Today I thought I’ll share with you some important points about the famous Moroccan tagine (or tajine) and the general rules one needs to know. A lot has been written about it and so many recipes are out there claiming to be authentic and from famous Chefs. I developped a serious allergy towards some of them who seriously confuse Moroccan tagine with curries (I love these too, but when they’re done properly).
On the other hand, you will find some serious publications In English as well as blog posts about authentic Moroccan cooking. This is one of them.
Update June 2014: With this post, I’ll be participating at Serena and Ariana’s event “La via dei sapori” dedicated to Moroccan food.
So let’s start..
What is a tagine?
Tagine is named after the pot it is cooked in. It usually have a rounded base and a conic top. The authentic version is made of clay. As a Moroccan, I do not use any other version because they just do not suit me.
What are the types of tagines we find in Morocco?
The only cooking tagine is big clay one bottom right.
·We have painted tagines, which are ornamental or used to present the dish after it has cooked, or sweets or salads.
·We have glazed tagines. Some of them are ok to use for cooking because they’re lead-free but some others might not. So you need to know what you’re buying. Thankfully, the country is going towards a lead-free option across the board.
·We have the Moroccan-favourite version and certainly the most authentic one: the unglazed tagine. This one is by far our nationwide favourite because it adds a certain “je-ne-sais-quoi” to the dish, especially if it’s cooked over charcoal or wood. The thing with the unglazed tagine is that you have to feed it/cure it/season it first before cooking in it: It should be soaked in water for 24 hours, then dried and finally the interior should be rubbed with oil then placed in a hot oven to bake for at least 1 hour at 160 degrees C. It’s good to know that tagines of this sort age with time and with cooking. It just makes the food taste better.
Glazed tagines at the back and unglazed version at the front, both good for cooking
Is there a vegetarian tagine recipe?
Of course. Have your ever tried poached eggs in Tomatoes, a sort of Huevo rancheros Moroccan-style? If you are vegan you won’t be forgotten, , you just omit the eggs in the mentioned recipe or make standard tagines without meat.
What goes into a tagine?
Any meat, any vegetable, although we are a nation who do not use pork.
What is the most common spice combination used in tagines
Before getting there, you need to know that we are a nation who likes combining sweet and savoury in a dish. Not Asian-style sweet and sour but SWEET and SALTY. So you might encounter many recipes with a relatively savoury sauce/marqa but topped with a confit or caramalized topping such as pumpkin, quince, dried prunes or apricots or figs, sultanas, aubergines…
We also eat a lots of vegetables. Althought people in urban areas use freezers to keep that agricultural bounty for a longer period, the rural areas do not have this option, they just follow the seasonality. The tagines follow the same logic.
The best seasonal tagines are the ones with green onions, petits pois (green peas), normal and wild artichokes, fennel, fava/broad beans, cardoons, quince, cooking apples, guernina (thistle), mallow…
As a general rule, let’s divide the types of tagines into 4 categories:
1-tagines with sweet topping: the usual spices are: Salt, pepper (white), turmeric, ground ginger, saffron threads (optional but definitely makes a difference), cinnamon stick, a bouquet of coriander or/and parsley. A touch of sweetness can be added to the broth/sauce/marqa by adding honey or sugar which actually enhance the savoury side of it. The topping will be handled separately depending on the recipe but it will usually involve cinnamon, sugar, orange blossom water, maybe mastic gum and some butter/smen or olive oil. In some region caraway seeds might also be added. The sweet version of Ras el hanout can also be added.
Sweet topping made of tomatoes, more like a sort of tomato jam Moroccan style
A nation’s favourite, the plum and apricot stew/tagine
2- Tagines 100% savoury, no dried fruits nor fish involved.
The previous mix will be used but without cinnamon. We do add garlic and paprika in some cases especially if the dish has tomatoes in it. Note that we usually do not add cinnamon in this version. I have tried one vegetable tagine with a cinnamon stick (a regional version) in it and it did not taste bad. This choice has to do with the nature of the vegetables cooked in it (potatoes, carrots and green peas, hence sweet vegetables).
A seasonal vegetable tagine just put over hot charcoal to simmer.
Most of these tagines will have preserved lemon, green or purple olives added to them a few minutes before serving.
3-Tagines involving fish: they are just about like any savoury version but we like to add cumin, tomato concentrate and harissa to the mix. Usually but not always, fish tagines have a chermoula combination where the fish would have marinated beforehand.
A vegetable tagine with prawns
4-Tagines with ground meat (kefta): Salt, pepper (white/black), turmeric, ground ginger, a bouquet of coriander or/and parsley, paprika, garlic. Cinnamon and cumin. Mint leaves may be added while grinding the meat. This is actually the only version of tagine where the two spices meet and make a great combination (which beats any stereotyped recipe about Moroccan cooking where we tend to see the 2 spices constantly used). Now it’s worth mentioning that kefta can be made with chicken meat, turkey meat, fish.
