Turmeric is a staple spice in Moroccan cuisine –
it has been since the Arabs invaded in the 7th century. Turmeric comes from the root of the curcuma longa plant and has a look and feel that is very similar to that of ginger. It can be used fresh or it can be ground into a fine powder to provide Moroccan tagines and pastries with its appealing bright yellow/orange colour and fragrant warming and peppery aroma. Not only is this spice delicious – it is also a ‘superfood’ thanks to its remarkable anti-inflammatory properties, not to mention its ability to lower cholesterol and help prevent heart disease as a powerful antioxidant. Given the turmeric’s potent punch of scrumptiousness and healthfulness, my son and I use it in all of our mains at Zayane, as well as our chicken pastilla (which evidently has some other extraordinary properties, too! . And yet, Zayane has a connection to turmeric that transcends these compelling reasons to incorporate it into our delectable Moroccan food. Our special relationship with the so-called ‘golden saffron’ and its traditional uses harken back to a little village I used to visit as a little girl in the Bled and to a very, very special woman.
The Bled is a traditional Berber village in the Moroccan countryside.
It isn’t at all the Morocco that people know and love – instead it is guided by Morocco’s pre-Arab culture and traditions. The Berbers have their own way of life and own language (which isn’t Arabic). It is – for all intents and purposes – a different country. The Bled I would look forwards to visiting during my summer holidays when I was a little girl growing up in Casablanca was inhabited by the Berber Zayane tribe (my tribe and, obviously, the one after which my restaurant is named). It was also where my mother is from and where my 110-year-old grandma lives to this day. We would drive from Casablanca, park our car in village nearest to my grandma’s abode, and travel by donkey up the mountain for about 2 miles. My grandma – who even then was very old by conventional standards – lived in a house made of clay, a building material that let her house be cosy warm in the winter and cool and breezy in the summer. There she would pass her time in the living art that is pastoral Morocco, untouched by time and tourism, joyfully keeping her fields of argan and olive trees and weaving her special Berber wool rugs.
One of my earliest memories was my grandma using turmeric to give her painstakingly handmade rugs their rich, vibrant yellow colour. I would sit beside her in the midst of her and her neighbours, watching them dye the wool, wash it and dry it – the secret ingredient for our renowned Berber rugs. The feast of the eyes was complemented by something sweet and delicious for the ears and palate, too. I would listen to the intermingling voices of the old ladies singing traditional songs and we would all drink mint tea and snack on fresh almonds dipped in my grandma’s luxurious fresh honey. It was quite a treat and one that I long for most days in my happy London life that is spiritually and emotionally a million miles from the Bled.
Back in those days we didn’t know quite what we do now about how healthy a spice turmeric was – though given the long lifespans our people tend to have we probably should have guessed!
My grandma used this hallowed spice for far more than her wool rugs
– it infuses nearly all of her mouth-watering dishes. The people of our Zayane tribe eat rather literally only the freshest food – meat from our own goats, goats’ milk and butter made from this milk! We also make our own olive and argan oil – a magical delicacy we cook with to impart a roasted nutty flavour to our food – and honey. The heady cocktail of these freshest of ingredients, when combined with Moroccan spices like turmeric redefines ‘healthy’ and – evidently – leads to long life.
Even to this day, when we arrive at ‘grandma’s house’ she cooks us turmeric-infused whole grain couscous with goat meat. It is a little slice of heaven – but the first day’s provisions only hint at the delectableness that is in store. On day two grandma will roast a whole goat, which she will rub with cumin, salt, turmeric and black pepper before cooking. The expression to convey just how delicious it is is generally ‘oh my God’, but even invoking the heavens fails to communicate just how delicious grandma’s roast goat really is. Without question, it is the best roast I’ve ever tasted in my life! Grandma’s favourite dish – which presumably has kept her going to 110 and I hope far beyond this wise, old age – is braised rabbit with turmeric and preserved lemons.
When we cook with turmeric at Zayane, it isn’t something that we learned from a cookery book
, or even from a celebrated cookery school. It isn’t even a hand-me-down. The scent of turmeric warming in the kitchen – like the ‘Proustian madeleine’ – sets me above time and space. I become that little girl visiting my grandma in the Bled and I behold grandma’s vibrant rugs and my palate savours her aromatic, exquisite cooking. If my son and I are able to offer Zayane’s patrons even a glimpse of this ecstatic vision, we will have done grandma proud.