I first encountered tagine when I was away from home, travelling alone for the first time, during my year of studying law in the South of France. While I was terrified to leave Canada by myself, I soon found myself in wonder at the differences in the foods I encountered. In my family, spices were rarely used. But in Aix-en-Provence, where I was staying in student dorms, the local market included a spice vendor with colourful piles of delicious smelling treats.

It might seem strange now, given that I write so much about food, but it was revelatory at the time. I sat with the spice vendor one day and asked what spices went with what food, and how to mix different flavours together in order to create something new. As I said in my older post “An Ode to Spices,” up until that point, an egg was just an egg. With these tantalizing new tastes, however, I saw that it could become an infinite amount of other things. I’d also recently at that time been diagnosed with celiac disease, and thought my food future would be boring at best. Instead, I found a whole new way to think about palate and my meals.

My love affair with food began in that market, and when I asked the spice vendor what and where to eat to explore these spices, he sent me to a Moroccan place in town to sample their tagine.

Tagine from a town called Zaita, on the drive from Marrakech to the Atlas Mountains, in Morocco.
Tagine from a town called Zaita, on the drive from Marrakech to the Atlas Mountains, in Morocco.

In the West, we often refer to tagine as the item on the menu, similar to when we order masala curry or pad Thai. But what I did not realize after my first taste of the dish was that it refers not only to the name of the plate we’re ordering, but the cookware itself.

A tagine is actually a two-piece set with a round and shallow base topped by an elegant cone, tapering at its tallest point with a knob that also serves as a handle to check on what’s inside. Traditionally, the dishes were made of clay, usually unglazed. There is a reason clay pots are great for cooking and are found in a variety of different cuisines around the world. As Paula Wolfart, author of The Food of Morocco notes, clay pots coddle food, bringing forth “bright, natural flavors and an unctuous tenderness.” (source).

Clay tagines in a windowsill during a visit to Essaouira, Morocco.
Clay tagines in a windowsill during a visit to Essaouira, Morocco.

I was mesmerized by the distinctive shape of the tagine, but such form possesses an important function; the fluted cone traps steam as the dish cooks, circulating it within the base to continuously and evenly cook whatever is inside. The combination of higher heat with moisture retention due to the tagine’s domed lid concentrates the limited amount of liquid inside, allowing it to caramelize slightly. The end result is an incredibly flavourful meal.   While the tagine developed as a portable oven, it has become an iconic decorative piece too. Practical and durable (except if you drop it, of course), the dish is synonymous with Morocco for good reason: every roadside stall, tourist restaurant and cafe seems to have pots of the stuff simmering all day long. In addition, you can pick up some beautiful hand-painted versions in a variety of sizes and shades, if cooking with them is not what you had in mind.

Decorative tagines from Fez, Morocco.
Decorative tagines from Fez, Morocco.

I initially travelled to Morocco with G Adventures in 2011, and I was told that the tagine was initially used by nomads in North Africa for making food over a fire. By slow-cooking meat like this, a lower quality or tougher meat can be used, providing another practical reason for using the stoneware dish.

But who introduced this dish to the nomadic tribes who first used it? Or was it invented in Morocco itself? According to the (insanely expensive) Encyclopedia of Kitchen History by Mary Ellen Snodgrass, the tagine dates back to Harun al Rashid, a late eighth-century ruler of the Islamic empire. Foods cooked tagine-style appeared in The Thousand and One Nights in the ninth century.

Other articles refer to portable ovens from the Roman empire that are similar in function to tagines, some even showing recognizable North African forms like a fluted lid – one that was quite different from pottery found in Britain. As with the tagine, they were used over an open fire. Like with fish sauce (see here), there is no one resolute thesis on the exact origin.

Regardless, what makes the tagine so interesting is not just that beautiful clay pot or its graceful shape, but also the influences of what goes into it from within Morocco. Over the years, with the trade of spices and conquering of nations, the recipes of the country have evolved to reflect the passing of time and goods. Though the pot itself is used in Tunisia, when “tagine” is found on a Tunisian menu, it actually refers to a different meal altogether, one that resembles a frittata instead of the Moroccan style braised meat and vegetable dish.

In Tagines & Couscous, cookbook author Ghillie Basan traces the flavours of the Moroccan tagine.

“Although originally a Berber dish, the tagine has evolved with the history as waves of Arab and Ottoman invaders, Moorish refugees from Andalusia and French colonialists have left their influences on the cuisine. Classic tagines include combinations of lamb with dried prunes or apricots; chicken with preserved lemon and green olives; duck with dates and honey; and fish cooked with tomatoes, lime, and cilantro.”

Potatoes cover up the meat and vegetables below in this chicken tagine from Morocco.
Potatoes cover up the meat and vegetables below in this chicken tagine from Morocco.

One thing is certain: the tagine makes for not only a wonderful vessel for cooking meats, but also for experimenting with different cuts and spices and combinations. I’ve enjoyed cooking lamb and prunes and lemon, as well as chicken hidden under a pile of honey, cinnamon, cumin, and cayenne.  And for those with a big appetite, breaking a half a dozen eggs into the base of the tagine and adding peeled, diced tomatoes, fresh herbs, and some smoked paprika and cumin, makes for a delicious breakfast that cooks itself while you wait.

Getting There

Try tagine for yourself in Morocco G Adventures runs a number of departures encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.