It’s Always Tagine O’Clock in Morocco

Categories Food, Morocco, Photo Essays, WiR

Back when I was exploring the intense and rewarding Myanmar, I wrote a post about how it was always soup o’clock in Burma. During my first days in Morocco, I was reminded of that post and the wry smiles of tourists I met in the country, asking if there was something they could eat that didn’t involve a bowl of broth. Morocco’s version of the quintessential bowl of soup – varied in flavour, infinite in possibilities – is the tagine. Cooked in a clay pot of the same name, the classic dish can be built using chicken or beef, lamb or just vegetables and even has an egg version called a Berber omelette. While some complain that they are tagined-out, I am as enamoured with tagine as I was with soup in Burma and I’ve had a wonderful time sampling the different possibilities.

The Basics

Tagine is named after the pot it is cooked in, a thick clay cone resting on a rounded base. While many tagines are ornamental – see the delicate ceramic ones below, hand-painted carefully – the basic cooking version is unpainted and only occasionally glazed. Practical and durable (except if you drop it, of course), the dish is synonymous with Morocco for good reason: every roadside stall, tourist restaurant and cafe seems to have pots of the stuff simmering all day long.

Handpainted tangineres at a pottery-making village near Fez

Delicate handpainted tangineres at a pottery-making village near Fez

While ubiquitous, tagines are also quite practical. By virtue of slow-cooking meat at low temperatures, effectively braising it until tender, a lower quality or tougher meat can be used. And the food cooks with minimum of additional liquid (water is added as it simmers), and no additional fat. The meat browns in the heated clay despite the slow simmer – the heat remains trapped inside the pot by the raised outer ridges on the base of the tagine.

The tagine is appealing to me for the same reason that the wok was appealing to me in Asia: it’s a simple way to make an incredibly flavourful meal. When I’ve talked on podcasts or in interviews about eating on the road, I’ve implored that food does not need to be complicated to be good. In Asia, the street eats are the most exciting to me, a two-minute flash fry resulting in a shockingly complex set of tastes. And in Morocco, I’ve found tagine is precisely the same, allowing for deep, musky and lemony flavours all cooked under one conical roof.

Taginieres piled in a window in Essouira

Taginieres piled in a window in Essouira

The Fixings

So what goes into a tagine? It depends on the kind of meal you plan to cook. Sets of ingredients, herbs and spices are often bundled together into traditional dishes but many stalls and restaurants swap the meat for another or mix up the toppings. The basics involve a meat, vegetables and lots of herbs and spices. A specialty of the today’s Feast of Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha) is Mrouzia, sweet mutton tagine spiced with honey, cinnamon, prunes and almonds and the famous spice blend, Ras el Hanout. [Note: I could go on for a long time about Ras el-Hanout.  The name means "top of the shop" it's a blend of a rough list of spices with no set ingredients. Anywhere from 20 to 30 - sometimes up to a hundred - spices go into the mixture. Spice merchants' reputations were often tied into the worth and notoriety of their Ras-el-Hanout blends. One of these days, I'll write a post about the history of the mixture - it's fascinating stuff.]

To simplify the drooling process, I’ve divided things up into the meats involved. The starting point for all tagines is your meat of choice, chopped onions and a lovely laundry list of herbs and spices. In the tagine I made (see below), I used sweet paprika, a whole lot of cumin, Moroccan saffron, turmeric, garlic, freshly chopped parsley, ground ginger, and salt and pepper to taste.

How to make tagine: the herbs and spices

The herbs and spices for tagine-making

All of it goes into the tagine pot with a splash of olive oil, a splash of vegetable oil and the lid added for some cooking. I’ll be posting a recipe later but this is the general gist of your pre-cooked pot:

How to make tagine: piling in the chicken, onions and spices

Piling in the chicken, onions and spices before putting the pot on to cook

Now for the options.

Chicken Tagines

Chicken is easily the most common meat in Morocco (except during the Feast of Sacrifice where it’s all mutton, all the time). As a result, there are many different tagines to choose from. Usually they are a variation of the first or third photo below: chicken, vegetables, olives, copious amounts of lemon and spices, all piled into a kindling wood -like pile in the centre of the tagine. Occasionally, you’ll find a more adventurous soul who adds the mrouzia ingredients to chicken, as with the second photo below.

