Food travels: the tagine

Longer read

‘Marvelling at all that had befallen him, the fisherman returned towards the city and, coming to his house with the fish, filled an earthen pot with water and placed them in it. When they began to swim about in the water, he put the pot upon his head and walked with it to the palace…’

‘“Give us proof of your excellence with the cook pots and the luxury of your dishes…”’

‘Without further delay, he got together all of his household goods; his rugs, cushions, his cooking-pots, his cauldrons and mortars, his tables and mattresses, and sold them for fifty dirhams. With part of this money he hired an ass for the journey…’

‘”I have five pots for you” I answered, “all containing admirable foods”. “Ah master master!”, cried the barber, “delight me with the sight of all these wonderful things”’.

– Excerpts from various stories, One Thousand and One Nights

Chapter One: From Atlas Mountains to country kitchen

View from Kasba restaurant over the Atlas mountains

Journalist Hamish Bowles once described Morocco in May as ‘unseasonably tagine-hot’. Well, Hamish, spare a thought for 50°C in July…

It was 2016 and I was in Marrakech for a friend’s 30th. Specifically, and unusually for me, in a luxury villa, with our every whim and culinary desire catered for by a legion of really lovely live-in locals. As I say, it was unusual for me. They prepared for us feast after feast of traditional tagines and cous cous dishes. Even as a total glutton I couldn’t keep up.

On the third day, our host/driver-/fixer Sharif took a band of us quite high into the Atlas Mountains. I had been over the mountain range before, firing through almost without pausing, but this time we stopped to meet camels, admire houses and workshops full of handmade goods and sample some excellent Moroccan food.

Rugs outside a rug merchant's shop in the Atlas Mountains
A young camel in the Atlas Mountains
Kasba restaurant sign

We ate tagine, of course, at a restaurant called Kasba. I remember sitting on the panoramic terrace tucking in, as if it was this afternoon. The deep tang of citrus and the warmth of spice as I knocked mine back – chicken with preserved lemon and olives. It was one of the most glorious gastronomic experiences of my life. Two hours cooking on a fire, gone in minutes.

When it was time to wend our way back down to Marrakech, I spotted a potter’s shop off the road. Of course, Sharif knew the owners and sellers, as he knew everyone we’d met on our excursions.

I took my time shuffling past shelves and shelves of tagine pots. Glazed and painted, plain and not glazed, subtly daubed or garish. Soon enough, a wily old seller cornered me and we prepared to duel. Well, haggle. I love negotiating in souks, markets and shops. I’m an adrenaline junkie for it. It’s also considered rude not to barter on price.

In my broken French I had great fun batting away the man’s suggested prices and in his broken English he enjoyed the challenge of trying to sell me multiple pots.

‘Why one when you can buy four?’… ‘But I’ve only got one cabin bag!’

The final score? I came in with eyes on one, and left with bags for two. I paid around £10 in total so it was a bargain, but I’d have haggled more if time wasn’t so precious.

landscape image of two tagin pots in the Atlas Mountains

When I returned home, although I thought I might keep the more classic, glazed tagine, I decided it would travel better to South America and so kept the unglazed, pure clay pot. I researched how to ‘season’ your tagine pot ready for cooking (more on that later) and wrote up some instructions to take, but I did nothing to my own one.

Four years on, reader, I am slightly ashamed to tell you that for most of its former life, my unglazed, unseasoned tagine pot lay under my bed in Brixton, rarely-touched, wrapped in old newspaper and housed in a guardian newspaper-sponsored pink Glastonbury rucksack.

When I moved down to Somerset earlier this year, it remained wrapped thus, until a few weeks ago, when I organised some of my kitchen stuff. Our country kitchen was to gain yet more gadgets and souvenirs. I tore off the paper and plonked the tagine pot down on the table. It was not a eureka moment though, it merely sat there for a few days gathering a virgin layer of dust. Progress, but I made no attempt to research tagine ingredients or unearth instructions. Was the tagine headed for another four years of unloved obscurity?

Ding dong.

An unusual delivery, a small box labelled My Little Persian Kitchen… it wasn’t something I recalled ordering.

