A tagine is an important part of Moroccan cuisine and has been a part of the culture for hundreds of years. The word tagine actually has two meanings. First, it refers to a type of North African cookware traditionally made of clay or ceramic. The bottom is a wide, shallow circular dish used for both cooking and serving, while the top of the tagine is distinctively shaped into a rounded dome or cone.
Second, the word tagine also refers to the succulent, stew-like dish which is slow-cooked in the traditional cookware. Typically, a tagine is a rich mixture of meat, poultry, or fish, and most often includes vegetables or fruit. Vegetables may also be cooked alone in the tagine.
Most people agree that the tagine's origin dates back to the late 18th century when Harun al Rashid ruled the Islamic Empire. However, there is another school of thought that the use of ceramics in Moroccan cooking is probably of Roman influence; Romans were known for their ceramics and likely brought that tradition to their rule of Roman Africa. Either way, the first appearance of recipes cooked tagine-style appeared in the 9th century in the publication The Thousand and One Nights.
Tagine the Vessel
Today, ceramic tagines are practical yet exquisite examples of Moroccan artisanship, and many are showpieces as well as functional cooking vessels. Some tagines, however, are intended only to be used as decorative serving dishes.
The cooking vessel is made of clay or ceramic (although some Western cookware companies are now making tagines from other materials) and can be left as is or coated in a glaze. Unglazed clay tagines are favored by many cooks for the unique earthy nuance they impart to dishes. Tagines come in all sizes; the smallest might hold enough food for one or two people, while the largest can hold a meal for eight people or more.
The purpose of the dome- or cone-shaped top is to return moisture to the base of the tagine, creating a moist and flavorful dish.
Tagine the Stew
Tagines are primarily used to slow-cook savory stews and vegetable dishes. Because the lid of the tagine traps steam and returns the condensed liquid to the pot, a minimal amount of water is needed to cook meats and vegetables to buttery tenderness. This method of cooking is very practical in areas where water supplies are limited or where public water is not yet available; it also helps tenderize inexpensive cuts of meat.
Tagines often include various spices, such as turmeric, cinnamon, saffron, ginger, and cumin. Recipes can vary widely, from lamb to beef to chicken to fish; while some tagines feature dried fruit and nuts, you will also find fresh herbs, olives, and preserved lemons, and even eggs and sausage. There is also a Berber tagine which distinguishes itself by how the vegetables are artistically arranged around the lamb for a beautiful presentation.
Using a Tagine at Home
When cooking with a tagine, there are a few things you need to plan for, from preparing the vessel to having the correct equipment for your stovetop. Before using a tagine for the first time, you'll want to season it. This includes soaking it, rubbing with oil, and placing it in the oven for a couple of hours. The process removes any raw clay taste (if it is unglazed) and strengthens the material.
The traditional method of cooking with a tagine is to place the vessel over large bricks of charcoal that are purchased specifically for their ability to stay hot for hours. You can try cooking a tagine over charcoal (be sure to leave adequate space between the coals and the tagine or the temperature inside the vessel will be too high), but it may be more practical to use your tagine in a low oven or on the stovetop, using the lowest heat necessary to keep the stew simmering gently. Because the bottom of the tagine should not come in direct contact with its heat source, a diffuser—a circular piece of aluminum placed between the tagine and burner—is required if not cooking over a gas flame or charcoal.