How to cook a Moroccan tajine

Patisserie

[photograph © Mark Eveleigh]

* Recipe at the end of this post

Marrakech’s souks (markets) are a beautiful whisk of colours and dust; of biycles and people, flute music, textiles and mint tea – all swirling into a mix so complex it’s almost impossible to distinguish sight from sound, smell from flavour. Laden donkeys and bicycles jangle through narrow alleys and people loiter, haggle, call, coax, and get carried away into the stream of life of these old medinas. But in a little quarter that’s piled with vegetables and scattered with cabbage leaves, we found a few moments of calm.

Behind a mountain of tomatoes and a huge mound of coriander, an old woman with gnarled, arthritic fingers carefully chose two onions and placed them in a plastic bag. She did it with such focus and grace that the craziness of the world around us seemed to slow down a moment.. A sense of peace settled, only to be rattled a second later as a trader’s call burst into the silence.

We’d gone to the small vegetable market to buy provisions for our cooking class. Our guide and cook, Karima Guelila, met us in the wonderful craziness just off Marrakech’s Djemaa el Fna, the square that has been central to the city’s life for more than 1000 years, and she led us through an intricate labyrinth of souks and alleys until we arrived at this vegetable market, where trading had begun before 4am.

“Cooking is an experience,” Karima said later as we chopped the onions, coriander and garlic that would add extra flavour to our chicken tajine. “It’s not following a recipe.”

There was something very special about making a tajine with a woman who cooks from memory, combining ingredients in a way she learnt from her mother, who learnt from her mother. But it was the process of shopping for vegetables in a market so unlike anything I know that made that tajine the most delicious I’ve ever tasted.

I’ve often thought back on that market, and the time we took to choose vegetables, and to weigh them, and to talk to the traders. And I remember the old woman who sold me two onions, and it reminds me: slow down. Breathe. Cooking is not just about eating. It’s about savouring the journey.

* Narina travelled through Morocco with Intrepid Travel.  

Karima’s chicken tajine

Quantities of vegetables don’t seem to matter in this recipe – go with what you think will taste good.

Chicken pieces

Coriander, chopped

Red onion, finely chopped

Fresh lemon

Preserved lemon*

*To make preserve lemons, put whole lemons in a glass bottle, add salt and water and leave for a few months. Use enough water to cover the lemons, and dissolve one cup of salt for every 10 lemons.

Garlic, very finely chopped

Parsley, chopped

Olive oil

Chillis

1/ Place the chicken pieces in the tagine, squeeze fresh lemon over the chicken and put the tajine over a high heat.

2/ Cover the chicken with the onion, then sprinkle coriander and parsley over, and garlic on top.

3/ Peel and cut the preserved lemon into quarters and pull the pieces apart over the chicken.

4/ Over the garlic, sprinkle 1 tsp ginger powder, 1 tsp saffron powder, 1 tsp ginger and two pinches of salt.

5/ Finally, pour five tablespoons of olive oil over the ingredients.

6/ Cook over a low heat, and after 20 minutes add a cup of water.

7/ When you add the water, add chopped chilli. If you want the tajine to be hotter, add the chilli earlier. Allow the tajine to simmer for a further 40 minutes or so, and serve with a salad.

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