Contents of a My Little Persian Kitchen spice kit

Two of my former housemates had gifted me a belated birthday present – a three month ‘Arabian Nights’ spice subscription. The first recipe included? A blooming tagine. And not just any old tagine recipe, but one for chicken with lemon and olives!

Finally. I had a tagine pot to prepare, tiny pots of perfectly measured spices and a reason to persevere. It was time at last to recreate one of my tastiest travel memories.

Chapter Two: a potted history of the tagine

Graphic spelling the word tagine

Before I share how I got on… facts!

ETYMOLOGY.

The word tagine comes from the Moroccan Arabic طجين ṭažin, from the Berber word tajin which refers to a shallow earthenware cooking vessel. Though in Ancient Greek the word tágēnon means a frying pan or saucepan, the Berber people are the undoubted reason for the worldwide spread of tagine cooking. Who are they?

THE BERBER PEOPLE.

Two Berber in the dunes

Two thirds of Morocco’s population call themselves, or can trace their roots back to, Berber people. Berber are indigenous to North Africa with their own language that changes only slightly across neighbouring countries. Berber see themselves as Imazighen, which loosely means ‘free people’, a nod to the nomadic way of living that characterises them. They are unified by their shared language and free spiritedness, but also by a shared history of caring for livestock, their families and cultural traditions that stretch back at least 5,000 years.

Their cooking of tagines over open fires in the past few centuries are what has led the cuisine to be so widely revered across North Africa and the world. The origin of the tagine can be traced further back, however.

ROMANS?

Triumphal arch in Volubilis, Morocco
Triumphal Arch in Volubilis near Meknes in Morocco. It grew hugely under Roman occupation. Wikimedia Commons

The Roman occupation of North Africa began in the ruins of the city of Carthage in 146 BC and ended in the 7th Century (the Byzantine era) when the Umayyad Caliphate (Islamic Government) wrestled it from them. Roman ceramics were traded widely across the empire and pieces of ‘portable ovens’ similar to tagines have been found in digs around Hadrian’s Wall in England. It’s therefore plausible that the innovation caught on in North Africa from the Romans.

THE ISLAMIC GOLDEN AGE.

Map of the Abbasid empire
A map showing the Abbasid empire. Wikimedia Commons.

Whether inherited from the Romans or not, most food historians commonly date the use of tagines back to the time of Harun al-Rashid, who ruled as the fifth leader of the Abbasid Caliphate.

His name means ‘rightly guided’, and indeed he was caliph at a time in the 8th and 9th centuries known as the peak of the first Islamic Golden Age. Multiculturalism and relative religious freedoms were the perfect conditions for scholars to be translating Ancient Greek manuscripts from philosophers like Aristotle, and on medicine and other disciplines. Could this be why the word ‘tagine’ is similar to an Ancient Greek word?

In any case, the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads in 750 AD and their empire extended (intake of breath) over modern day Iraq, Syria, Israel Palastine, Southern Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, UAE, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia. You can find out more about this fascinating empire in a really interesting BBC4 Radio episode of In Our Time.

It doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to see how the Abbasid empire might have collided with the Berber nomadic way of life to foster the growth of tagine cooking across North Africa.

ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS.

Rows of lamps in a souk
Courtesy Naomi Koelemans on Unsplash

What about the earliest recorded mention of tagines? You’ll recall that I began this post with quotes from One Thousand and One Nights, aka Arabian Nights. Neat fact, many of the stories are thought to originate in Persia, possibly India too, from the time of al-Rashid. One clue? He features in a lot of them.

I browsed an entire copy of the book online and couldn’t find one specific use of the word ‘tagine’, and indeed only one original fragment from the time of al-Rashid survives, but nevertheless a mouthwatering collection of food does feature, as do many feasts, kitchens, cooking methods and utensils.

Chapter Three: types of tagine

Stacks of clay tagine pots on display in Morocco
Wikimedia Commons.

Tagines are and were evidently popular far beyond Morocco’s borders.

Sephardic Jewish food culture, and that of Maghrebi Jews (who can trace their North African history back over 2,000 years) involves lots of tagine making, including for Shabbat dinners and Jewish holidays. The styles prepared depend on country-specific traditions eg in Morocco using dried fruits is more common, while Tunisian stews often feature potatoes, carrots and courgettes, all diced.

