Mrs. Jackson Cooks

Life through food

Tagines the Moroccan way

on November 1, 2010

We went on holiday to Morocco in May.  I always judge the success of a holiday on the food and I have to say that this was way up there on the gastronomic happiness scale.  I was so excited to go because of all the images you have of Morocco – the colourful and exotic and of course the food.  When you’ve traveled quite as much as I have it’s hard to experience the exotic still but Morocco didn’t disappoint.

My favourite meal there was not the one you’d expect but then I think finding something wonderful in the unexpected is just the best thing you can experience.  We were shopping in the souks in Marrakech.  We were exhausted and bamboozled by all the bartering and shopping (we bought this gorgeous antique silver teapot – I just love it – use it to make normal tea all the time!).  We came across these stalls selling meat cooked on grills. Local men were sat around eating and the guy that ran the stall was so welcoming.  He ushered us in, found us stools (two white or probably pink at that point! foreigners, and one a woman! in the middle of all these men in traditional dress – what they thought I’ve no idea!) and some coke.  We ordered some lamb cutlets.  They went on the grill fresh, and came to us with Moroccan salad and bread.  They were the best I’ve ever had!  So delicately but beautifully spiced, so tender, perfectly cooked.  The salad was incredible too.  After that we promptly went to a spice shop where we bought spices and argan oil (which has to be the best oil ever!).

We stayed in Riads (traditional Moroccan guesthouses), which has to be the best way to experience Morocco.  The Riad manager at our Riad in Essaouira insisted on cooking for us one evening (and no they didn’t charge us, we just paid for the fish that went in the dish).  We did the whole experience together from going to the market for the ingredients, to cooking it, and eating it.  One of my favourite memories of Morocco.  And he taught me how to make Tagine.

The day after I promptly went back to the market and bought myself a tagine dish.  It’s not the decorative type that you get in the tourist shops.  This was one I bought in the food market from a stall that other ladies got their dishes from.  It’s not pretty but it’s very simple and elegant.  But the main thing is, it’s works, retains the fluid and can be put in direct flame.  The ceramic is fired and unglazed.

Tagines in Morocco are different from Tagines outside of Morocco.  Everywhere else they tend to be quite liquidy with a lot of gravy and only a bit of meat and vege.  And they’re served with couscous.  And baked in the oven.  Not so in Morocco.  In Morocco they are a dish in and of themselves and a cous cous dish is entirely different.  Everywhere we ate Tagines in Morocco they were the same in how they were produced and presented (or rather in the absence of couscous) so I know this wasn’t an unusual way to prepare and eat Tagines.  And they are steamed on the top of the fire or hob.

Tagines are extremely easy to make and don’t take a lot of time.  They aren’t dissimilar from casseroles or stews.  But the main difference is they steam in their own juices and aren’t cooked with much water at all.  They are so tasty, low in fat and calories and are very good for you.  If you use lentils instead of meat you can even make a vegan version.

You can use any meat, on or off the bone, although the bone does make it juicier.  Obviously in Morocco they are Muslim so they don’t eat pork, but I’m sure it would work.

You can buy preserved lemons in jars in the world food section of most large supermarkets.  They aren’t a patch on the gorgeous ones they have in Morocco, but we can’t have everything!  Ravinder Bhogal actually explains how to make them in Cook in Boots and I should try it sometime – I’ve just not got round to it.  However, if you’re really stuck, just use a fresh lemon, quartered.  It’s not the same but it does.

I use my tagine dish, of course, but you don’t have to.  You can use a casserole or other high sided heavy bottomed dish that can be put in direct heat (or use a metal plate to put unsuitable dishes on the hob). A large saucepan with a lid may do at a pinch.

The recipe serves 4 but in the pictures I just made it for 2 so the pyramid of food isn’t quite as impressive.

