In December of 2006 while living in New York city, two of my girlfriends and I decided to go on vacation instead of returning to our respective hometowns for the holiday season. We chose Morocco purely on a whim and mostly because none of us had been there. Between all three of us we have done a lot of traveling but somehow had missed Morocco. I did some quick google "research" and booked our trip without giving it much thought. Little did I know my life was about to change in a big way forever.
We landed in Casablanca and took a cab to our "4" star hotel with ocean views. As we walked into the lobby I will never forget what Anisa K. my bestie said. "did 3 of the 4 stars fall into the ocean?". Thus began our adventure in navigating the reality in Morocco for the foreign tourist. The first room we were brought too did not have a view of the ocean or clean linens or light switches that worked. What it did have was plenty of tiny, creepy crawlers! We asked for the room to be changed and settled into our next partial view room but cleaner. Next we showered and headed out for a meal. Its been almost 10 years since my first trip to Morocco but I still remember very intensely the first moment I tasted harira a hearty Moroccan soup made of chicken, chickpeas, lentils, rice, tomatoes and garnished with dates. To this day it is a top 5 food item for me. For the rest of the trip everywhere we went I kept guzzling harira and I am not even a soup person!
The trip had a lot of ups and downs, we met amazing people, had some great meals but we also met a lot of carpet sellers, "tour guides" who wanted to take us around without being asked to and rather strangely for me people who were obsessed with Bollywood music. I was surprised at how so many people in Morocco could sing most of the latest hindi songs better than me. I think they were generally happy to see a Indian visiting their country and especially happy that I knew a little bit about the Bollywood scene and culture. We often encountered strangers breaking into a hindi song upon seeing me. It was entertaining the first few times but then all the extra unwanted attention I was getting was wearing me down. As I started to get increasingly cranky and annoy my girl friends I decided maybe it was time for me to cut my vacation short and go back home.
One week into our two week trip we had traveled thru the north of Morocco and come into Marrakech. I was still trying to get adjusted to the new culture, language and most importantly personal space issues. When things got a bit worse in Marrakech. Our driver who had picked us up in Ouarzazate claimed he did not know Marrakech it took forever to find the Riad we were booked into. After driving around for what seemed like ages we finally found the Riad (a Moroccan bed and breakfast with a inner courtyard). I had seen pictures online and booked a room for 3 travelers. What we had was a room barely large enough to fit one person and a fold out bed. Grrrrr!!! The last straw for me.
I had a fit and demanded that I be brought to the airport right away so I could fly back to America. The Riad manager Abdul Rahim who is now a life long friend was distressed at how distressed I was. He tried to reason with me but I really was having a major senseless childlike tantrum. He said he didn't want me to leave Morocco with such a bad experience and that he would personally help me have a better trip moving forward. Which only made me more suspicious of his ulterior motives. Did he want to sell me some carpets? or introduce me to more Bollywood obsessed people? Seriously I just wanted to be back home.
This kind gentle, older gentleman seeing me unconsolable said he would call a friend who was from Pakistan but now living and working in Marrakech. And guess what - working on Bollywood productions in Morocco. He spoke urdu and would help me navigate Marrakech. Uhh no thank you. Being born and raised in India I really did not want to meet a who I assumed to be old Pakistani transplant to Morocco. I had barely any interactions with Pakistani's before hence vehemently objected. I told Abdul Rahim there is no possible way this Pakistani man or any other for that matter would be able to help me. But he insisted.
Rashid the house manager brought me to the courtyard handed me a cup of delicious mint tea and proceeded to wave a huge burning bunch of incense. Maybe he thought the soothing mint tea might help calm me down and the incense would rid me on the demon that I was possessed with. As I sat in the lobby sipping some tea another one of my favorites from Morocco and trying to practice deep breathing, Muntasim walked in. I can't say it was love at first sight, but it was something. He was so rakishly handsome and young!
Formal introductions later, we talked about our experiences in Morocco. His two older brothers and he were living in Marrakech and working on film festivals. He had met many of the Bollywood stars that travel there to perform. Most of what we talked about is a blur. But I remember excusing myself to fix my tear and makeup stained face. When I came back he said he wanted to take me to Jamma-El-Fanaa the famous food square in Marrakech to get some orange juice. I was hesitant but decided to go. The Riad was deep in the Medina, we walked in circles a few times before he figured out his way to the square. We argued as I kept saying we should ask for directions and he refused. Just as my apprehension was growing stronger for leaving the Riad with a total complete PAKISTANI STRANGER we found our way out.
He bought me a glass of orange juice, and asked to share it. Wait what? I thought he was being strange and cheap. 10 years later I can tell you he still eats and drinks half my food. Three months later we were married.
Here is my recipe for CHICKEN Harira.
4 s e r v i n g s
- 3 tablespoon oil
- 1 medium onion
- 1 tablespoon garlic paste
- 1 tablespoon ras-el-hanout
- 1/4 lb. ground chicken
- 8 oz. tomato paste
- 1/4 bunch cilantro
- 1/2 cup yellow lentils
- 1/2 can chickpeas
- 1 lemon juice (you can add more if you like)
- 8 cups water
- 1/2 cup basmati rice (soaked for at least 1/2 hour)
- Salt to taste
- Boil yellow lentils until tender but not overcooked.
- In large soup pot over medium heat, cook the onions until soft and translucent.
- Add garlic paste, ras-el-hanout and sauté for about 5 minutes.
- Add ground chicken, salt, fresh cilantro, tomato paste, lemon juice and cook covered for about 15 minutes on low heat.
- Add chickpeas and lentils and cook for another 3 minutes.
- Add water, cover and bring to a rolling boil.
- Add rice and cook until soft.
- Garnish with lemon wedges or thinly sliced dried dates and serve hot!
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