Morocco: Lifting the Lid on Tagines

Ever since I visited Morocco back in 2000, I’ve been obsessed with tagines.

Over the years I have amassed a fair collection of these conical wonder-pots; so much so, I actually have a cupboard solely dedicated to storing my tagines! Thankfully my obsessive nature has since moved on to other kitchen oddities, but the fact remains that tagines are possibly the greatest casserole pot ever invented. Ingeniously designed to produce meltingly tender stews – tagines are to Morocco, what the wok is to China: inseparable and indispensable! Whilst I’m unsure of the exact culinary science behind the tagine’s unwavering ability to produce such tender meat, rather unsurprisingly, the key to its design lies in its conical lid. This uniquely designed lid allows the steam to rise up to the top and drip back down into the simmering stew, that is about all I know. Beyond that, it is just magic.

Traditionally made out of clay and cooked over a charcoal fire, today tagines come in a variety of guises. Pick a size or colour, cast-iron or pottery; these days there is probably the perfect tagine out there to fulfill your own specific “foodie” aspirations. Whilst I have a real soft spot for authenticity, I would avoid buying a traditional clay tagine as these are notoriously tricky to cook with, require “seasoning” and are hostile to alternative cooking methods (they may crack or worse, explode!). To my mind, what makes a good tagine is its ability to go directly from the stove-top to oven. I currently use a tagine made out of mircostoven, not very traditional I know, but what it lacks in authenticity, it makes up for in versatility! I’ve had a number of tagines that were suitable only for cooking in the oven and I found these to be very inconvenient as you had to prepare and sauté your stew ingredients in a separate pan, before adding them to the actual tagine for cooking in the oven. I’ve always found this to be detrimental to the flavour of the finished meal – any time you use two separate pans/pots like this, you run the risk of losing some of the flavour in the transfer. If that is not enough to convince you to buy a multi-functional tagine then consider this the ultimate persuasion: one tagine means there’ll be less washing-up!

So now you know what type of tagine you should buy, back to tagines as an actual meal.

Tagines in Morocco were not at all what I expected. In fact, from my own experience they’re largely indistinguishable from the complex heady concoctions we have come to expect from watching TV chefs who are drunk on preserved lemons and dates stuffed with walnuts. In the month that I trailed around Morocco, the few tagines I encountered were actually pretty plain affairs; tasty, simple and unrefined – Berber Tagine ruled supreme! I have no doubt that grander tagines were being eaten in the luxury courtyards of ancient riads or on a rooftop overlooking Marrakesh’s Jemaa El-Fna, but sadly these places, and tagines, were beyond my meagre backpacker budget.

This does not mean that I didn’t have some amazing tagines in Morocco, far from it. The best tagine I had was a simple berber tagine from a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, located just inside the main entrance to Marrakesh’s labyrinthine souk. Made in individual portioned clay tagines and eaten with chunks of soft bread, these tagines were a master class in simplicity: lightly spiced lamb with potatoes, onions and carrots, that was all it took to create tagine-magic. Our favourite part of this mini-tagine was, however, the encrusted potatoes and onions at the bottom of the stew. Whilst seemingly unintentional, these fonds, or sucs, gave the tagine an intensity that had us coming back time and again! Unfortunately, as this culinary masterstroke was unintentional, which turned the simple act of picking our individual tagine (out of the 20 or more available) into a game of culinary roulette! We would try to stack the odds in our favour by asking which tagine had been cooking the longest, in the hope this would be most likely to have formed the coverted crust, but like all gambles it was hit and miss. What was worse though was when only one of us hit the jackpot – tagine-envy is truly an ugly thing!

So whilst my time in the country gave me a greater appreciation of the potential for simplicity in Moroccan cuisine, it did not dampen my devotion to its headier flavours. I, like many before me, am readily seduced by the spiced romance of the Moroccan palette; whether the food is simple or grand, central to that allure is the tagine. Many years on, a good few tagines later, I still love making Moroccan food. Often my tagines are coddlingly sweet, other times they’re refreshingly tangy and sometimes they’re the epitome of simplicity. And if I’m lucky, and my cooking karma is just right, sometimes my tagines will reward my unwavering devotion with an encrusted potato, or two…but sssh, don’t tell my partner!

For some delicious Moroccan recipes, please click here

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