Know Your Food: Tagine, The Soul of Morocco

Tagine offers a taste of North Africa as layered as the region’s history 

By Lucy Wildman Updated: Mar 15, 2024 13:03:22 IST
Know Your Food: Tagine, The Soul of Morocco photographs by K. Synold

Couscous might be Morocco’s most famousfood export, but it’s a mere side dish when served with the sweet, spicy, slow-cooked and delicious stew known as tagine. This staple of North African restaurant menus around the world “captures the aroma and essence of so many traditional Moroccan flavours,” says Ghillie Basan, author of several books about Moroccan cuisine.

The first written reference to a tagine-like dish appears in the famous collection of ninth century Arab folk tales One Thousand and One Nights. Its roots are in the Berber-inhabited regions of North Africa; the Berber word for “shallow earthen pot” is tazin.

Today, tagine refers to the vessel and the mouth-watering meal cooked in it. Whether the central ingredient is meat, fish or vegetables, tagine’s base is commonly made in a shallow-lipped dish with lots of onions, pulses such as chickpeas and lentils, spices like ginger, cinnamon, saffron and paprika and fiery harissa paste. The heavy conical lid condenses the steam as the food cooks, making for a very tender stew. Sweet ingredients like fruit and honey are added near the end of the cooking process.

The trick to tagine, according to Claudia Roden, author of Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon, is a balance of sweet and salty. “Dishes with sugar and honey must have enough salt and pepper to mitigate that sweetness,” she says. Just before serving, toppings such as olives, preserved lemons, nuts, fresh mint and sometimes boiled eggs are added. Traditionally scooped up with a flatbread called khobz, tagines are now usually served with a fluffy mound of couscous.


Tagines represent the rich layers of Moroccan history. Its spices came from the Middle East during waves of Arab invasions in the seventh century. And when the Moors were expelled from Spain in 1492, many returned to Morocco, bringing their reliance on Spain’s olives, olive oil and paprika.

Today, the busy souks (marketplaces) of Moroccan cities like Fez and Marrakech are lined with stalls piled high with an array of tagines. And on Place Mohammed V in the port city of Safi, Morocco’s pottery capital, stands the world’s largest tagine pot. Made in 1999 for a meal cooked by 200 women involving 12 tonnes of sardines, the vessel measures a staggering 6.3 metres wide and 5.5 metres high. (Just imagine the size of the pot for the accompanying couscous!)

But anyone can enjoy a scaled-down version at home. There are cast-iron tagines, but earthenware is traditional; purists like the unglazed versions, as the porous clay soaks up all the spices and flavours. (Avoid cooking with colourfully decorated clay vessels; they may not stand up to heat.)

Aromatic and evocative of exotic lands, a warming tagine is a perfect dish to serve family and friends on a winter evening.

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