Tagine Part I

four cast iron pan with food

The secrets of tagines
Colourful, decorative, scented and a feast for the senses – the food of Morocco reflects a fascinating mix of the cultures that have left their mark on the region: the indigenous Berbers with their tradition of tagine cooking and couscous; the nomadic Bedouins from the desert who brought dates, milk and grains; the Moors expelled from Spain who relied heavily on olives and olive oil and brought with them the Andalusian flavours of paprika and herbs; the Sephardic Jews with their preserving techniques employing salt; the Arabs who introduced the sophisticated cuisine from the Middle East; the Ottoman influence of kebabs and pastry making; and finally, the finesse of the French.
The root of Moroccan cooking can be traced back to the indigenous Berber tribes. Steeped in tradition, the rural Berbers are proud of their ancestry.

They have lived in North Africa, between Egypt and the western coast of Morocco, as far back as archaeological records go. Originally farmers, living alongside the nomadic Taureg and Bedouin tribes of the desert, the Berbers would have made an impact on the food of the region long before the invasion of the Arabs and, although they had to convert from Christianity to Islam and adopt new religious and culinary customs, they are keen to make the point that they are not of Arab descent. Many rural Berber communities speak their own languages and dialects but those who are literate also speak Arabic and, in some areas, French.

Berbers also fiercely uphold some of their own culinary customs, such as the festive pilgrimages, moussems, which are held in tented enclosures where traditional dishes, such as couscous, are cooked in vast quantities and shared. Another feature of Berber culinary life is the diffa, which is a festive banquet, varying in content in accordance with the wealth of the family, to mark special family occasions such as weddings and births and religious events.

green ceramic bowl and plate on table


It is Berbers we have to thank for one of the decorative versions of the pot, glazed in beautiful shades of blue and green, to take to the table.
Although originally a Berber dish, the tagine has evolved with the history of the region as waves of Arab and Ottoman invaders, Moorish refugees from Andalusia and French colonialists have left their influences on the cuisine. Classic tagines include combinations of lamb with dried prunes or apricots; chicken with preserved lemon and green olives; duck with dates and honey; and fish cooked with tomatoes, lime and fresh coriander.

In the modern Maghreb, the Berbers are still renowned for their tasty, pungent tagines made with lots of onions and smen, a rancid clarified butter which is very much an acquired taste! The method employed in tagine cooking also varies from the countryside to the cities. In the north, in cities like Tangier and Casablanca, where the Spanish and French influences are evident, the meat is often browned in butter or oil and the spices and onions are sautéed before adding the rest of the ingredients, whereas Fassi and Marrakchi tagines are often prepared by putting all the ingredients together in water and then adding extra butte.

stainless steel cooking pot on black stove

“Traditionally, tagines are served as a course on their own, with freshly baked flat breads or crusty bread to mop up the delectable syrupy sauces, and are followed by a mound of couscous. The more modern way is to combine the courses and serve them with an accompanying salad or vegetable side dish. On festive occasions, the custom is to pile up a huge pyramid of couscous and hollow out the peak to form a well into which the tagine is spooned. However, most earthenware tagines are not big enough to cope with feasts, so large copper pots are often used instead.
The great secret of an authentic tagine is to simmer the ingredients over a low heat, so that everything remains deliciously moist and tender. Meat tagines may be cooked for several hours, the meat simmering gently in a seasoned, fragrant liquid until it is so tender it almost falls off the bone. Generally, dishes of vegetables, pulses or fish do not require long cooking times but still benefit from the tagine method in terms of enhanced taste and texture. Traditionally, tagines are cooked over a clay stove, or brazier, which is stoked with charcoal to maintain constan. The great secret of an authentic tagine is to simmer the ingredients over a low heat, so that everything remains deliciously moist and tender.

plate of fried chicken topped with green vegetable

Meat tagines may be cooked for several hours, the meat simmering gently in a seasoned, fragrant liquid until it is so tender it almost falls off the bone. Generally, dishes of vegetables, pulses or fish do not require long cooking times but still benefit from the tagine method in terms of enhanced taste and texture.

Traditionally, tagines are cooked over a clay stove, or brazier, which is stoked with charcoal to maintain constant heat. Such stoves diffuse the heat around the base of the tagine, enabling the liquid to reduce and thicken without drying out. Wood-burning ovens and open fires are used, too.

However, wonderful tagines can also be produced using a modern hob or oven. Most authentic tagines have a little hole at the top of the conical lid to release some of the steam, so that it doesn’t try to escape at the seam between the base and the lid. If there is no hole, you will probably need at intervals to tilt the lid at an angle to release the steam.

So that it doesn’t try to escape at the seam between the base and the lid. If there is no hole, you will probably need at intervals to tilt the lid at an angle to release the steam yourself. When cooking in an oven, it is generally only the base of the tagine that is used.

“When it comes to buying a tagine, there are several different types and sizes, as some represent a Berber tribe, a particular village or a region of Morocco. There are a number of cooking tagines to choose from, but few of them come with a warning about their vulnerability over a conventional gas or electric hob. Most of the factory-made vessels, whether they are glazed or not, tend to form hairline cracks when they are placed over a gas flame; and they cannot be used on an electric ring.

So what do you do? For a glazed earthenware tagine, a heat diffuser is essential, otherwise it is worth splashing out on the durable cast-iron version with a glazed, earthenware lid produced by Le Creuset. Their version looks just like a beautifully authentic glazed tagine but the cast-iron base enables it to be used safely on gas or electric hobs. A solid, heavy-based casserole is a good substitute, as long as you keep the heat very low. But for a tasty, succulent meal, full of flavour and adventure, it is well worth attempting to cook with the genuine article.

“When it comes to buying a tagine, there are several different types and sizes, as some represent a Berber tribe, a particular village or a region of Morocco. There are a number of cooking tagines to choose from, but few of them come with a warning about their vulnerability over a conventional gas or electric hob. Most of the factory-made vessels, whether they are glazed or not, tend to form hairline cracks when they are placed over a gas flame; and they cannot be used on an electric ring.

So what do you do? For a glazed earthenware tagine, a heat diffuser is essential, otherwise it is worth splashing out on the durable cast-iron version with a glazed, earthenware lid produced by Le Creuset. Their version looks just like a beautifully authentic glazed tagine but the cast-iron base enables it to be used safely on gas or electric hobs. A solid, heavy-based casserole is a good substitute, as long as you keep the heat very low. But for a tasty, succulent meal, full of flavour and adventure, it is well worth attempting to cook with the genuine article.

Click here for Part II