The Secret to Moroccan Cooking? It’s in the Pot

 

By FRANKIE STILES

RABAT, Morocco – Authentic Moroccan cuisine begins and ends with one item: the tajine – a dish in which Moroccan meals are prepared, cooked and served.

“Any food you fancy, you [can] put it in [the] tajine,” said Chakib Benkhraba, 53, a Moroccan who now resides in London and has worked for several restaurants that cook with tajines.

Maybe more essential to a Moroccan home than the crockpot is to an American home, the tajine is also often found in Moroccan households, surrounded by a lively family like Benkhraba’s. Each member uses their fingers to scoop out what they want. Tajine cooking is not just for Moroccans, however, it can be a great addition to any kitchen.

Historically used by the Amazigh people, native to North Africa,  the two-part clay dish is comprised of a cone-shaped lid and a round bottom with raised edges. The bottom usually measures about a foot in diameter. The food cooked inside the dish is commonly referred to as “tajine” as well.

“I used to learn from my mom and my dad, my father was a very good cook as well; he used to cook for us when we were young, or my mom would, they’d change,” Benkhraba said.

He has used what he learned to prepare delicious tajine recipes for others as well as himself.  Now that he lives abroad, he keeps a personal tajine in his kitchen so that he can prepare the tastes of home while he is away.

Fish, lamb, beef, chicken and assorted vegetables are all tajine options. Benkhraba’s favorite recipe is lamb shank tajine.

“It is very, very tasty. When you eat it, it’s like butter,” he said. “It’s very tender and very juicy.”

Tajine cooking differs from other methods because of the shape of its lid. It is effective at making meat and vegetables succulent and savory because the cone-shaped lid catches the hot rising moisture that comes from the food, and the slanted sides of the lid allow that moisture to run back down into the food.

This slow-cooking method creates the perfect blend of flavors as well as tenderness that is mumtaz, Arabic for excellent.

Many modern tajines are made of aluminum and are readily available at any Moroccan “souk,” or market. Those intended to be used as artistic pieces are made with colorful designs and patterns. However, for cooking, unpainted clay tajines work best.

Benkhraba says that tajine-style cooking can be done over a stovetop – even with the convenient aluminum tajines. But the best tajine cooking is done over charcoal with a clay tajine. Sharing his coveted recipe for lamb tajine, he emphasized the importance of using the correct spices and ingredients.

 

Benkhraba’s Lamb Tajine 

1 kilo (or 2 lbs.) of lamb shoulder

2 tbsp olive oil

4 to 5 garlic cloves, chopped

Pinch of salt

Pinch of pepper

Pinch of ginger powder

Pinch of turmeric

2 onions, diced

Fresh coriander, chopped

5 whole or halfed artichoke hearts

1 ½ cups green peas

Start by heating the lamb with olive oil and stir until brown. Then add garlic. Heat on low for 25 minutes in the tajine and continue stirring. Add in a little water as necessary to prevent burning and create a sauce. Next, stir in all spices, onion and coriander. Add the artichoke hearts and peas, close the lid, and cook for 30 minutes on medium heat. (Potatoes, carrots and other vegetables can be used also or instead of). Add spice to taste and, using a fork, check for the lamb to be done when it’s soft and easily breaks apart. Serve directly from dish.

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