Tajine: The Up-Side of Morocco
tajine, n. Any of various types of North African … stew prepared by slowly cooking the ingredients in a shallow, earthenware cooking dish with a tall, conical lid, traditionally over a charcoal brazier; a dish of this type. (From: The Oxford English Dictionary, DRAFT ENTRY Dec. 2006)
Usage Note: “Every day his European friend sent him his food, his ‘Tajin’, ‘Couscousou’, flat moorish bread, and green tea…. It is generally a greasy stew of mutton, soaked with rancid butter and saffron.” R. B. Cunninghame Graham, Mogred-el-Acksa: Journey in Morocco, 1898.
Oh, it is not, either.
I don’t want anyone to think that all we’ve been doing since we got back from Morocco is sitting around and licking our various travel-related wounds. No, we’ve been cooking, too.
In fact, we made our first tajine (the OED gives “tagine,” among other variant spellings, but I like this version, in part because it’s nearly impossible to mispronounce) on August 22, home from the wars barely a week.
The particular tajine that you see pictured here (the tajine is the “earthenware dish” as well as anything you cook in it) came from a dusty little shop on a narrow and hectic street in El Kelaa M’Gouna.
In addition to being tons of fun to say, El Kelaa M’Gouna is the kind of town that ought to be a setting for a movie, with all its “crossroads of the world” flavor and its ceaseless “safari vehicle” traffic—those four-wheel-drive, Indiana Jones-looking jobbies whose roofs are piled several meters high with all the gear brought to Morocco by tourists who’ve come to “rough it” in the Dades Valley, wearing hiking outfits that cost more than our rent and toting bazooka-lens cameras that would probably suffice to ransom a medium-sized Moroccan family along with all their animals.
We could have gotten prettier tajines in Marrakech, but what the shop in El Kelaa M’Gouna had going for it was that we were the only customers and that the owner was perhaps the most placid shopkeeper we met in all of Morocco. You buy it you don’t buy it, you buy ten you buy one, it was all the same to him. It was closing time and he wanted to go home.
We heard it said, by the way, that even in the perfervid and overwrought souks of the big cities, there’s a kind of honor code among merchants, dozens and dozens of whom are hawking what seems to be the identical merchandise: Once you’ve made the money you need on any given day, you close up shop so that other merchants have a chance to earn their living, too. I don’t know if it’s true, but if it isn’t, it ought to be.
In any case, we got our tajine home intact and then began our search for something to do with it. In cooking, however, perhaps as in no other area, what one quickly learns is that the internet is a cesspool. More of a cesspool than it usually is, I mean. From somewhere or other I picked up the knowledge that one of the “fabulous” features of Google (in addition to gathering your personal information and sharing it indiscriminately with the world) is that, if you enter a list of ingredients into the search window, the search engine finds you a recipe that puts them all together. This seems to be true as far as it goes: I entered “warm sputum, lemon, and flour” and got a recipe for homemade cough syrup.
On the other hand, you don’t necessarily want to cook what you find on the web. That said, we eventually cobbled together what seemed like a reasonable starter recipe and embarked upon our first tajine.
Granted, tajine cooking can be a teensy bit time-consuming, but it is unquestionably big fun. Not only that, it seems … somehow … more … organic, if I can put it that way. (Not in the sense of “the chickens used in the making of this tajine lived a full life and were happy to die” organic, which just ain’t so, but in the sense of “close to what cooking is supposed to feel like” organic.)
The house fills with the fragrance of lemon and cumin, and the tajine “converses” throughout the cooking—liquid sighs, the occasional pop, hiss, and vibration of escaping steam—and the whole thing makes a bit of a happy mess on the stove as the juices inevitably overflow. When it’s done, you carry the tajine to the table while it’s still sizzling, lift the lid, and unleash an epiphany of steam and heat and aroma, and for a brief instant it’s just you and your old-brain, olfacting away.
In other words, the whole thing feels just slightly primitive (though who has a charcoal brazier anymore?), and there’s something about cooking in clay: after hot stones and pointed sticks, clay is one of the first materials employed by humans for the cooking of food; it implies method, it implies the concept of recipe.
I mean, sure: “Stab it until it stops squirming and throw it on the fire” could be considered a recipe, too, but you know what I mean. In any case, for those interested in such things, our recipe for Chicken Tajine with Apricots is here.
Only a word of warning: we’ve made this recipe three times, and each time the result has been different. (For this first recipe, for example, we used fresh lemons because we didn’t have any preserved ones on hand; since then, we’ve “preserved” two jars of lemons, and they’re definitely better.) It always turns out good, but it always turns out different. In other words, what you get when you lift the lid is something of a surprise, which is one reason why cooking, as much as it is anything else, is a metaphor for life.