This is the season of the Bangalore breeze, an old, cool wind that blows many months of the year through modern Bengaluru, rustling the formidable branches of the rain trees and carrying with it aromas agreeable and—in a city collapsing under its own success—unpleasant.
The most agreeable aromas on recent evenings were to be found wafting out of my kitchen, seeded as they were with some of my favourite spices, from the Maghreb, which literally, in Arabic, means the setting of the sun, or the west. A region of about a billion people, it has provided the world with what you might call some of its best, well, garam masalas, including ras el hanout, harissa, zaa’tar and berbere.
These were some of the spices that landed up in my kitchen last week, courtesy my childhood friend Deepa Nair, who got them not in North Africa but in a store from Milwaukee, US. Such are the—admittedly convenient—ironies of the globalised world. I could have got these spices from any fancy store in Bengaluru, too, but I can’t be bothered with making the trip to such snooty places.
Since I had resolved to abandon my old habit of storing spices in my larder and inevitably forgetting about them, I put Deepa’s gift pack to immediate and rewarding use. Among the spices was dukkah, which is from Egypt. A blend of cumin, coriander, fennel and sesame seeds and hazelnut, dukkah is a nutty and neutral spice, neither very spicy nor bland.
The first thing I made was chicken rubbed with dukkah, roasted with vegetables. As it emerged, my spice-sensitive teen loved it, but I won’t share my method here because I am loath to share recipes that use broiler chicken. I handed the dukkah over to my mother, who put it to better use on nati or country chicken, which she then air-fried.
As regular readers of this column know, I have a weakness for the Maghreb. More than a decade ago, when we lived in Delhi, I wrote many florid pieces about standing unbowed in my kitchen in the heat of the northern summer, the sweat pouring off my brow, imagining in a romantic way that I was somewhere in North Africa, perhaps in Tunisia, Morocco—perhaps not in Mauritania—Libya or Algeria, slaving at my stove, imagining the hot summer loo of north India was the wind from the Atlas Mountains.
This, of course, is a substantially unrealistic scene because the wind blowing off the Atlas Mountains can be frigid. But imagination is easily made subservient to fact, which is what I did again as I put the Maghrebi spices to use and revelled in the Bangalore breeze blowing into my kitchen.
While you can compare Maghrebi spice mixes with garam masalas, most of them tend to be milder and lighter. I suppose only the harissa can compete, blending as it does Tunisian Baklouti or piri piri or other hot chillies, coriander powder, dried garlic, and caraway. I used it with lamb, slow cooking it for about two hours instead of using a pressure cooker. In contrast, the couscous cooked in double-quick time. I was using couscous after a while and had forgotten how easy it was to make. This really was comfort North African food. I just had to imagine the Nandi Hills were the Atlas Mountains.
Moroccan Vegetable Couscous
2 medium carrots, diced
Half red pepper, diced
Half onion, diced
8 large garlic cloves, diced
1 cup cooked chickpeas
2 tsp ras el hanout powder
1 tsp zaatar powder
2 cups couscous
2-3 cups vegetable stock
2 tbsp fresh mint
Zest of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 lemon
One tsp butter
2 tsp olive oil
Salt to taste
Melt half the butter with the olive oil. When it warms, sauté the garlic for 30 seconds, add the onion, and sauté till translucent. Add red pepper and carrots and sauté until almost done. Add the ras el hanout and zaatar spices to the vegetables and sauté. Add the remaining butter if needed. If it sticks, drizzle in some of the stock. Sauté for a minute. Add zest and lemon juice. Add chickpeas, couscous, salt, and stock, enough to just cover the couscous, vegetables and the chickpeas. Stir and warm through. When the stock is absorbed, mix in the mint, take off the flame and transfer to a flat serving dish. Keep fluffing the couscous, so it does not clump. You can serve it cold or warm it later.
Lamb With Harissa
Half kg lamb or goat, small pieces with bone
1 onion, diced
2 carrots, sliced into small chunks
2 tsp harissa
2 tsp ginger-garlic paste
Half-inch piece ginger, crushed in a mortar pestle
Zest of one orange
Half tsp cinnamon powder
A quarter cup of red wine
12 black olives, chopped in half or whole
Handful of fresh, chopped coriander
2 tsp olive or vegetable oil
2 cups, of meat stock
Salt to taste
Marinate the meat for 2 hours in harissa, salt, ginger-garlic paste, and crushed ginger.
Heat oil gently in a pan. Sauté onion till translucent. Add marinated meat and cook until lightly brown. Add most of the stock, bring to a boil, turn the heat to a simmer, cover, add wine, and let it cook for an hour. Stir and check now and then. Add the carrots, cinnamon powder, half the coriander, rest of the stock and cover again and cook till done, perhaps another hour. Add the orange zest.Garnish with olives and coriander. Serve hot over couscous.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. He posts @samar11.