Thursday, August 2, 2012

Week 30: A Journey to Morocco

Moroccan cuisine presents an interesting culmination of cuisines.  In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Morocco reached the height of its power under the rule of the Berber dynasties.   During this time, dishes like couscous and tagine emerged as staples in the region. As the fifteenth century came to a close, the Moors who had fought to control the southern Iberian Peninsula for eight hundred years were defeated by Spain and expelled, which resulted in a significant migration of Muslim and Jewish Moors to Morocco.  The Moors introduced olives, olive juice, and citrus to the area, and more specifically, the Jewish-Moors taught the native Moroccans their advanced techniques for preserving fruits and vegetables resulting in one of Morocco’s most famous ingredients and flavoring agents, the preserved lemon.  In the mid-sixteenth century, the Berber dynasties fell to Arab tribes claiming descent from the Prophet Muhammed.  These tribes brought new spices, nuts and dried fruits to the region, and they introduced the idea of combining sweet fruits into savory dishes.  Morocco’s close proximity to the Ottoman Empire resulted in the introduction of kebabs to its cuisine.  Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Morocco constantly fought attempts from several European countries to take its independence, and in the early twentieth century, the country was occupied by a French protectorate in the majority of the land and a Spanish protectorate in its Northern regions.  This brought many European influences to Morocco’s cuisine, including its cafes, pastries, and wines.  Finally, in 1956, Morocco gained its independence, and today we know its cuisine as inspired dishes illustrating a long, arduous history. 

The evolution of its most famous dishes can traced from its roots through this timeline of influences, and with that in mind, I set out to make a simple tagine and couscous as a way to experience its staples as they have transformed throughout the years.  I began my research by reading about what exactly defines a “tagine” from other stews.  I knew that a tagine is a cone-shaped clay cooking vessel and that the stews cooked in a tagine are also called tagine, but I wanted to understand if the cooking vessel was the only differentiating factor.  Based on my research, I think it is fair to say I discovered four important factors that differentiate an authentic tagine from an everyday stew:
  • The sauce should be tight, not thin and soupy.
  • The meat is not browned before being stewed.  It is simply cooked with the vegetables.
  • Ras el hanout is an essential seasoning element.  Ras el hanout literally translates to “head of the shop” and refers to a blend of a shop’s best spices curated by its owner.  The blends vary from only a few spices to over one hundred in a blend.  Most include cardamom, clove, cinnamon, chili peppers, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, peppercorn, and turmeric.  While it is essential, its presence is not always the same based on its broad definition.  You don’t need to buy a special bottle of ras el hanout to make a tagine.  Just go through your spice cabinet and make your own blend with the spices you have on hand focusing on the key "warm" flavors generally included in the mix.
  • The final dish must include a sweet element.  In most recipes, this is achieved in one of two ways.  The first manner is to add dried fruits, such as apricots, to the stew.  Another way to achieve this sweet element is by garnishing the stew with makfoul, a mixture of caramelized onions and tomatoes with honey, butter, and cinnamon.
I selected a recipe by Christine Benlafquihon on  I used lamb, and I cooked it in a dutch oven for a few hours since I do not have a pressure cooker.  This is by far the most tender, flavorful lamb dish I have ever made, and the makfoul on top was such an interesting and delicious addition.  I served couscous studded with almonds and raisins that I cooked with a cinnamon stick, too.   This represented an ideal example of Morocco’s flavors and its history of influences.
Tagine Makfoul
Unfortunately, it was a busy week with family visiting and the hubs out of town, and I only managed to cook one Moroccan meal.  I must confess that I’m a bit disappointed in myself for not finding the time for more Moroccan dishes.  I will just put a positive spin on it and note that I could not have been more delighted with a dish than I was with tagine makfoul, and I look forward to finding another week to focus on Moroccan cuisine again.

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