There’s nothing quite like receiving a birthday gift where, when you open the box, you have no idea what on earth you’re looking at.
Especially awkwardly, I’m opening it in front of the people who gave it to me - my aunt and uncle. Now they’re waiting for my reaction.
“Uh - well, that’s so…I’m very, very….okay, look, I can’t do this. What is this thing?”
It’s clearly some kind of pot, for starters, the ruddy colour of a brick. It looks like it belongs in the garden. But - if it’s a plant pot, where’s the hole in the top for the plant to grow out of? And - why is it wearing a hat? The whole pot is in two pieces, and the upper half is curving and conical, like the top of an Iron Age roundhouse, or a traditional Asian sedge or rice hat. Experimentally I lift it off and put it on my head. Nah - far too heavy.
My aunt sighs. “Oh Mike. I thought you wanted to be a travel writer? You do know this is how people do their cooking in other parts of the world?”
Perhaps because you’re a lot less of an idiot than I am, you’ll probably recognise a tagine for what it really is: an extremely efficient form of casserole dish, designed to slow-cook your food until it’s so tender it basically melts across your tongue.
The design is admirably elegant: that conical top, sitting perfectly flush to its glazed earthenware base, allows the steam to rise from whatever’s cooking, become trapped at the top of that lid (all its surfaces are glazed so nothing escapes into the pottery itself) and, once it’s up to maximum pressure, to drip back downwards again into the ingredients, so all the moisture is continually recycled.
If I’d spent any time in Morocco before receiving this gift, I’d have recognised the name instantly. “Tagine” (or tajine), from the Berber word for “shallow earthen pot”, really means two things: either a richly flavourful type of slow-cooked meal, or the specific conical dish it’s often cooked in - and just about every dinner menu in Morocco will feature “tagine” (which may or may not have been cooked in an actual tagine pot).
Having (a) spent a lot of my twenties cooking in my own tagine pot, and (b) having eaten tagine as cooked by actual non-idiots in Morocco, I can firmly say it’s my second-favourite reason to visit this fascinating African country, as Wheel & Anchor will be doing in November.
(My favourite reason is so I can sleep in a riad, as I previously wrote about here.)
Seriously. This alone is worth the trip. Tagine food is food to die for. It isn’t like the Moroccans invented sealed casseroles - that honour probably belongs to the ancient Greeks, although the first mentions are from the Arab world in the early medieval period - but in the tagine dish, the North Africans have perfected the art in a way that’s accessible to everyone. It’s a zero-fuss, maximum-taste way of preparing a meal, and every time I find myself in awe of it, every single time.
If you’re used to modern casserole dishes, you know the problem with them. They’re an appliance. They require a reliable source of electricity. Tagine pots, on the other hand, require nothing but a certain amount of heat. These days they’re most often popped into the back of ovens, but they’ll also work beautifully when placed on top of hot coals or still-glowing charcoal - as long as you know what temperature you’re after, because it’s insane how much heat these things can hold.
They also keep the heat spectacularly well, so if you have the good fortune to be served a tagine meal in a tagine pot, be very careful not to touch the sides with your bare fingers - think “cast iron straight out the oven” and you’re pretty close here. (The only tragedy: if they weren’t so heavy, tagine pots would be fantastic additions to a backpack for a camping trip, perfect for cooking on (or in) your campfire - so if you’re using a vehicle and weight isn’t an issue, take one along, keep your campfire glowing until morning, and use the embers to cook up a plate of shakshouka (baked eggs in a peppery tomato sauce).
But the reason I’d recommend you go to Morocco to eat your fill of tagine fare is the fruit. And the spices. And the weirdness of it all, when you take your first forkful and put it into your mouth.
Western casseroling is generally savoury. And the way it’s savoury is unambiguous: if it’s a stew, it’s filled with all those rich, meaty, vegetable flavours you associate with a stew: bitterness and sharpness and that subtle taste now called umami. There’s no hint of dessert here: it’s 100% main course.
But African tagine food - across Morocco and the Arab world generally - mixes sweet and savoury flavours together in a way that’s delicious but unexpected, if you’re not used to it. Tagine-cooked chicken with prunes and olives at the same time? Sure. Roasted cauliflower and apricots in your couscous? Why not?
Beef and sweet potato with dates and almonds and why not chuck a bit of lemon in there just to see what happens? Well, what happens is, in fact, utterly delicious and maybe even a bit life-changing (in a small way that only affects what you crave for breakfast, lunch and dinner).
This is the magic that a plate of tagine food in Morocco can work on your life. Anything similar you try to cook up at home (while enormous fun, as journalist Olga Massov explains here) is going to be somewhere down the learning curve, and probably benefit from some input by someone who’s been using a tagine all their life.
But a visit to Morocco is the fast lane here - and a source of some truly spectacular meals that will delight and perplex your taste buds in equal measure. I can’t recommend them enough to you.
Join Wheel & Anchor in Morocco in November 2023, for an exploration of the great cities of Casablanca, Marrakech and Fes before heading across the Atlas Mountains to the edge of the vast Sahara Desert. More details here.