Cooking classes lift the lid on a new life for the poor
Holy smokes!" a fellow diner exclaimed as my son’s couscous was delivered to the table. The large earthenware dish was loaded with fluffy grains, topped with tender beef and vegetables. The flavour was quite outstanding, but the best thing about it was that my son had made it himself.
My family had spent the morning at Amal Centre, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the empowerment of disadvantaged women, learning to make tagine and couscous.
In Marrakech cooking classes are a popular tourist activity, but this course enables visitors to the Red City to spend their dirhams supporting social action. The classes help fund the activities of Amal.
Night after night in Marrakech we had seen women begging on the streets. Crowds pushed by on their way to the Jemaa el Fna square, where drums beat incessantly and tarot readers tell fortunes. Life had not been kind to these women who, often with no family to fall back on, had become destitute.
Founded in 2013, Amal was established by Nora Fitzgerald Belahcen, born and raised in Morocco and later a student in the US. Moved by a woman begging in the street, her vision of an organisation that could change lives has, almost five years on, shown success.
In addition to running a successful restaurant, the organisation recruits groups of about 30 women for six-month training courses. On completion they are assisted to find jobs, often as cooks in hotels, riads (traditional Moroccan houses built around courtyards) and restaurants.
So far about 178 women have passed through the Amal training programme. Of these, 141 graduates are in employment in the restaurant industry and four have opened businesses.
The training base and cookery school is housed in a suburban villa. Here the trainees learn to cook Moroccan and international dishes and take classes in literacy, maths, communication, conflict resolution, yoga and even soap making.
Some of the trainees work as training chefs, sharing their skills with visitors who have signed up for cooking courses.
Amal has many requests for places on the training programme and selects women aged 18-35 on low or no income. Many were previously housemaids who began work at the age of 11 with little or no education. Some were orphans or are divorced or widowed, living on less than $2 a day while feeding families of up to 10 people.
On arriving at Amal the trainees are psychologically assessed as some have survived traumatic experiences.
To attend the lengthy training programme, the trainees need financial support. While on the programme they receive a stipend with which to support their families. Those with school-going children receive additional funds. They have free meals at the training centre and free bus cards and share the tips from the restaurant.
Our class was ushered into a large teaching kitchen overlooking a lush garden planted with palm and citrus trees. We donned bright orange aprons and inspected the spice-filled, miniature tagines lined up on work tables.
Some of us were confident cooks, while others could not tell the difference between garlic and ginger, two essential ingredients in preparing a tagine. But we were all there to have fun.
Teaching 22 people to cook five dishes was no mean feat. One of Amal’s first trainees, now a chef and trainer in Moroccan cuisine, worked her way calmly around our tables, giving instructions in Arabic, using sign language and a dollop of humour while demonstrating how to massage the oil into the couscous between steamings or just how much saffron and preserved lemon to use in the chicken tagine.
Within 30 minutes the group had assembled an impressive array of vegetarian, beef, lamb and chicken dishes.
We carried our ceramic tagines with their conical lids outdoors and carefully lowered them onto three-legged clay braziers where white-hot coals provided just the right heat to cook the food to perfection.
Meanwhile, my son was taught how to prepare couscous. It was a world away from how we make it at home where we pour boiling water over the grains and leave to swell for five minutes. A traditional couscous proved a time-consuming yet meditative process.
The grains were steamed above a simmering pot of meat and vegetables, absorbing the flavours as they cooked. Three periods of steaming alternated with tipping the hot couscous into a large ceramic dish, called a gsaa, and massaging it with olive oil. In Morocco, couscous is traditionally made on Fridays when large family groups gather to eat this copious dish.
While we waited for lunch we picked herbs and learnt the secrets of making Moroccan mint tea, an addictive beverage that sends sugar levels soaring.
While the excitement and hunger were building, we took our seats at a long outdoor table. The trainees presented our dishes and the tagine lids were lifted to gasps of admiration. We dipped our forks into one another’s tagines, no one quite believing they had created a dish with such dazzling flavour.
We mopped up the last morsels with freshly baked flatbread, our stomachs full to bursting. After draining the last drops of fresh lemon juice, it was time to bid farewell.
The Amal Centre is an inspiring place. Within just a few years it has shown that providing women with skills and building self-esteem can transform their lives and those of their families.
Amal translates as hope and aspiration. As it continues to expand and recruit women from Marrakech, perhaps one day the women begging in the streets will have not only aspiration and hope but also a livelihood.