A Book and a Bite: The Caliph's House

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This is the first (but not the last) time I’ll blog about a book and it’s links to food and recipes. Hope you like this idea!

The Caliph’s House (non-fiction) by Tahir Shah recounts the author’s move, with his young family, from London to an abandoned (fixer upper) mansion (Dar Khalifa) in Casablanca. Novels with the story arc - “move, buy house, restore/renovate, adjust, adapt, belong” are not uncommon, but this will surprise you with unique twists linked to a culture that may be foreign to some readers.

Indeed, even Shah, with his Afghan-Indian heritage is frequently surprised - sometimes dumb-founded - by the challenges he encounters - most notably “jinns” - aka "genies". In time, Shah learns that resistance is futile and he plays his part in placating the spirits with whom he shares his home. Google - Tahir Shah jinn - and you’ll see that in recent years Shah has uploaded playful(?) videos outlining tips on soothing jinns – for example Jinn in the Kitchen.

Let me hasten to add that this is not a "silly nonsense" novel - and indeed is more philosophical with these bits of (factual) whimsy that no honest observer of life and the living could omit. Now, just before you get all weird about this, keep in mind that some Brits absolutely believe in “fairies”. One survey reports that 44% claim to have seen one. Then there’s the Icelanders who believe in elves. Not long ago, some who were protesting a new road made interesting claims. "...it will displace certain supernatural forces that dwell within the hallowed volcanic rubble, and fear the potentially dark consequences that come with such a disturbance... (they) believe the field is highly populated by elves, huldufolk (hidden people), and dwarves, many of whom... have recently fled the area while the matter is settled." [Source]

Wikipedia describes Tahir Shah as a writer and documentary maker, with a focus on travel, exploration, the Arab World, and cross-cultural studies, but undoubtedly he'd describe himself as a story-teller, with an impressive pedigree, a family of story-tellers.

For a synopsis of the book, I cannot improve on the engaging article from The Guardian or from The Washington Post. If you read this book first, become enchanted with his writing, and continue with the sequel - "In Arabian Nights" - you will undoubtedly be startled, even shocked, to read the first sentence - “The torture room was ready for use.” What!!!??? Yes, he begins with the true story of his 2005 imprisonment in Pakistan along with his documentary crew. He soon returns to his beautiful story-telling, with a focus on his quest – the search for “the story in his heart”.

Casablanca. Marrakech. Tangier. Fez. All cities in Morocco. Centuries - that’s how long Morocco has existed, but when, how, and why does a country (actually, a kingdom) make an impression on someone from the other side of an ocean? How does one develop an awareness of another country and its cuisine? Sure we all knew about Casablanca from the movie made in the 1940s. Then there was the song "Marrakesh Express" - written by Graham Nash when he was a member of The Hollies, but performed by Crosby, Stills and Nash in 1969. He wrote it after his own Moroccan journey - a favoured destination on the so-called Hippy Trail.

I’ve not found a source that precisely traces a global embrace of Moroccan cuisine, although a Moroccan-American cookbook (by Paula Wolfert) was published as early as 1973. On my blog I have a Moroccan Red Bean Dip adapted from a recipe first published in 1994. I suspect that labelling a recipe as “Moroccan” has less to do with authentic cuisine and more to do with the use of so-called Moroccan spices. These include cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, ginger, pepper, paprika, coriander, saffron, mace, cloves, fennel, anise, nutmeg, oregano, cayenne pepper, bay laurel, and fenugreek, and “27 spices are combined to form the ‘celebrated’ Moroccan spice mixture ras el hanout. “[Source]

While many other cuisines use some of these spices, there was a time when a few seemed exotic to me, yet now are often used in combination in my kitchen, with delicious results. I jump at any opportunity to use turmeric, ginger, cumin, coriander, nutmeg in my cooking. Case in point - the recipe for Caramelized Cauliflower. Here are some links from Saveur on Moroccan Cuisine and some more authentic Moroccan recipes. You may also want to follow Nargisse Benkabbou from London, UK who blogs at My Moroccan Food.  She has 35,000 followers on social media which may in part explain why she has a book coming out in May 2018 called "Casablanca".

My last blog post was about Dinner Parties, and one of my often repeated menus is loaded with recipes that are supposedly “Moroccan” - Moroccan Chicken on Quinoa, (chicken enhanced with cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, coriander served on honey / cinnamon quinoa) and Moroccan Carrots (that great veggie made tasty using cumin, paprika, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, currants and pistachio nuts). I do stray and accompany it with the more Greek / Indian Cucumbers in Yogurt. (Tomato & Cucumber might have been more authentic.)

You might be wondering if Tahir Shah has anything to say about food. Of course he does. Listen to him rhapsodize about Moroccan oranges. He offers tips if you are ever invited to dine in a Moroccan home. Can't top his memory of his father's prized Arabian Nights collection - "The volumes were bound in waxy black cloth, with bright gold lettering on the spines... They were so exquisite that I would caress my fingers over them, and stoop down to smell their scent. They smelled like cloves." (p. 14 in Shah's "In Arabian Nights" novel). What happens to those volumes is astounding - but you'll have to read the book to find out! (You can read the sequel first if you prefer.)

Would love to hear your tips about Moroccan food, a recommended cookbook or novel, or a restaurant. Do you have any stories about jinns, fairies, elves? Click on the word "Comments" below. Can't wait to hear from you!

Enjoy the book(s). Hope you enjoyed my first “A Book and A Bite”!