Chicken tagine with potatoes, green beans and carrots in Rabat

Chicken tagine with potatoes, green beans and carrots in Rabat

Chicken tagine with prunes, almonds and onions in Essaouira

Chicken tagine with prunes, almonds and onions in Essaouira

Chicken tagine with olives, potatoes, vegetables and lemon in Merzouga

Chicken tagine with olives, potatoes, vegetables and lemon in Merzouga

Mutton Tagines

Lamb is one of my favourite meats and it’s no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed the mutton tagines I found along the way. The best of them all was from a tiny roadside stall in Zaita, a town tiny enough that it’s not on Google Maps. But what it lacks in population it makes up for in taste, and our table ordered two mutton tagines, one with green peas and one without.

Mutton tagine with green peas in Zaita, Morocco

Mutton tagine with green peas in Zaita

The meat was so tender it fell apart with a gentle touch of the fork, and the potatoes cooked perfectly and without being soggy. The addition of tomatoes added a needed touch of acidity to the dish.

Mutton tagine at a roadside stall in Zaita

Mutton tagine at a roadside stall in Zaita

We might have just enjoyed this one a bit too much. A giant food coma followed our meal.

Empty plates, full stomach

Empty plates, full stomach

Beef Tagines

The most common of the beef tagines is that of kefta, a flavourful meatball, tomato and egg concoction named after the spiced meatballs that make up its primary ingredient. Kefta are found throughout the Middle East and North Africa, usually consisting of beef of lamb mixed with cumin and coriander and fresh parsley, sometimes with a little chilli to add a kick. Into the tagine pot they go, along with a few eggs, a lot of tomato puree and some salt, pepper, cinnamon and honey.  The results, it needs to be said, are magnificent.

Beef kefta tagine with tomato, onion and egg in Essaouira

Beef kefta tagine with tomato, onion and egg in Essaouira

The egg is steamed alongside the meat and tomatos, perfectly cooked but never dry inside. For those craving some meat, this is an excellent option that will leave you feeling full and happy. Or is that just me?

Like the chicken tagine above, beef cubes can also be used for the traditional mrouzia tagines, with room for creativity. This was a beef, prunes, almonds and onion tagine, with the added pleasure of sesame seeds coating the meat and fruit. I hadn’t seen sesame added elsewhere, but it complimented the cinnamon and honey perfectly.

Beef, prune and almond tagine in Marrakesh

Beef, prune and almond tagine in Marrakesh

Tagine Omelettes

Just about anything can be cooked in a tagine, and one of my favourite options is that of a Berber omelette, found in almost any restaurant in town. If it’s not on the menu, you can ask for them to prepare it off-paper; the ingredients are common to almost every Moroccan kitchen and they’ll almost always oblige.

To your clay pot, you add tomatoes, garlic, herbs and spices – parsley, cilantro, ginger, bay leaves, black pepper and Ras-el-Hanout – and simmer for ten minutes with a splash of olive oil. In goes as many eggs as you can handle and the lid replaced, cooking at low heat for another ten minutes, until the yolks have set but are still soft. Simple and delicious, it’s a comforting dish for any cold day.

Berber omelette in a taginiere

Berber omelette in a taginiere: eggs, tomatoes, onions and spices

Making Your Own

Of course, I couldn’t leave the country without trying my hand at tagine-making in the land of tagines. With a tagine cooking class on offer, most of us excitedly signed up. Crammed into a narrow room  with gas burners lined in a row, we were taught the art of the simmer, choosing from an array of spices, herbs and vegetables. Having all eaten tagines for several days running, we each had a different idea of what we wanted to create. Bernie stuck to his Taiwanese roots and “Chineseified” his plate, adding more garlic than the rest of us combined. I went a little cumin-crazy, dousing my chicken in a dusting of green and gray. The class also yielded one of the best catchphrases of the trip when our guide Yacine sombrely instructed us to “remember to control your tagine,” a line that cropped up repeatedly thereafter. (Danielle to Yacine: “We can’t worry about everyone. We just can’t control everyone’s tagines!”).