I say ‘stew’ because if you ask for a ‘tajine’ in Tunisia the end result will apparently be something closer to an Italian frittata!

A traditional Berber style of tagine
A traditional Berber tagine. Wikimedia Commons.

The most popular tagines in North Africa, certainly that I’ve encountered or read about, include chicken, lemon and olive (scroll down for a recipe), lamb or beef with prune, chicken and apricot, fish with chermoula marinade, beef or lamb meatball and a classic Berber tagine, with a cone-shaped layer of different vegetables, usually over meat (above).

It all sounds big on meat, but of course vegetables are a huge part of North African cuisine and easily interchange with meat or fish. One of Morocco’s most traditional but popular dishes is cous cous with seven vegetables. Meat or no meat, the dish includes a mound of cous cous with a combination of carrot, cabbage, turnip, squash or pumpkin, courgette, sweet potato, onion.

In Persian cuisine, a khoresh is a generic word for stews from Iran and Afghanistan, often served with rice. They include aubergine and beef (Bademjan), herb stew (sabzi) and chicken with pomegranate and walnut (fesenjan).

Elsewhere, the Palestinian dish of Qidra – or Kidra – involves cooking a puree of onions in clarified butter, followed by lamb or chicken with chickpeas, rice and spices in a pot over a wood fire.

And in India and Pakistan, bursting with a kaleidoscope of regional cuisines as it is, Mughlai cuisine blends traditions of the old Mughal courts with Persian flavours.

The tagine has traditions that clearly date back many centuries and span empires. But, whether the Moroccan Berbers, Abbasid rulers or exalted characters from literature are the reason for its meteoric rise as the emperor of the one pot meal, the proof is always in the eating…

Chapter Four: a recipe for chicken, lemon and olive tagine

Excited to use the My Little Persian Kitchen spice subscription, and remembering the meal in the mountains, the first tagine I made with my prepared tagine pot was a classic using chicken, lemon and olive. It’s also known as Joojeh Khoresh in Persian cooking.

Serves 2. Prep time 30 mins & cooking time 2 hours.
(See the next chapter for how to season your tagine pot, if you’ve just bought one).

Equipment needed: a tagine pot (the size of mine or bigger), or else a cast iron cooking pot such as a Dutch oven. Or you can use a big roasting dish with a lid, or foil lid. Scales & frying pan.

Ingredient list

4-6 chicken thighs, depending on size
50g pancetta cubes or bacon, cut into pieces
1 medium brown onion, sliced
2 large garlic cloves, crushed and sliced
1 tbsp olive oil
75g green queen olives, or similar
1 large lemon, sliced width ways (unwaxed preferably)
1/2 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp saffron strands crushed slightly into 1/2 tsp sugar with a spoon
1 preserved lemon, quartered with flesh removed (look for the Belazu brand)
Seeds from 1/2 a pomegranate & parsley or mint (optional)
(For a vegetarian alternative you could replace the chicken with thickly cut portions of any of the following: carrots, white cabbage, celeriac, onion, sweet potato, courgette, squash. Instead of bacon, add a tiny bit extra salt and brown the onion more)

Preheat the oven to 160°C (140°C fan, gas mark 2, 234°F)

  1. Make a dry rub for the chicken by mixing together all the spices and seasonings, except the saffron and sugar.
  2. Coat the chicken in the dry rub.
  3. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan or heavy-bottomed large pan and add the pancetta or bacon. Sauté for a few mins until the fat starts to turn brown.
  4. Add your marinated chicken to the pan and cook until golden, keeping turning.
  5. Meanwhile, add the sliced onions and garlic and stir, coating them as they cook for a few mins.
  6. Add your fresh lemon slices and 2 cups of water (you may not need as much if your tagine pot is slightly smaller).
  7. Add the olives and the preserved lemon. Stir and then transfer everything to your prepared tagine pot, or other vessel. Be careful that the lid fits back on properly.
  8. Pop into your preheated oven and cook for 2 hours.
  9. Meanwhile, crush the saffron together with the sugar, either in a pestle and mortar or with the back of a spoon in a ramekin. And a few teaspoons of hot water and set aside.
  10. You might like to make up some cous cous or bulgar wheat to go with the tagine. Follow packet instructions for amounts, and use chicken or vegetable stock instead of plain water, to give it extra flavour.
  11. It’s optional, but if you’ve got a pomegranate to hand, cut it in half (across, not down), hold half over a bowl and bash the skin with a heavy wooden spoon. That should loosen most of the seeds easily, but expect juice to spit! Put half the seeds and a snip of mint or parsley in your cous cous or bulgar wheat, if making.
  12. Take the tagine out of the oven, place carefully on a heat resistant surface, take the lid off and pour the saffron sugar water over. Sprinkle the remaining pomegranate seeds over the tagine, along with some snipped up parsley or mint, if you have it.

