep, cake tin for this)
Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl - flour, ground almond, baking powder, sugar, orange zest.
Make a well in the middle. Crack in the eggs. Add the vanilla essence, the butter, oil and yogurt.
Start mixing it in a circular motion. Pour the orange juice a bit at a time as you mix. Till it's a nice smooth batter, easy to stir.
Pour batter into cake tin. Bake for about 50 minutes, then slide a knife in to check if done. If it's still a little soft, switch off the oven, and pop the cake back in. Leave it there for 15 more minutes.



This cake has a beautiful crunchy crust when it's just out of the oven, so you must have a slice warm. But once it's cooled, wrap the rest in clingfilm and leave it on the table overnight. It's even better a day later, when the ground almond has released all its lovely natural oil.

You'll love it!









COMMENT CAVEAT: Many of you have written to me saying that comments you leave here are often not published. So, a little note: if you don't see your comments here in 24 hours, please know that they have not reached me at all! Blogger can play up, and I hate to think that words you've taken time and care to write down have vanished. So please, email me your comments if you find them missing, at peppercornsinmypocket@gmail.com, and I promise to post them them here, and write back.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Vegetarians, proceed with caution


On Sunday mornings, I would often accompany my father to the local butcher; I was in my teens then. We would walk down our long driveway, Baba greeting neighbours returning from their morning walk, me swinging the little jute bag Ma gave me, trying to not have to greet anyone.

Our butcher Munna's shop is a short walk away. Past a Mother Dairy booth where people queue to collect the day's milk in aluminium cans, past a small roadside shrine where people queue to offer flowers to the gods, past the ration shop where people queue for sugar, soap and rice. We would walk to the end of the road, turn the corner and queue for meat at Munna's Meat Shop.


We never had to queue for long, because Baba - or Doctor-saab as he is called - enjoys a few privileges. He would always be waved to the front of the queue to the chagrin of others in line; he would even get a discounted price. This was because Munna, apart from being the butcher, was also Baba's patient; quite regular in his ailments.

So, there Baba would stand, in his spotless white kurta-pyjama, with all of Munna's attention, pointing to shanks and shoulders, which were duly cut to size, or deboned and minced, according to the needs of Ma's kitchen. I would stand outside the crowded shop, waiting with the jute bag.



In India, meat shops are a far cry from butchers of the British high street. In Britain, you enter a spotless shop through a door usually covered with a curtain of metal chains. Once inside, there's a long, glass-covered cold-shelf on which sit different cuts of meat, all neatly labelled. The butchers, both men and women, are dressed in white, hair tucked inside white hats. There's a mincing machine. A cutting board. And not a splatter of blood. There's also a room at the back, but customers want to know nothing of what's happening there; it's far more 'civilised' this way. Don't wash your bloody meat in public.

Now, turn to the Indian butcher. He sells meat, and don't you forget it. There's no hiding your conscience in cling-filmed packages. Large carcasses hang upside-down from iron hooks in front of the open shop. A row of sheep heads decorate the shop's tiled platform, their eyes still surprised. The butcher sits behind this row. In front of him is a short tree stump - his chopping board. In his hands, a cleaver. You point to the portions you want - since every portion has a purpose - and with his cleaver, he cuts it up in a matter of minutes. When the cleaver hits a bone, he takes a heavy wooden rod and hits the top of the cleaver to cut through. He has no mincing machine. If you want your meat minced, his hand simply speeds up, bringing the cleaver up and down in rhythmic repeat, while his other hand dances in and out, sifting the meat between each chop, his fingers a nail-biting inch away from the blade. This continues till the meat is exactly the size you need them to be: coarse for a curry, medium-coarse for a pie, fine for a Shammi Kebab. And all this in the midst of loud conversation, and a faint sound of bleating from the back of the shop.



