When we think of tagines we often think of an item on a menu that could be ordered the same way as a chicken tikka masala or an oxtail stew. But the word ‘tagine’ also takes its name from the earthenware cookware it is made in.
Tagines are typically a stew-like dish made with meat, vegetables or fruit, on occasion with potatoes or lentils and a thick gravy. It is served with a variety of starches today although traditionally couscous or bread was commonplace.
The very concise history of the tagine
When it comes to flavour, the moyo tagines and the majority of what you will find recipes for is based on the Moroccan tagines.
In most Moroccan dishes, including the tagine, one can trace the long lineage of immigrants and colonizers who have left their mark in more than one way. The cuisine of the first inhabitants of Morocco, the Berbers, still exists today in staple dishes like the tagine. New spices, nuts and dried fruit came later with the Arab invasion, which we see in combinations like dates with lamb tagines. The Moors brought olives and citrus fruit and the Jewish-Moors left their incredibly sophisticated preserving techniques behind. The Ottoman Empire introduced kebabs and the French colony, although very short-lived, left behind a culture of cafes, pastries and wine.
When you consider the rich culinary history in the region it is both impressive how far the modern tagine has come and incredible that it has stood the test of time and still survives today.
Moroccan food, and therefore by proxy tagines, has a remarkable character when it comes to the spices that colours the cuisine. The staples are dried ginger, cumin, salt, black pepper and turmeric. Cumin is so common in Moroccan cuisine that it is often served alongside salt and pepper on the table. Cinnamon makes its appearance in tagines, from time to time, often in combination with sweeter ingredients such as dates or dried fruit. In tomato-based tagines, you may find paprika or smoked paprika.
But who introduced this appetizing dish to the nomadic tribes who first used it? Or was it invented in Morocco itself? According to the Encyclopaedia of Kitchen History by Mary Ellen Snodgrass, the tagine dates back to Harun al Rashid, a late eighth-century ruler of the Islamic empire. Foods cooked tagine-style appeared in The Thousand and One Nights (or more commonly known as ‘Arabian Nights’) in the ninth century. Some sources date it back to the Roman Empire because of the portable ovens used by Romans that are similar to tagines.
How tagines work
There are different ways to prepare the tagine. You have the original qidra style in which Arabian clarified butter is used to lubricate the surface and a puree of chopped onion is added for flavour and aroma. For “muqawlli” style cooking, the ingredients are placed in olive oil to enrich the flavours.
The fluted cone shape of a tagine contributes to the incredible succulent dish it creates. The angled lid causes steam to return to the dish as it cooks. This in combination with slow heat produces a stew-like dish that is cooked evenly and meat that is ‘fall-off-the-bone’ soft.
Let’s take a moment to remember our high school science classes. Some of the mystery around why tagines work so well to create tender flavourful dishes is in the science.
Some materials are conductors of heat and energy and others are insulators. Clay is such an insulator, which heats very slowly, almost reluctantly and then disperses the energy in the same way – very slowly.
Now just consider for a second when you cook a steak in a hot skillet, it gets a nice char, but it can also become a little tough, mostly because the muscle tissue seizes up due to the sudden shock of the heat.
On the other end of the scale, we have slow cooking methods. In the last few years, there has been a rising trend towards “sous vide” which means you cook meat in a sealed plastic bag at very low temperatures for hours and then adding a char or browning effect by a quick sear or grill right before serving (the “reverse sear”. Whether these techniques really make a difference is up to a person’s personal taste – but if you like slow cooked food then tagines could be to your liking.
Paula Wolfert, an American Cookbook author and expert on Clay Pot Cooking, tells the tale of how the food was prepared in Moroccan villages utilising slow heat. The custom was to prepare meals a day in advance by filling tall clay pots with meat, seasoning and vegetables. Packing them tightly and covering them, and then placing them overnight in the ashes of a big communal fire. In the morning the villagers would retrieve the pot with everything cooked evenly after being cooked on a very uneven heat source for the night.
In addition to the slow cooking factor, there is an ‘urban legend like’ quality that some cooks ascribe to the clay tagines that absorb flavour over time. According to some, you will never find that kind of flavour in a stainless-steel pot.
The modern tagine
Although history points to tagines (the cookware) being made from unglazed clay we’ve seen an uprising of kitchenware brands modernizing this ancient cookware since the late 1990s. Tagines are now available in cast iron and enamelled cast iron that holds some of the same benefits of slow cooking tender flavourful dishes. The new cast iron versions prove to be significantly more practical in a modern kitchen where open fires are not as commonplace and stovetop proof cookware is required.
Our consensus is simple. At moyo, we love the warm hearty flavour of a tagine, that is why you will find them on our menu. We hope to see you at a moyo soon to enjoy this rich historic dish.