Another steaming tajine is placed before me. Like most of the tajines I’ve had so far, I have no idea what lies within this one. Gripped by anticipation, I remove the lid and a cloud of aromatic smoke engulfs my face. I wait for the steam on my glasses to clear, but I have already caught a whiff of marinated lamb. Once again, our Moroccan hosts have treated us to a surprise.
Infused with aromatic herbs and spices, the tajine, Morocco ’s staple dish, is a feast for all the senses. This hearty stew of braised meat and seasonal vegetables is traditionally slow-cooked in an earthenware pot and covered with a cone-shaped lid. You are served tajine wherever you go in Morocco, but the ingredients vary. Along the coast, fillets of fresh fish are preferred over beef and lamb.
The word tajine refers both to the terra cotta conical pot and the food that’s served in it. This I learnt on my first tajine experience as I scooped prunes from a heap of rice. A few glasses of mint tea and twenty tajines later, I started digging deeper to understand what makes this versatile dish the heart and soul of Moroccan cuisine.
Chicken tajine cooked the traditional way. Photo courtesy of Daniela Frendo
The Journey Of The Tajine
The origin of the tajine as a cooking pot dates back to North Africa’s first inhabitants; the Amazigh, also known as Berbers. Today, Morocco’s Berbers make up 40% of the country’s population and their cultural heritage, including their culinary methods and diet preferences, is very present in Moroccan public life.
Before the arrivals of the Phoenicians, Arabs and Ottomans in Morocco, the Berber diet primarily consisted of chickpeas, couscous and lentils. Since then the cooking of the tajine has been influenced by the delicacies brought over by invaders. Arab and Moorish settlers were the primary source of many ingredients used in today’s tajines, such as olives, dates, nuts and spices.
In traditional Berber communities, the choice of meat for the tajine depends on the family’s livestock. Around a table laden with a chicken tajine and warm flatbread, our guide, Nouredine, explained that the majority of Berbers eke out a living by raising cattle and growing their own crops. Our Berber hosts had arranged strips of carrot and marrow on a bed of couscous, under which chunks of chicken breast still seethed. Every bit of our lunch melted in my mouth, filling it with an earthy flavour. Nouredine shared with us the secret to a perfectly tender stew. Our tajines had been left to simmer on clay braziers all morning.
Tajines on clay braziers. Photo courtesy of Daniela Frendo
As we traveled from the cultivated fields of the High Atlas Mountains towards the barren lands of eastern Morocco, I found out that tajines could be as diverse as the country’s landscapes. While hogging the closest seat to a log fire on a rather cold evening, I was introduced to a kefta tajine. We were spending the night in a Kasbah nestled between the red cliffs of the Todra Gorge, a region populated by Bedouins. Originally, the Arab nomads of the desert had a diet rich in camel meat, lamb and dairy products. Bedouins are now a minority in Morocco, and many are abandoning their pastoral and nomadic lifestyle to go live in towns.
Mastering Tajine Etiquette
Eating in Morocco is all about sharing and socializing. In the presence of guests, food is served in decorated tajines and colorful ceramic plates. Hospitality is an important part of Moroccan culture and guests are spoilt to more than one course. Telling your hosts that you’re stuffed is useless – the food will keep coming.
“Eesh! Eesh! Eesh!”
The chant was drummed into my head as I struggled to finish off the last bits of meat in the tajine. Our Berber hosts urged me on with the Tamazight command for “eat.” But rather than being full, my right arm had started to hurt. I had been tearing apart lamb chops and sweeping up bits of potato for a good half an hour.
Muslims eat with the right hand, the left one being considered unclean. In the absence of cutlery, flat bread is broken into small pieces and used as a spoon. Since tajine is normally a communal dish, the general rule is stick to the portion closest to you, even if there’s just that one last prune on the far side, however tempting it may be.
Berber bread. Photo courtesy of Daniela Frendo
In Search Of An Authentic Tajine
It is almost impossible to have a bad tajine in Morocco, but you will rarely find it traditionally prepared in busy restaurants. Small, family-run restaurants normally have their own signature tajines while offering a more hospitable environment. However nothing beats home cooked Berber tajines, where it is possible to taste the love and dedication put into every meal.
When the last few meat chunks at the bottom of the tajine had been scooped, our Berber hosts returned to the room with more freshly-baked bread to dip into the gravy. Nouredine let us in on another secret.
“You can always tell if a tajine has been cooked the traditional way.”
By traditional he meant cooked in the same pot for at least an hour.
“Of course, you will only find out once you’ve finished eating.”
I wanted to know what gives it away, but the answer was staring me in the face.
The bottom of the tajine was charred…yet still unashamedly flavorsome when scrapped onto the last mouthfuls of Berber bread.
By Daniela Frendo