When the tagines were done, we crowded around the table to try them out, each of us extremely happy and just a bit biased. A lot of “this is the best tagine ever” was heard, including from me.

How to make tagine: the finished product

How to make tagine: the finished product!

Me with my tagine after the cooking class

Eating my finished product - and it was delicious.

A Matter of National Pride

From roadside eats to snack stalls in the cities to the more opulent tourist restaurants, tagine is a matter of national pride throughout Morocco. Walking up to any restaurant with the telltale cones piled on the fire is an endless loop of discovery. What is cooking underneath? A curious gestures immediately results in a waiter coming to end the surprise. With a flick of his wrist, the cone is removed and the simmering meal below revealed.

It’s always tagine o’clock in Morocco.

Mutton tagine in Essouira

Vendor showing off his mutton tagine in Essouira

p.s. To those who have asked what camera I am using, it’s an Olympus E-P3 Micro 4/3ds camera (not as big as a DSLR, but with interchangeable lenses) and these were all taken with a 20mm, f/1.7 Panasonic lens.

59 comments to It’s Always Tagine O’Clock in Morocco

  1. Haha oh Tagine – I felt like I ate it a hundred times in Morocco. Loved your photos and descriptions.

  2. These all sound delicious! I’ve never had a tagine, and now you’ve got me craving one. I think if I had to choose, I’d go for the beef kefta because that photo just looks too yummy, but I’d gladly take any of them.

  3. On November 8, 2011 at 12:02 pm gene in montreal said:

    excellence! Have you ever considered a career in foodie fotos? we all ready know your tasting and eating skills are off-the-charts. delightful! lol

  4. No recipes…!???

  5. Please, please tell me you’re bringing dozens of those handpainted tagines back as gifts for friends … who live in Toronto and really want one.

  6. now you have me wanting to MAKE something in a tagine! everything looks so luscious & rich!

  7. One of my favourite memories from Morocco is when the owner of my hostel in Chefchaouen took us out to a market and then taught us how to make tagine and mint tea in the common room…too bad I can’t remember everything he did!!

  8. We are heading to Morocco next year and I can’t wait to try these dishes! Great food photos.

  9. …starts searching Amazon for a tagine…

  10. Yummm! It looks like such a hearty and tasty meal.

  11. I never would have thought to put beef and prunes in the same dish! Hopefully it tastes better than it sounds.

  12. Tagines are delicious, I had duck tagine in France and yes…beautiful.

  13. Well now you’ve gone and done it! Made me drool, I mean :-) I’m going to have to come to Morocco just to try one of these tagines out, that is, assuming they have a vegetarian version.

    • I’m a vegetarian who spent the 2010-2011 academic year living in rural Morocco.

      Vegetarian tagine may be a little more difficult to come by in restaurants (at least in less well-traveled places) but the variety of vegetarian possibilities are as numerous as the meat-based tagines.

      You shouldn’t take my word for it though, you should try it out for yourself!

  14. I’m so glad I ate lunch *before* I read this. It would be killing me to sit here and read on an empty stomach :-p

    Your food photos are so beautiful. What’s your secret?

  15. Looks delicious, love your food descriptions and can’t wait for recipes!

  16. Yummm!!! I had to wipe away the drool a couple of times while reading the post – especially hearing the variety of delicious flavors that Americans would never think to combine. Loved all the descriptions and photos!

  17. So true! I got so sick of tagine in Morocco–even though they were delicious! I just posted this week about how I had tagine again for the first time since returning from Morocco in the summer of 2010. Love your headline and photos.

  18. Love the photos Jodi, reminds me of my trip last year to Marrakesh and into the Atlas Mountains. Totally agree with you about anytime being tagine time in Morocco, they bloody well love them down there!

    Ended up bringing 4 of them back for my friend, all wrapped up in newspaper covered in Arabic and French print, to add to the presentation. :)

    • Glad you enjoyed eating your way through Morocco as well! I wished I was heading home after the trip so I could bring tagines back too, but sadly they’d be lugged around Turkey for quite awhile and it wasn’t practical. They’re wonderful, though. Hope your friend is getting good use out of them!

