One of Jamila Aamer’s most vivid childhood memories is learning how to cook. So it may come as no surprise that decades later, she’s teaching other young women to do the same.
Aamer is head chef at the Amal Women’s Training Center, an airy outdoor café in Marrakech’s trendy Gueliz neighborhood that serves up a variety of traditional Moroccan specialties.
The goal at Amal isn’t just about how to make a well-spiced tagine (though we’ll get to that later), but also the importance of its mission. The nonprofit doubles as a culinary and restaurant training institute for young Moroccan women who are living in difficult situations.
“I want to teach these students with a lot of love,” says Aamer. “I’m trying to give them as many skills as I can, so they can get jobs and better their lives.”
To date, Aamer has mentored more than 100 apprentices who have gone on to find fulltime jobs, often in restaurants and hotels.
More than 200 women have been trained at Amal since it opened its doors in 2013. That number is a big deal in Morocco, where women make up less than 30 percent of the country’s labor force.
“Getting your first minimum-wage job is our ultimate goal here,” says Nora Fitzgerald, Amal’s founder.
Every six months, 30 women, ages 18 to 35, with little to no income are selected to work at one of Amal’s two branches.
Trainees also come from circumstances — such as orphanhood, single motherhood, or being divorced or widowed — that have made life in Morocco difficult for them.
Fitzgerald says that these women are often stigmatized and shut out by Moroccan society.
“They’re like this category that society wishes would be invisible,” says Fitzgerald. “Nobody wants to look at it face on, nobody wants to see them as full human beings.”
Fitzgerald herself was born in Morocco to American parents and has spent most her life here. She says the idea for Amal came to her during her daily walk to school with her daughter.
Fitzgerald would see the same woman on the street begging for money. Almost immediately, Fitzgerald took a liking to her.
“We had this rapport. She had a beautiful face and a beautiful presence.”
She started teaching her and other women how to bake — mostly American recipes like cheesecakes, cupcakes and brownies — which they sold at local bake sales.
It was a small step, but one that made a big difference for the women.
“They were like … ‘it’s the first time we’ve ever worked for ourselves in our lives,’ ” says Fitzgerald.
From there, the idea grew into opening a training center for women, and Fitzgerald started drafting up funding proposals.
After receiving a large grant from the Swiss-based Drosos foundation, Amal opened its doors in the spring of 2013.
Today it serves more than 100 customers a day who come for specialties like tagine, a mix of vegetables, spices and meat cooked slowly over hot coals.
A vegetarian favorite is zaalouk, a roasted eggplant salad that uses freshly chopped herbs and spices like cumin and paprika to give the dish an amplified taste.
But the big showstopper is a homemade icy blended mint lemonade, a drink that’s as deceptively simple as it is invigorating. No meal at Amal would be complete without a glass of this frothy green refreshment.
In the back of the kitchen stands Karima Minourzs, one of the young trainees preparing for the day’s lunch service. The 24-year-old says that because of a series of health problems, she wasn’t able to finish her high school education. But today she feels re-energized — and wants to become a chef.
“I feel like things have really opened up for me here,” says Minourzs. “Amal is my first home — and my second home.”
It’s also a second chance.
Zaalouk (Eggplant Salad)
(recipes courtesy of the Amal Women’s Training Center)
½ teaspoon parsley and cilantro
½ teaspoon cumin
¼ teaspoon paprika
1 pinch pepper
½ teaspoon garlic
½ tablespoon vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt
1. Peel the eggplant, leaving some stripes of skin. Dice and pan fry in sunflower oil.
2. Dice the ½ onion.
3. Once cooked, mash the eggplant.
4. Add to the mixture: parsley, cilantro, cumin, pepper, garlic, vinegar, sea salt and olive oil.
5. Decorate with parsley and cilantro (optional).
Chicken and Preserved Lemon Tagine
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons ginger powder
2 teaspoons turmeric powder
4 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons of finely chopped parsley and cilantro mixture
1 pinch of saffron
½ preserved lemon pulp
½ cup water to mix all the ingredients
1 medium onion finely chopped
One chicken breast and one chicken leg
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons of vegetable oil
¼ preserved lemon peel, thinly sliced
1. Combine all spices into mixing bowl.
2. Add lemon juice to create a paste.
3. Little by little, add the water to the paste.
4. Place chicken into mixture and marinate for about 10 minutes (poke chicken for more flavor.)
5. Spread onions evenly in a tagine (an earthenware cooking pot) or in a pressure cooker.
6. Place chicken on top of onions.
7. Pour spice mixture over chicken.
8. Cover tagine and cook over low heat. Traditionally, the dish is cooked over hot coals for 1.5 hours. On the stove top, cook on low heat for 45 minutes – or 20 to 25 minutes in a pressure cooker.)
9. After onions have browned, add olive and vegetable oils.
10. After 10 minutes, pour water in tagine or other cooking vesselup to lid line. (If using a pressure cooker, add 1 cup of water.) Check periodically to add more water to lid line.
Rebecca Rosman is a freelance writer based in Paris. You can follow her on Twitter: @rebs_rosman