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Fantasy fare

Morocco's exotic food, culture captivate in 'The Caliph's House'

Published May 17, 2006 at midnight

Oprah, move over. Food editor Marty Meitus and books editor Patti Thorn are taking your book-club idea a step further. Not only will we suggest something for readers to discuss at their own book gathering, we'll provide recipes and entertaining ideas that complement the ambience of the story.

Our book choices will range from classics to hot best-sellers, with food choices that reflect the time period, setting or place. If the story takes place in 1950s America, we might order up a blue-plate special. If a book evokes 17th-century Tuscany, we might suggest an Italian feast.

The Caliph's House: A Year in Casablanca

By Tahir Shah (Bantam, $13)

About the book

I don't know about you, but sometimes I daydream of slipping out the back door and into another life, if only for a little while.

In this fantasy, I pack a backpack with a few jeans and T-shirts, leave a note on the kitchen table telling the husband and kids I'll see them in a year and head to a new, exotic locale, where I live like the natives - er, so long as those natives have working toilets and HBO.

I realize, of course, that I'm not the only one with this dream. By now, a zillion authors have not only entertained the notion but also bought the plane ticket and rented the villa in that faraway countryside. Consider Peter Mayle, who wrote about Provence, or Frances Mayes, who immortalized Tuscany, both all the way to the top of the best-seller list.

But however well-worn the genre is, it's always appealing to armchair dreamers like me. And a new book that takes readers to an especially exotic locale is garnering rave reviews.

In The Caliph's House, author Tahir Shah indulges in the getaway fantasy, with one important twist: He brings along his pregnant wife and child. They head to Casablanca, the Moroccan city we all know from the Humphrey Bogart movie, where he buys a rundown mansion that the locals call the Caliph's House.

With its courtyards and fountains, the house has possibilities of grandeur. But Shah soon realizes he's bought more than he bargained for: He's also purchased a place populated by spirits, known to the townspeople as Jinns. If you don't appease the Jinns, the locals warn, bad things are sure to befall you. As the book progresses, the warnings prove true: Shah faces endless difficulties renovating the home and is forced to come to terms with this strange, adopted culture.

In her recent review, News critic Verna Noel Jones called the book a "delightful, entertaining and engrossing romp," filled with "vibrant word pictures of a fascinating land and its people."

If that doesn't convince you to try this book, the possibilities of discussion just might. Check out our ideas, at left. Meanwhile, I'll be busy: trying to figure out where I last stashed my backpack.

Hey, a gal can dream, can't she?

Patti Thorn is the books editor.

About the food

It's not difficult to evoke the mysteries of Casablanca with the complex, spice-laden flavors of Moroccan food. In his book, author Tahir Shah receives a pot of chicken soup as a gift, redolent with fresh coriander and saffron and a hint of ginger. "One mouthful and, (the gift bearer) claimed, 'we would dance like angels inside.' "

The Caliph's House is not a cookbook or a book about food; rather, food is a subtext to the story. To help bring blessings to his home, Shah must prepare special dishes and set them outside. He drinks mint tea and the muddy café noir - "as viscous as crude oil" - in the backstreet cafes. And he helps outwit his thieving architect by preparing a feast that brings so many beggars to the man's office that the architect returns Shah's money to be rid of him - and his "guests." Along the way, the reader is introduced to some traditional Moroccan foods - noteworthy enough to be indexed in the book:

Bastilla (also spelled bistiya, b'steeya, bisteeya, bastila, pastilla) pastry with thin layers of chicken (or, more typically, pigeon), almonds and spices

Couscous, steamed semolina served with stewed vegetables, meat or both

Tagine, a stew and the name of the conical pot in which it's cooked.

Moroccan cooking takes its influences from Morocco's mild climate and its native people, the Berbers, as well as the Spanish Moors and the exiled Spanish Jews, according to Paula Wolfert, an expert on Moroccan cooking.

Morocco, along with Tunisia and Algeria, form a region of northern Africa known as the Maghreb. The cuisines share many similarities, with some subtle differences in cooking and style, but they are often melded together under the North African cooking banner.

Marty Meitus is the food editor.

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