The British butcher, then, is a neat, less chaotic experience for me. The shopper in me much prefers this mild-smelling, white-aproned option, but the cook in me always leaves frustrated. Here, butchers are happy to sell you the few cuts they know well - a large shoulder or shank to be popped into an oven, small boneless dices to be put in a gravy, chops to be grilled. Mince comes in one variety - minced. A uniform, texture-less paste that is churned out of a machine. When I explain that I need pieces for a 'curry', but with the bone in, they're at a loss. Sometimes they bring out a saw. Yes, a large carpenter's saw. And they try to saw through the bone, slowly, painstakingly, as if they were building me a table. The saw cuts the bone in jagged edges, leaving sharp bits of bones in my curry. Yesterday, my conversation at the butchers went a step further. The young butcher asked me why I needed a mix of shank and shoulder, and then added, "I find that a bit weird to be honest".


When Baba finished buying his meat on those Sundays in Calcutta, I would hold my breath and step into the shop with my jute bag open. Baba would put the newspaper-wrapped meat in, and we would walk back home past the queues and the market crowd. Inside the bag would be mutton in a mix of cuts, a balance of textures; not too lean nor too fatty. Perfect for Robibarer Kosha Mangsho, the dry-gravied Sunday Mutton which Calcutta cooks on its day off. Tender meat and potatoes in gravy served with steamed rice and salad.

Ma's Sunday Mutton or Kosha Mangsho is a thing of beauty. And cooked in a way no other Kosha Mangsho is cooked I'm sure. Like all of Ma's cooking, it is uniquely spare in its method, and in its ingredients. It also ingeniously uses the fat in the meat for the main cooking. It is sumptuous, quick and a famed dish throughout the large, extended Ghosh family. And it's here on my blog today. 




Ma's Sunday Lamb Curry

No, all Indian dishes are not spicy; this certainly isn't. Ma's cooking has always been simple and full of flavour, as truly good Indian food should be. Where spice is chosen with care and used with restraint. I need to dedicate a whole post on debunking myths about Indian food. But try this recipe, and I promise you'll be off to a good start.


Ingredients

1 kg lamb (mix of shank and shoulder, bone in)
3-4 potatoes, peeled and halved
2 onions - 1 large, peeled; 1 medium, peeled and sliced
Juice of half a lemon
5-6 large cloves of garlic
1 inch ginger, peeled and sliced in thickish round pieces
1 tomato, diced
2 bayleaves
2 small sticks cinnamon
2 cardamoms
2 cloves
1 tbs coriander powder
1 1/2 tsp paprika for colour
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
2-3 whole green chillies
1 tbs oil
Salt

Mix the meat with lemon juice and leave for an hour. Or even better, overnight in the fridge.
Put the meat in your cooking pot. Tuck in a large onion. Add 3 cloves of garlic and the bayleaves. Sprinkle liberally with salt. Add a small cup of water. Cover, and let simmer for 45 minutes to an hour.
While the meat's cooking, heat oil in a pan and lightly brown the potatoes on all sides and keep aside in a dish. They don't need to be cooked through, only browned.
After about an hour, take the whole onion out of the meat. Keep aside.
Tip the meat and stock into a large bowl. The liquid fat in the stock will rise and sit on top. Tip the fat slowly into a bowl. That is your cooking 'oil'. (If you have time, keep the bowl of meat and stock in the fridge for a couple of hours; the fat solidifies on top, and is very easy to skim out. Sometimes, when I'm having guests over, I boil the meat a day before, and refrigerate.)
Heat the fat in the same pot in which you'd simmered the meat. Lower the heat and add whole cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and fenugreek seeds. As soon as the fenugreek seeds start to brown, add the sliced onion. Stir till the onion is brown, then add the whole onion that had been fished out of the stock. This slow-simmered onion gives the gravy a beautiful, rounded flavour. With your spatula, mush up the onion. Add tomato, coriander powder, paprika and turmeric. (Add a couple of chillies, or a tsp of chilli powder at this point if you want to add some heat.) Mix it all up and stir for 5 minutes.
Now, add the meat with the stock, and the potatoes. Give it all a good stir.
Cover and cook till the potatoes are done and the meat is almost falling off the bone.
Remove from hob. Add the green chillies. Cover and let stand for 10 minutes before serving with steamed rice.







COMMENT CAVEAT: Many of you have written to me saying that comments you leave here are often not published. So, a little note: if you don't see your comments here in 24 hours, please know that they have not reached me at all! Blogger can play up, and I hate to think that words you've taken time and care to write down have vanished into ether or been eaten by the Blogger Monster. So please, email me your comments if you find them missing, at peppercornsinmypocket@gmail.com, and I promise to post them for you, and write back. 

