Robert Carrier, one of the twentieth century’s most influential food writers, rated Moroccan cuisine as second only to that of France. Which is perhaps a little hyperbolic, for, outside the grandest kitchens, Moroccan cooking is decidedly simple, with only a half dozen or so dishes popping up on most local menus. But no matter where you are in the country, from a top restaurant to a roadside stall, there is one dish you can depend upon: the tajine.
A tajine is basically a stew. It is steam-cooked in an earthenware dish (also called a tajine) with a fancifully conical lid, and most often prepared over a charcoal fire. That means slow-cooking, with flavours locked in and meat that falls from the bone.
What goes in depends on what’s available, but a number of combinations have achieved classic and ubiquitous status: mrouzia (lamb or mutton with prunes and almonds – and lots of honey) and mqualli (chicken with olives and pickled lemons), for example. On the coast, you might be offered a fish tajine, too, frequently red snapper or swordfish. And tajines can taste almost as good with just vegetables: artichokes, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, olives, and again those pickled lemons, which you see in tall jars in every shop and market stall. The herbs and spices, too, are crucial: cinnamon, ginger, garlic and a pinch of the mysterious ras al-hanut, the “best in shop” spice selection any Moroccan stall can prepare for you.
There’s no need for a knife or fork. Tajines are served in the dish in which they are cooked, and then scooped and mopped up – using your right hand, of course – with delicious Moroccan flat bread. Perfect for sharing.
And when you’re through, don’t forget to sit back and enjoy the customary three tiny glasses of super-sweet mint tea.