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.