The air was thick and moist. As Raju, our rickshaw driver pedaled onward, the slight breeze felt recompense to the Indian summer.
On this day, my translator Vinay was unavailable and my study partner Todd, back at the hotel with digestive distress. Today, my pregnant friend Laura and I arrived by my usual escort the smiling rickshaw driver Raju. Children pooled around the periphery of the slum, their home, eager and excited to see us. We meandered the narrow corridors, passing one slipshod home after another. My blue dupatta covered my head out of respect and I covered my mouth with another swath of it.
The cobbled path ended up outside the home of newfound friend Dolly, finding her hanging laundry. She invited us to sit on the cot outside her one room house and asked if we wanted sodas. We declined and yet she pressed on, soon dispatching a small child with the coins needed for Limca sodas for Laura and I. On this particular day, the sun beat down on us from the heavy-lidded monsoon sky. The sticky sweetness of that lime ginger soda washed away my thirst as sweat pooled along my temples. We sat together, as Dolly talked about her village and getting married at the age of six. Her neighbors stood nearby as children lounged, all intent on these Western women raptly listening to their friend. With the men at work, the women conducted the affairs of their homes and found pockets of time to congregate, enjoying each other’s company.
Dolly sang for us in her village language, a spirited song that trilled up and down. I noticed an old man stumbling down the lane. He looked like he would continue on his way until he saw Laura and I, and changed direction. He began meandering our way. The stench of alcohol was pronounced as was the pitch of his voice. He asked animated questions of us in hindi. He continued approaching and Dolly quickly ushered both Laura and I into her one room house. She locked the door. Outside we could hear her yelling at the old man. Laura translated that the man refused to leave until we came back out. His harassment continued unabated. I surveyed the room, trying to take my mind off of the crazy man now banging on the door separating us from him.
Several years ago in graduate school, we headed to India to conduct ethnographic research. Our small cohort of students set off to learn about the people and culture through the people themselves. We collected information, learning the semantics of the people in our community, learning about industry, relationship and belief.
If you want to understand a lot about a people group, find out whom they will eat with and whom they will marry. This detail reflects the fluidity or brittle nature of people far more than whom they will do business with. The community we learned about that summer consisted of a slum in East Delhi that at the time held around 44,000 people. As American students, we set off in pairs, accompanied by a translator. My partner that summer, Todd, had a rather weak constitution. Often, he would remain in the hotel and I would set off dressed in my salwar kameez and dupatta with my translator Vinay.
Often, people would speak to me in hindi and while flattered they thought I looked the part, humbly shook my head, “no.”
On this specific occasion, Laura and I had gone looking for songs and stories, not expecting a crazy man to interrupt our time with our new female friends. Eventually, he took off. Eventually the door was unlocked, but the camaraderie had changed. The spirit had lifted and moved on.
Hospitality takes many forms. Sacrifice: Limca sodas for two guests. Protection: Locking a door and keeping two guests safe. Out of the abundance of our friend Dolly’s heart, she showed us true hospitality and gave above and beyond her means. The following summer I returned to India and visited Dolly. She pulled the letter I’d written to her, along with a photo of the two of us from a tin box like a treasure.
I look back on that summer that almost wasn’t and consider how easily my steps could have led to Morocco but instead, I found myself in India learning hospitality in its varied forms.
Nathan and I have made a priority to practice hospitality. We believe there is power in the hospitable gesture and try to make a point of being good stewards with what we’ve been given. We have had the pleasure of cooking this Spiced Moroccan Chicken with Onions and Prunes recipe to rave reviews from a visiting filmmaker friend and parents. The sauce will make you want to lick every utensil that’s crossed its path. If you’re looking for leftovers- this is not your recipe. If you’re looking for a meal that will bring hospitality to your guests in the guise of tantalizing aroma and flavors to entice your tongue’s different taste zones- you’ve found it.
Spiced Moroccan Chicken
adapted from the Bon Appetit Cookbook
YIELD: 4 servings
- 4 skinless boneless chicken breast halves
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cups chopped onions
- 3 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 tablespoon AP flour
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 2 cups low-salt chicken broth
- 1 cup pitted prunes
- 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
- 3 tablespoons honey
- Chopped fresh cilantro
Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper. Heat oil in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken; sauté until brown and just cooked through, about 4 minutes per side. Using tongs, transfer chicken to plate. Add onions and garlic to same skillet. Saute until onions begin to soften, about 3 minutes. Mix in flour, ginger, cinnamon, and cumin; stir 1 minute.
Gradually whisk in broth. Add prunes, lemon juice, and honey. Boil until sauce thickens enough to coat spoon, whisking occasionally, about 8 minutes. Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper. Return chicken to skillet.
Simmer until heated through, about 2 minutes. Transfer chicken and sauce to platter. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve.
GLUTEN-FREE VARIATION: Substitute Gluten Free AP flour. Instead of serving this over cous cous, serve over rice.