Moroccan chicken Tagine

2 tbsp olive oil (I actually used chilli oil this time)

2 onions chopped

3 garlic cloves finely chopped

1inch root ginger peeled and grated

1tsp ground cumin

1tsp ground coriander

1tsp moroccan spice mix (I bought this in Morocco but you can find it in the spice section in supermarkets)

1tsp chilli powder

1/2 turmeric

a good pinch of saffron dissolved in 1tbsp warm water


4 chicken legs, skinned and cut into drumsticks and thighs

400g potatoes, peeled and sliced into thin rounds

2 large carrots peeled and thinly sliced on the diagonal

2 peppers of different colours, de-seeded and cut into thin strips

4 tomatoes finely chopped

10-15 olives (your choice)

1 preserved lemon (or normal lemon if you can’t get preserved lemons) finely chopped

1 tbsp chopped fresh mint or coriander (or both)

  1. heat the oil in bottom of your pot, and fry the onions until browned.  Add the garlic and ginger and fry for a further couple of minutes.  Then add all the spices (not the saffron just yet) and fry until they become fragrant.
  2. Add the chicken pieces and brown on all sides.  Make sure they get well covered in the spice mix.  You may need to do this in batches.
  3. When the chicken is browned, arrange it all on the bottom of the pan, as flat as possible.  Try to get the spices and onion on the top of the chicken, not just underneath.  Pour over the saffron.
  4. Take your potato slices and arrange vertically around the bottom of the dish, over the chicken.  Keep piling up as you start to make a pyramid.
  5. Next add the carrots.  Go over the potatoes to make the pyramid wider and higher.
  6. Hook the pepper slices from the top to the bottom over the potatoes and carrots.  Place the olives in any nook and cranny.
  7. Sprinkle over the preserved lemons.  Or if using normal lemons, squeeze two of the quarters over the pyramid and then wedge into the pyramid along with the remaining quarters.
  8. Put the chopped tomatoes at the top of the pyramid to make a volcano and sprinkle over the chopped herbs.
  9. Put the lid on and steam on a low-medium heat until it’s cooked through.  Do not worry, you don’t need to add water.  This will take about 20minutes.  It’s easy to tell when this is because the potatos will be firm but cooked.
  10. If during the cooking process it looks like a lot of water is forming, spoon it off.  You don’t need to worry if there’s a little bit but if it starts to swim or bubble up the sides then spoon a bit off.
  11. If using a tagine pot or a decorative dish – serve the Moroccan way, place the dish in the centre of the table and eat directly from it with a fork and some flat bread (naan, chappatis, tortillas or pittas will all work well – just warm through first).
  12. If your dish is less pretty or a table isn’t available, spoon into dishes ensuring each person has a drumstick and thigh each.  Serve with flatbread.

Just reading this again, makes me want a tagine.  They are so delicious.  And I only made it last night!  Somehow, even though the cooking time isn’t long, the way it cooks the meat just falls off the bone and it’s so tender.  Don’t be scared by the spices or lemons – it’s not difficult.  They can all be found in a supermarket.  And if you can’t find it – just improvise.  If you can’t find spice mix, just add a bit of cinnamon and nutmeg instead.  If you can’t find or afford saffron, add more turmeric.  It won’t have quite the same flavour but it will be good enough and still taste great.  If you don’t have a tagine pot, use a casserole pot or large saucepan.  You may not get quite the same pyramid shape but it’ll still taste good.

If you want to turn this into a three course dinner party meal, I suggest a Moroccan salad for starters, or baked aubergine slices in tomatoes.  And creme caramel or stewed fresh figs  with mascarpone for dessert.


2 responses to “Tagines the Moroccan way

  1. Helen says:

    I really like your blog and loved the description of your wanderings through Morocco and then discovering tagine. Is saffron really necessary – not something I use a lot and is quite expensive?

    You did offer to make us this wonderful dish – when can we come and enjoy it with you?


    • No saffron isn’t essential – add a bit more turmeric instead. It’s not got quite the same flavour but it’s fine as a saffron substitute. The cheapest place to buy saffron that I’ve found is Costco. And you buy so much (because it’s all in bulk) that it lasts for ages! I last bought some 2 years ago and still have more than half left. But I’d also try the internet.

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