Location: North Africa
Population: 35.7 million
Geography: A mostly mountainous country with areas of desert
Language: Arabic, Berber
Signature flavours: Cinnamon, citrus fruits, dried fruits, nuts, beans, chicken
Morocco was our first assignment after an extended hiatus that allowed us to travel for while, then get very sick, then get well, so I was a bit out of practice in the kitchen for this adventure. My only existing knowledge of Moroccan cuisine revolved around the tajine (or tagine) — both a piece of ceramic cookware and the name of what gets cooked inside it. Eric and I looked high and low for a tajine in our price range, and it took us a while to find one.
There are two main types of tajine: cooking and serving. A cooking tajine, as its name suggests, is appropriate for cooking in, while serving tajines, due to materials or glazing, cannot be heated. I was leaning toward finding a cooking tajine, because I really wanted the experience of using one during this assignment (as well as for future stews). Once we finally found one we liked, I was ready to get planning.
Tajine with Olives and Lemon: Chicken (I used soy-based chicken) stewed with onions, garlic, olives, and preserved lemons.
Prep and cooking time: 60 min
Spicy Moroccan Carrot Salad: Carrots, garlic, onions, preserved lemons, and spices tossed in a light white wine vinaigrette and olive oil dressing, served with yoghurt.
Prep and cooking time: 20 min
Orange and Walnut Salad: A refreshing lettuce salad, topped with toasted walnuts and oranges, and finished with a citrusy dressing.
Prep and cooking time: 10 min
Fish Couscous: A thick fish and vegetable stew served alongside fluffy couscous loaded with chunks of dried apricots.
Prep and cooking time: 60 min
M’Hanncha: Also known as Moroccan snake cake, this dessert is made from buttery phyllo around a paste of almonds, sugar, and orange zest, coiled into a spiral and baked to golden crispness.
Prep and cooking time: 90 min
The Shopping List
Once we had a tajine, there was more to buy before I was ready to use it. Tajines require even, low heating to maintain the integrity of the ceramic, and our stovetop elements would be too intense for the tajine to take. Stovetop cooking in a tajine therefore requires a device to diffuse the heat. I went all over the city trying to find one and no one carried it. I finally found a flat copper griddle with an induction plate underneath to spread heat evenly, and I decided I could use that as a base for the tajine. In fact, it ended up working perfectly.
The only ingredient in my list that I thought might give me some trouble was preserved lemon, a key ingredient in Moroccan cooking — whole lemons or lemon slices preserved in salt or brine. A quick online search sent me to the basement of St Lawrence Market, and there they were.
This post is turning out to be more about tajines than anything, but maybe that’s appropriate for an assignment about Moroccan cooking. Our new tajine had to be seasoned before use — soaked in water for 24 hours, then coated with olive oil, and baked at slowly increasing temperatures. After all this was done, it was ready to host its first stew. I chose the chicken and olive tajine based on: 1) the fact that it came from the Africa Cookbook, which is a wonderful resource that has never let me down for an African assignment; and 2) the unusual combination of flavours.
I set my tajine on the copper plate, and started heating over a low flame (sudden changes of temperature are also a no-no for ceramic cookware). It took quite a long time to heat up, and for a while I was worried that my cooking tajine would be just a serving tajine on its first go-round, but after a while, the oil and onions started to sizzle, and I was able to add the rest of my ingredients. The final product was a salty-sour dish that I loved. Eric was not as big a fan of the preserved lemon, but he was thrilled to see the tajine in action.
Couscous is to North Africa what rice is to East Asia, so I had to include a couscous dish, and liked the idea of doing a seafood-based one with dried fruit cooked into the couscous itself. I learned that couscous is a tiny pasta, and not, as I thought, a grain of its own. It cooked up in minutes, in a mix of warm water and broth from the fish and veggie stew that accompanied it. It was delicious, which is good, since we have about two litres left over for tomorrow.
Alongside these hot dishes were two salads, one a spicy carrot-based salad with more preserved lemon, and the other a very light and sweet lettuce and orange salad. I loved the carrot salad, with its intense flavour and cool yoghurt on top. Eric was a bigger fan of the green salad. He liked the dressing especially — a mix of olive oil, lemon and orange juice, and cinnamon.
We ended our meal with a piece of the crunchy snake cake. The phyllo gave me a bit of trouble during the coiling phase, the delicate layers cracking apart somewhat. The dessert ended up being the star of the night, though, with its orange-y almond filling and buttery, flaky pastry.
I’m thrilled to be back on the WSW wagon after almost two months away from it. Eric’s next assignment is Morocco’s neighbour, Algeria, so he may get the chance to try the tajine for himself.
Disclaimer: I’m not a professional chef. I’m just a passionate cook with a curiosity for flavours I’ve never tried. For great recipes from gifted local cooks, follow the links above.