Tagine: The Unofficial Dish of Morocco?
Ask most people what kind of food they associate with Morocco, and they’ll doubtless mention tagines, couscous, tagines and… well, more tagines! These attractive conical pots and the tasty morsels contained within them are historically from the Berber regions of North Africa. Over the centuries, they have become synonymous with Morocco. The earthenware pots themselves are aesthetically pleasing, but when the lid is removed to reveal deliciously slow cooked and tender morsels of meat or fish, dotted with olives and almonds or dried fruits like apricots, that’s when the tagine becomes so much more than a mere cooking vessel.
Traditional tagines are made entirely from heavy clay that is often glazed, and are pretty weighty objects.
The cone-shaped lid sits on the flat round base while it’s cooking, ensuring that the contents steam and are able to cook slowly without drying out. The method of cooking favoured by many Moroccans (particularly those living in rural areas) is to place the tagine over a charcoal burner. Large bricks of charcoal are often purchased that are capable of remaining hot for many hours.
When the cooking time is up, the tagine will often be carried to the table and the lid removed with a dramatic flourish. If being served to folk new to the country, this is often accompanied by oohs and ahhs as the tagine’s delectable contents are exposed and the aromatic scents waft out and envelop the senses.
Other Delectable Eats
Couscous with seven vegetables (or sometimes called couscous royale), is actually considered to be Morocco’s national dish. Couscous is a small grain made from wheat semolina flour; and while it can be quite bland eaten on it’s own, it becomes the perfect accompaniment for slow cooked vegetables and/or meat. Poorer families who can’t afford to buy meat will cook it simply with vegetables.
Another popular dish here in Morocco is a soup (or broth), called Harira. As with all dishes, each version will vary slightly depending on what region of the country you happen to be in, or what ingredients are accessible. Sometimes the soup is made with small chunks of lamb that are slowly simmered in a seasoned broth of celery, parsley, onions, tomatoes, coriander, chickpeas and lentils, and certainly in my experience, it’s pretty tasty wherever you eat (or slurp!) it. Harira is also an important meal during Ramadan due to it’s nutritional values.
Bread is a staple part of the Moroccan diet (particularly for poorer families); for breakfast it will be eaten dipped in olive oil or honey, and chunks of the flat, round loaves are torn off and handed around to be eaten with the main meal, when it also serves as a utensil for scooping up the food.
Something else that might be associated with this country is mint tea, and in fact this is quintessentially Moroccan. Green tea is brewed together with sprigs of fresh mint in small silver teapots (well, small compared to a standard family sized English teapot!), and they are often highly decorative. Sugar, usually huge lumps the size of Lego bricks, is then added to the hot, bitter liquid to produce a sweet and refreshing drink that Moroccans often jokingly refer to as ‘Moroccan Whisky’. Preparing and serving this unique drink is often an intricate ceremony that comes at the end of a feast or after a Moroccan snack. It can be served with delicate pastries or sugary biscuits, confirming the Moroccan people’s love of all things sweet, which sadly often ends in the loss of their teeth; tooth removal being far cheaper for many Moroccan’s than fillings or dentures!
I have to admit that I rarely cook traditional Moroccan dishes at home. When I have attempted it, I’ve never quite managed to capture the unique flavours that this country specialises in. So rather than be disappointed, I’d just as soon eat out locally for the equivalent of pennies, and know that my tastebuds will be well and truly tantalised!