In this tagine, although dried fruits have been used, they were cooked in the sauce as opposed to caramelized and added later on. It’s a regional dish: this combination can be found in the South of Morocco
Note on spices:
Depending on the region and the seasons, some spices such as mace or caraway might be added especially to tagines with sweet toppings. Some herbs are aslo added especially during winter season. Wild thyme, rosemary, sage, marjoram can be found in some tagine (and soups) while Ras el hanout is used in special occasions and not on a daily basis.
What you won’t see in a tagine or served with tagine
A combination of dried fruits, tomato sauce, cinnamon, cumin and paprika..If the dried fruits are omitted than the combination can pass.
A daily use of ras el hanout in a tagine
A tagine or any Moroccan stew automatically served with couscous (because couscous is a dish on its own and we usually serve it on its own topped with its own stew). We serve bread with tagines, we are a bread nation.
Porc or alcohol are not ingredients we find in Moroccan cooking.
Which oil for which tagine?
We usually start with a combination of vegetable oil and olive oil to sear the meat and cook the onions. We add about a tablespoon of olive oil just a couple of minutes before the cooking process is finished.
Some dishes require the use of a little bit of smen. a cured and aged clarified butter especially in the very beginning of the cooking. I like to take a small teaspoon of smen and massage chicken or meat with it just before placing it in the tagine.
In the South, Argan oil is a big deal and it’s easily found. A tagine with argan oil is something to try at least once in your lifetime.
A note about Moroccan olive oil: we love our olive oil to be dense and intense in flavour. You will always meet Moroccans abroad complaining about the quality of olive oil found abroad (including me). The supermarket stuff does not give justice to the Tagine, aim for an unfiltered cold pressed extra virgin olive oil to get as close as it can get to a Moroccan olive oil.
So, not only spices and herb are important to season a tagine, but the quality of fat used to cook it and the moment it’ been added.
How to build up a recipe cooked in a tagine
We usually start by heating a tiny bit of oil (ideally a mix of vegetable and olive oil). The choice here is either add the finely chopped onion first or the meat (chicken or red meat) and sear it. I tend to sear the meat then add the chopped onions.
It is usually a good thing to marinate the meat with oil and spices a couple of hours before searing it.
Now the cooking time depends on which meat will be used. Chicken does not need a long time, unlike meat. So we can top the chicken with vegetable at the same time, seal the tagine and cook it.
Some cuts or red meat takes more time than others which means that the meat has to cook first, then the vegetables will be added later. We carry on cooking until everything is tender.
Season the vegetables and set aside
Sear the meat and onions over hot charcoal.
Build up the layers on the top of the meat. We usually start by the vegetables needing more time to cook and we build up the pyramid of veg all the way to the top
Another tagine with vegetables
If the tagine will have a sweet topping, usually this will be cooked separately then added once the meat has become tender. This tagine will not need further cooking and will have to be consumed right there.
Fish tagines or “boulettes” tagines need another treatment. The fish or “boulettes” are placed within the vegetables or at the top because they do not need a long time to cook. Some fish or shellfish can even be added in the last 15 minutes of cooking.
I don’t like red meat, can I use chicken instead?
It’s actually my case, yes you can substitute one with the other although some recipes come out better with lamb or beef rather than chicken and vice versa.
Do all Moroccan cook in a tagine?
Absolutely not! But then if the dish is not cooked in a tagine it shouldn’t be called so.
While the rural areas and women who are not bound by an 8 hours job can still cook their daily meal using a tagine over a kanoun, the working women in urban areas use a pressure cooker and have been using it for at least 40 years.
A seasonal dish cooked in a pressure cooker
Cooking in a tagine means that you have time to cook the food slowly and considering our mothers had to go to work, the pressure cooker was the only option they had to cook the same recipes faster. We lost in flavour but then when the weekend is around, we compensate.
Quail or baby chicken with poached and caramelized pears Moroccan style
Now some family are so hooked to the tagine that they still cook it over a stove using a diffuser (no kanoun or brasero especially if there is no open space). Our working women go 2 ways here:
·The hybrid tagine: cook the meat in a pressure cooker in the morning, come back at lunch time, transfer the meat and the sauce into a tagine, top it with the seasoned vegetable (s) of the day and finish off the cooking.
·Cook it all in a tagine from scratch but then you would rather use chicken or fish since this will go faster.
So please have a look at some recipes in the blog, you will find very authentic recipes to get you started (cooked as a stew or in a tagine). You might as well like my facebook page to see what goes in my kitchen. You’ll be able to develop a clear idea about different daily tagines one can easly cook for one person or even a whole family. The bonus is that you will be cooking healthy without even trying hard..