  19. Jodi, those tagineres are really beautiful. They make cooking feel like an art. Tagine is a very cosy dish and you look positively thrilled to be having some. Your food stories are always some of my favorite. I imagine you have already read it, but if you have not, I highly recommend the book “Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love and War.” Bonus point: It unfolds in the Middle East.

  20. Reading this has reminded me of the beautiful tagine and matching bowls I bought when I was in Tunisia this summer, which have been sat unused under my bed since I got back.

    I eagerly await your recipe so my tagine can finally be broken in…

  21. Can you believe I have never eaten tagine! I’m nowhere close to Morocco but may when I’m in Toronto I can find a place.

  22. I am soooo hungry now my stomach actually just made an audible noise. Thanks a lot Jodi ;)

    GORGEOUS photographs as always.

  23. OMG, I *LOVE* Moroccan food! These photos are killing me. I can almost smell them!

  24. One of my Fulbright brothers in Morocco bought a beautiful new tagine at our souk, took it home, and started making a wonderful lunch for a big group of us. Unfortunately, no one told him that you must soak the tagine in water overnight prior to its first use, and as a result, it got a large crack in its bottom. Remember to first soak your new tagine, folks!

    I too tagine’d out after my first month or so in Morocco, but these photos have my mouth watering.

    I’ll just add tagines to the long list of things I am missing from Morocco.

  25. This was a terrible post to read…when I’m sooo hungry!!!

    I’ve never partaken in a Tagine, but I will definitely jump at any chance to devour the contents of a few of these precious clay pots in the future.

    Love all the descriptions and your food photos. The Berber omelette sounds especially amazing!

    • Thanks Mark! It’s quite a versatile piece of clay. Definitely going to pick up one of them and experiment when I stay put somewhere for a few months. Hope you’re doing well. Loved the breakfast photoshoot from Thailand – and seriously missing that food.

  26. Jodi, the photos are amazing! I love the detailing on all your photos. That new camera of yours was definitely awesome, though we know it’s nothing if the photographer doesn’t have the required skill :).

  27. Just looking at all these dishes is making me hungry! Must get to Morocco :)

  28. I have to admit to getting tagine fatigue after a couple of days in Marrakech. Saying that, the two tastiest tagines I tried weren’t in restaurants. One was a sardine tagine made by the chef in the riad we were staying (part of a feast that left me full for days afterwards – that was my first, so tagines after that had a lot to live up to.

    The second was made by our Berber guide in the Atlas mountains – hiking all day probably contributed to how good that one tasted.

    Your pics have ignited a yen for another try :)

  29. Ok you got me. I am buying a tagine. I noticed you mentioned gas.. Can they be used on a gas stove?

  30. you should try fish tagine ^_^

  31. When we were in Morocco, we had a camel tagine in M’Hamid the night before departing into the Sahara. Very tasty – almost like brisket. Love your blog! As a slave to the billable hour, I’m living vicariously through you!

  32. did you eat the tajine with a spoon?

  33. I just came back from a week in Morocco and loved the Kefta tagine. It has been an amazing trip. Such a lovely country to visit.

  34. On October 9, 2012 at 7:01 am Chris Pearrow said:

    Haha! No fair! I’m sitting here, hours from my lunchbreak, licking my chops after seeing these photos! I just got a tagine a few weeks ago from a North African market here in Spain and am still trying to get the taste just right. It often comes out a bit bitter, from the lemons I believe. Not overpowering in lemoneyness, just a tad bitter. Any suggestions?

    • I’d start by adding less lemon but also adding them a bit later in the process, so they don’t bake into the tagine’s full flavours. That, or you can try counteracting with more cumin and a touch of sugar or prunes. Good luck!

  35. On March 27, 2014 at 12:02 pm Francine Blaustein said:

    I bought a painted glazed tagine in a factory info. They assured me I could use it on my stovetop to cook. Were they not truthful? I keep reading that the tagines have to be unglazed clay. Please help before I ruin mine.
    Thank you
    Francine

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