Sunday, 8 February 2015

What can I say - (Marrakech & beyond, Part II)


This part of the Morocco post was sitting in a corner, maturing like good wine - and even as I type out that sentence, I know it was doing no such thing. This post was just sitting in a corner half-written. I've mastered procrastination to a fine art. But procrastination suits Morocco well. It's a place where everything happens when it happens.

Here it is now, the best bits. And I hope you'll think it was worth the wait.

*Long post alert* Get a cushion, make yourself comfortable.

The Riad

In Marrakech, we stayed in a traditional Moroccan riad. A painstakingly restored 17th Century house buried in the maze of the Medina. The way to the riad is in itself an adventure - when we reached Marrakech, a car picked us up at the airport and drove us through the labyrinth of the city till we reached the fringes of the Medina. Here, the driver alighted and pointed us towards a little metal 'cage' on wheels, attached to a cycle. 'Umm, what?', our looks said. Rapid hand gestures explained that the cage was not for us, but for our luggage. The Medina was a car-free zone, so the cage had been arranged by the riad so we wouldn't have to lug our suitcases. We loaded our luggage and a little girl into the contraption, and off we went, following it through arteries of narrow lanes, dodging donkeys, mopeds and cyclists. After only a minute or so, we stopped in front of a small, nondescript door in a sliver of an alley.



But then, the door opened. And the world changed. Magic.


We walked into an oasis of contradiction. From the ochre smells and tangy walls of the city, into a white, marbled courtyard that smelled of roses and opened up to the sky, with a pool of water at its center. As green as the outside was not. There were bananas and oranges hanging off the trees, and the house growing around it. Cats lazed on large cushions, and turtles snoozed amidst the fronds. Stairs wound up to sunny terraces. And warm smiles greeted you, welcomed you in.




This is Riad Berbere, a flawlessly beautiful old home run by the charming Ingrid and her team of wonderfully kind local women, who went out of their way, every day, to make us feel at home. This was where Chotto-ma was in her elements - playing with the cats, running around the courtyard, chatting with the women in the kitchen. While D and I lounged by the fireplace chatting over a glass of local wine.


The food we had at the riad were some of the finest of our stay in Morocco. Everything on the table was made by the women in the riad -  the bread would be brought in straight from the oven every morning, along with fluffy pancakes served with homemade preserves, freshly-squeezed orange juice, bowls of fruits and mint tea. At night, a traditional Moroccan meal would be made with whatever was bought from the market on the day. One of our meals was a trio of warm salads, lamb slow-cooked with plums in a tagine, couscous and for dessert crisp-fried phyllo pastry layered with a light creme-anglais and strawberries.

A part of me wants to keep Riad Berbere a secret; keep it to myself. But here it is. If there's one place you should rest your head in Marrakech, this is the one.

[You can also find wonderful reviews of Riad Berbere on Tripadvisor]




The Hike

On the day D turned a year older (and purportedly, wiser) we went on a hike to Ourika, to clamber up a brutally bouldered rock-face to a waterfall. My idea of a birthday gift; and knowing D, the perfect one too. The climb was steep, slippery with mountain streams, and a test in balance. We had a guide called Omar - the nicest person you can imagine - who took care of Chotto-ma every inch of the climb, while D and I concentrated on saving our bones and breath.


He swung her over sharp rock-faces, over gushing streams with wet logs for bridges, he picked her up and bounded up the bigger boulders, then stood her up in a safe spot while giving us a hand to pull us up. And Chotto-ma, boy, she did us proud that day - she walked and walked and walked, and never once changed her mind about making it to the end.

Reaching the waterfall feels like an achievement, a relief, an absolute joy. And then, you look down, and see the sheer rocky drop down, the boulders descending in utter tumble, and realise it's the only way down.



We wouldn't change a thing about that day. And we have the lovely people at Morocco Attractive Tours to thank for it. Abdul, who drove us through the valleys and to Ourika in a 4X4, spoke several languages, and made the trip come alive with anecdotes and facts about the land and its people we would never have known otherwise.

