Thursday, January 6, 2011

Americans are introduced to Moroccan food and culture by way of tagine cooking

Photo by Kerry Schofield
Chicken and apricots tagine

By Kerry Schofield

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Moroccans and Americans alike are cooking up a healthy offering of delicious food with the tagine — that heavy clay cooking pot with a domed lid.

A tagine is a standard dish found in the North African cuisine of Morocco. It is a saucy stew of slow-simmering meat, vegetables and spices. Many Americans have become familiar with tagine cooking from visiting local Moroccan restaurants.

Where did Moroccan food come from?

In 683, the Arabs invaded Morocco and brought with them caravans of spices and culinary secrets from Persia. The Moroccan cuisine has some great and unique dishes that were also influenced by Jewish Portuguese, French and British settlers — tea-drinking was picked up from British traders — and all merged to become Moroccan food.

Tagines of lamb, veal, goat and chicken are popular in Morocco. Moroccans cook with the same vegetables as Americans but Moroccan vegetables are mostly organic. Moroccans use a heavier spice mix of saffron, cumin, ginger and paprika. Turmeric is used for coloring.

Morocco's answer to the American grill: a tagine pot and majmar

Photo by
Sunrise in Africa
Mourad Chehab is the owner of Treasures of Morocco at 1441 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg. He is from Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city on the Atlantic Ocean. Chehab has lived in the U.S. for 23 years and visits Morocco at least once a year. The store offers a unique blend of Mediterranean decor and a wide selection of tagines and clay pottery. Chehab imports handmade tagines from Morocco and says they are the highest selling item on his Web site:

Chehab opened Treasures of Morocco eight years ago to provide tagine pots to Moroccans who lived in St. Petersburg and who did not usually travel back home. He says instead that Americans now make up 90 percent of his customers.

“That’s why we introduced our culture to the American people, so they don’t have to deal with the shipping and breakage,” he says. “They want to bring Moroccan influence into their own home.”

Chehab says Moroccans who sometimes travel to North Africa bring back tagines themselves. He sells tagines to people who have never been to Morocco or if they have, find it cumbersome to carry a tagine back home on the plane.

A traditional tagine pot is made of heavy clay and is sometimes painted or glazed to enhance the color. The domed lid rests on the tagine base, which resembles a flat bowl with low sides. During cooking, condensation runs down the sides of the domed lid and tenderizes the meat. The lid has a knob-like handle at the top for easy removal. The cooked tagine base can be taken to the table for serving.

Chehab also sells majmars (pronounced mŏg-mars), which are clay pots with openings in the side that hold charcoal. The tagine sits on top of a majmar and slowly cooks from the heat. This is the traditional way of cooking in Morocco. The majmar can be used on a back patio or in a garden much like a grill.

A tagine can be cooked without a majmar using an electric or gas stovetop. A heat and flame diffuser must be used on top of a gas stovetop. This distributes the heat from the flames and protects the tagine. Diffusers are available at Bed Bath & Beyond for $3.99. A diffuser does not need to be used on an electric stovetop but the temperature must be kept at medium or below, a setting of 1 to 5. Otherwise, you may end up with a cracked pot. The clay holds the heat extremely well and a minimal setting of 2 or 3 is all that is really needed to cook the tagine.

A new tagine pot must be soaked in water before using it for the first time. Chehab recommends soaking it for at least one hour before use. The recommendation for soaking an unglazed tagine is 24 hours. An easy way to soak a bulky tagine is in the kitchen sink or in a plastic kitchen basin. A large glazed tagine will need rotating for an hour on each side.

Where can you buy Moroccan meats and ingredients?

Brothers Alex and Abdel Laqlalach are owners of Adam’s Fresh Meat Market, so named after Alex’s son. The meat market is located at 6541 54th Ave. N. in St. Petersburg. Alex Laqlalach imports Moroccan spices and ingredients for tagine cooking including seedless prunes. He sells green and black cured olive salads, fresh preserved lemons and dried mint for tea. He also sells Moroccan olive oil.

Laqlalach’s main attraction is kosher lamb, veal, beef, chicken and goat. The meat is prepared weekly in Orlando and brought back to the St. Petersburg meat market. Laqlalach offers goat for people with diabetes and for those who are managing cholesterol levels. He says goat has less fat and is healthier than lamb. He says it has a similar taste but “is not as delicious as lamb.”

Moroccans cook tagines with liberal amounts of oil for the binding of ingredients. For Americans, the amount of oil can be reduced or skimmed before serving. Salad, vegetable, and peanut oil can be used for cooking a tagine. However, olive oil is preferred by Moroccans.

What would a tagine be without Moroccan bread? Bread is sacred and treated with respect by North Africans. An old Moroccan legend tells of a woman who was imprisoned in the moon because she defiled a loaf of Moroccan bread. The heavy-textured round bread is chewy, soft-crusted and highly absorbent. The wedges that are cut from round loaves are ideal for dipping into the savory sauces of tagines and are used as a kind of “fork” when eating traditional Moroccan style. Laqlalach sells 400 to 500 pieces of handmade Moroccan bread weekly at his meat market.

Moroccan recipes can be found online and in books

Photo by Kerry Schofield
Chicken and apricots
For Americans, cooking with a tagine can be quite rewarding. Cooks can experiment and create their own delicious recipes of meat, fish, vegetables and spices. Moroccans boast there are 50 ways to prepare chicken in the big clay pot. Many books are available on tagine cooking as well as online recipes and resources. The definitive Moroccan cookbook was published in 1973 by Paula Wolfert and was named, "Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco," It has since become the classical work on Moroccan cookery. It was republished by William Morrow Cookbooks in 1987.

No comments:

Post a Comment