There are many cultures that feature dishes cooked in a sealed clay pot. Pod peka in Croatia, donabe in Japan, noi dat in Vietnam, tavvas in Cyprus, even Romertopf in Germany (“Roman pot”). But perhaps the most famous is tagine, or tajine, a tradition not just of cooking in a clay pot, but one with a special conical shape to it. It is a stalwart of Berber cuisine, and as such made its way across North Africa, inflecting Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan cuisine. The Moroccan tagine is the best-known version, thanks to the popularity of Moroccan food, particularly among Francophone nations.
The physics of clay pot cooking have to do with stewing. Meat and vegetable plus liquid are placed inside the pot. It is sealed and laid on coals. The heat makes the liquid turn to steam, which cooks the ingredients but would normally evaporate—but the closed nature of the pot means that the evaporating steam beads up on the lid of the pot, turns back into liquid and falls back down to the ingredients at the base of the pot, only for the process to repeat. Flavors are trapped inside the pot and the broth keeps on infusing the ingredients in a delicious cycle. The conical shape of the tagine lid encourages the condensed liquid to slide back down to the base, with gravity as its copilot.
Tagine is the name of the clay pot and the technique, but there are hundreds of recipes featuring it. Most couple sliced protein (meat or fish) with root vegetables and sometimes fruit (fresh or dried), nuts and spices. The only dramatic variant on this rule of stews is Tunisian tajine, which looks more like a frittata, or Slovenian fila stuffing, than stew. I decided to make a Moroccan tagine stew over a Tunisian tajine. The same pot, two very different recipes. The Tunisian version begins stewing meat and veg with spices (including the wonderfully exotic use of dried rosebuds for cooking), then a thickener is added (like potato or chickpeas), then a dominant spice (saffron, mint) and finally egg and cheese is added, which congeals the stew into a frittata-like form that is sliced and can be eaten by hand. Stewed calves brains are optional.
Moroccan Tagine: how to Make the Stew
For my Moroccan tagine stew, I went with a lamb stew rich with fruit, nuts and spices that ensured me that I was in an exotic place. Combining cinnamon, coriander, turmeric, almonds and dried apples with a savory lamb stew is quite literally miles away from what I’m used to here in the Alps. In principle, the ingredients are all combined in the tagine and put to the heat, and that’s it. Sit and wait. But in practice, the only downside of the tagine (or any clay vessel) is that you cannot use it to brown meat and veg. That has to be done separately. This seems a bit of a shame, because the bits of meat that stick to the bottom of a pan when the heat is high enough for the meat to brown are delicious and can be deglazed, shooting the flavor back into your dish. Most tagine recipes call for spices to coat the meat, and for the meat to be browned separately, in a pan, and then placed in the tagine. If I had hot coals, my problem would be solved—brown the meat over the charcoal, then add to the tagine. But as is, I’m stuck either browning in a pan or not browning at all. But once the ingredients are together in the tagine, with sufficient liquid, I let it stew for at least two hours, until the meat is fall-apart tender. Then I’m ready to eat.
How different is this, though, from cooking the same recipe in a Dutch oven, like a Le Creuset? The shape of the tagine means that less liquid is needed to cook the ingredients through, so the stew can be less soupy. But otherwise you can indeed cook the same dishes in a Dutch oven, and they will taste largely the same. There are some who swear by the taste of clay-pot-cooking over glazed ceramics or metal containers, but that may be more of a romantic notion than absolute fact. The consensus has to do with the amount of liquid needed. The clay is porous and absorbs some of the moisture and liquid, whereas the cast iron glazed Dutch oven deflects it—less liquid for more flavor. You don’t need to use oil in a tagine, so that’s theoretically healthier, but likewise you can’t brown meat in it. In the end, it’s a matter of taste, romance and whether you have space in your kitchen for a handsome tagine. I consider mine a sort of sculpture that I can also cook in. But then again, I’m an art historian first, a foodie second.