You can also book their tour through Viator, as we did.




A Few Good Meals

Apart from the food from the Riad's kitchen, which made us wait excitedly for dinner, there were a few food experiences that stood out. 


{Jemaa-El-Fna}


This is the Morocco most photographed. Jemaa-El-Fna, the throbbing, beating center of Marrakech. Ancient, unchanged. Spilling over with dancers and snake-charmers and bowls of snail soup. Rows and rows of stalls cooking food, tossing them onto plates, sliding them down long tables to waiting mouths. Loud, hungry for business, persistent, cajoling. It often puts foreign tourists off; tourists who're more used to a softer luring. To us though, it was like being back in India. We didn't miss a beat, and nor did the boys at the stall. They walked up to us singing songs from Hindi films. We love India, they said, kissing a startled Chotto-ma on the head.



We ate at Stall 31, which is always full of locals. (While travelling, this is our simple guide to food - eat where the locals eat; it has never failed us). You start by copying the locals: first come plates of tomato sauce, a little like a salsa, which you mop up with chunks of bread. And then, you let yourself go crazy. What I would recommend are the merguez sausages - as many plates as you can eat. The marinated olives. And a spiced mash of greens, which I know not the name of, but which was good, good, good.








{The Berber Lunch}

On D's birthday, we ate lunch in a Berber home, high up in the Atlas Mountains. A modest home, an almost barren home, but with a kitchen that simmered and smoked with food straight off the land. As far as birthday meals go, I dare say I nailed it.

We ate sitting on a terrace that looked out at the mountains from all sides. A lentil soup, homebaked bread, vegetable couscous with ladles of broth, a chicken and apple tagine. Oranges and mint tea.

Sitting there in the crisp mountain air, our muscles aching from the hike, we ate this warming food. Out of charred, earthen tagines. Soups in green, wonky bowls typical of Berber pottery. Meat falling off the bone. Fluffy couscous piled onto grateful plates.


{A Day in Amal}

Amal is many things -  a training center, a restaurant, a place to learn more about Moroccan culture, but most importantly, it's a place that does good work. Amal helps disadvantaged women find their feet. Through food, and the art of cooking, it empowers local women to earn money, earn their independence. It's a happy place, with women chatting and laughing as they work, bustling around it's garden and corridors. Amal is supported by a small group of people strewn all over the world, and run by Hassan, the director of the center, a charming, witty man who left New York to come back home to Morocco to run this bit of hope.

D, Chotto-ma and I spent a day there, doing a cooking class (in between stirring, Chotto-ma also climbed every orange tree in their courtyard, but that's another story).


It was our last day, we had a flight to catch, but if we hadn't squeezed Amal in, we would've missed something very special, important even. Important because it gave us an insight into how simple homecooking can help make a powerful difference. And it brought me in touch with some lovely women, who smiled and gestured me into the art of couscous. Not the 10-minute couscous we quickly throw together before a meal here. But a couscous of patience, taking longer than lamb, steamed gently over a simmering pot of vegetable, then fluffed and steamed and fluffed and steamed and fluffed again. Till it billowed into a pile many times its original size. Shaped into a pyramid and layered with the vegetables that had been simmering, simmering, simmering.


For lunch, we ate what we had cooked - the couscous cooked with Fouzia and Jamila, who showed us how. I also tried my hand at phyllo making, to much encouraging applause - it's a tricky combination of smearing watery dough on a scalding hot metal plate (with your bare hands), and rotating the plate at the same time, till a thin muslin-like layer is made. And then peeling it up like glue off your fingers.


Amal is a place you leave feeling good. Good for having known and been a day's part of this wonderful venture. And for having met this group of good people. When we left Amal and were making our way to the airport, we realised that D had left his winter jacket behind, with important papers in its pockets. We turned our taxi back. But when we returned to Amal, Hassan told us that he had already sent a man with the jacket to the airport. Which was 45 minutes away from the center. When we made our way back to the airport, we found the man standing there with the black jacket and a big smile.

What can I say. We couldn't have left Morocco better.


PS: If you missed Part I of the post, it's here sunning itself.

PPS: This post was NOT sponsored by any of the establishments mentioned - they are all personal recommendations.