Hungry for more recipes?

I highly recommend checking Christine Benlafquih out over at The Spruce Eats. She is from Casablanca and features lots of tagine info and recipes. It is from her that I learned how best to prepare a tagine dish for cooking – read on for a step by step picture guide.

Chapter Five: Step-by-step picture guide for ‘seasoning’ a tagine pot

Tagine pot before it gets seasoned
My unseasoned tagine pot

To make a tagine style meal you don’t technically have to use a tagine pot, but for me personally it’s been a proper thrill to finally get to use mine, and I can’t wait to try another recipe soon.

All tagine pots have to go through what’s called seasoning before they can be used in cooking. This is to make the clay or ceramic more durable and it also removes any raw clay taste. It’s not complicated at all, but I recommend starting at least the day before you want to cook with it, to allow you enough time for each step.

The below guidelines are adapted from Christine Benlafquih over at The Spruce Eats, with some additional notes from me.

Preparing your new tagine pot

Tagine in water
  • Soak the lid and the base in a bucket or box of water for at least 2 hours, or overnight (which I opted for).
  • Drain the water and leave the tagine to dry for a short while.
Rubbing olive oil into the tagine pot
  • If your cookware is unglazed (like mine), rub the interior and exterior of the lid and base with olive oil – a clean sponge would work. If it’s glazed, it shouldn’t need the olive oil here. (You’ll see some kitchen paper in the picture above. Suffice it to say, a sponge won’t leave little bits of tissue behind…
The olive oil permeates into the clay
  • Leave until all the olive oil has permeated the clay.
The empty tagine in the oven
  • It’s time to get it into the oven – allow up to 4-5 hours for the following 3 steps.
  • Place your tagine pot, lid on, in a cold oven.
  • Turn the oven on to 150°C (130°C fan), and set the timer for 2 hours. Be careful not to have the oven any higher, as clay will crack if subjected to high heat.
  • After 2 hours, turn off the oven, and leave the tagine to cool completely in the oven.
  • Once cooled, wash the tagine by hand in warm water with a tiny bit of soap, using a non-scratch cloth or sponge.
  • Allow it to dry fully.
Brushing the tagine's interior
  • Whether next cooking with it or storing it, use a pastry brush to coat the interior of your tagine lid and base with more olive oil.
Tagine pot brushed with olive oil
  • Leave the olive oil to soak into the clay for around an hour.
Letting the olive oil soak in to the tagine pot

Your tagine is now seasoned and ready for some tagine!

Tips to remember when cooking with your tagine pot

Tagine in the oven
  • Unless otherwise directed, use an oven temperature of no more than 160°C (140°C fan), and wait patiently for the tagine to reach a simmer. Heat diffusers are recommended when cooking on a burner.
  • Tagines and other clay cookware may crack if subjected to rapid changes in temperature. Avoid this by not adding cold food or liquids to a hot tagine, and by taking care not to place a hot tagine on a cold surface.
  • If a recipe calls to heat ingredients before transferring to the tagine pot, the clay should be fine.

Tips to remember when cleaning and storing your tagine pot

Storing your tagine pot
  • Hand wash your tagine with very mild soap and rinse well.
  • Leave the tagine to dry thoroughly, and then lightly coat the interior of the lid and base with olive oil before storing.
  • It’s a good idea to store your tagine with the lid slightly ajar so that air can circulate. I found that even doing that, the base gathered a couple of little mould patches, and this is apparently more common in the glazed kind. Just simply wash the tagine again and lightly coat it with olive oil before using.

تمتع بوجبتك – tamatae biwujbatik – Bon appétit!

Published by Kateonhertravels

An insatiable appetite for travel.

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