Wednesday, May 18, 2011

discovering tajine

This image looks like it comes from Grimm's fairy tales, but I took it in Morocco--in Essaouira in 2008. I was thinking of Morocco this morning after reading Kathleen Winter's latest post on her blog. She credits me with introducing her to tajine.
Kathleen has such a curious nature that she would have discovered tajine all on her own. If nothing else, she lives near the Marché Jean-Talon where the clay dishes with their conical tops are sold. She would eventually have broached the topic with some Algerian butcher. What do you do with this? Is it a cooking or a serving dish?
Or she would have asked Dear One who's quite good-natured about his role as researcher and occasional errand-hound. (I'm thinking of last winter when she couldn't find suet to make English Christmas pudding. One needs suet specifically because it has such a high melting point that it retains its shape much longer than another more palatable fat one might consider using as a substitute. Not everyone fancies the fat from around a cow's kidneys. Dear One went off into the city and returned with suet a butcher gave him gratis.)

I first saw tajine dishes in Morocco in 1998. Every morning the smaller restaurants would set up an outdoor table lined with individual clay braziers. Tajine dishes would be filled with squash, lamb, chick peas, fish, artichokes, chicken, or kefta and set atop the braziers. I wish I had a picture, but I didn't take many in 1998, and when I returned to Morocco in later years, nobody seemed to be making tajines like this anymore. Too bad. The aroma was so tempting! All morning you could smell the stews slowly baking. At noon the tops of the tajines were lifted. Everything was cooked perfectly. Something about the porous clay (which I always soak in water for a few hours before making a tajine) that retains the juices, the very slow heat--at home, in my oven, I bake a tajine at 250F--the high conical top.
It's a wonderful winter meal because you can layer a tajine with many possible ingredients, set it to bake for 3 or 4 hours, come home to the delicious aroma of a meal ready to serve. Traditionally, in Morocco a meat or fish tajine always includes a fruit. That can be a dried fruit such as prunes or apricots. Or fresh fruit. Or even green olives which are considered a fruit in Morocco. My favourite tajine is chicken with citron confit (pickled lemons) and green olives. I make it with saffron. Obviously you can make vegetarian tajine as well.
When Kathleen wrote about tajines, she said I'd learned about them on my trips to Morocco and Tunisia. In fact, when we ordered tajine in Tunisia, we got a potato omelette cut into squares. And of course, if you're so naive as to say, "This isn't how they make tajines in Morocco," the waiter will dryly inform you that you're not in Morocco. Indeed.
Tajine dishes come in different sizes. In the market in Marrakech I saw a man layering potato slices in a tajine as wide as a bicycle wheel. Below that he had fish and wedges of pumpkin. He had yet to build a teepee of green beans and stud the mound with chopped tomatoes.
I have a scene with a tajine dish in my novel, Arrhythmia. At one point, I thought a possible title for the novel might be Tajine. But the Moroccan character in the novel isn't as important finally as he was in the first version of the manuscript.
I think I still need to write about Morocco.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Alice, for writing this mouth-watering and culturally edifying reminiscence about tajines. I can't wait to read more.