On Tagine Cooking

Image of a decorative tagine
Photo Credit: Iron Bishop

North African cuisine comprises a diverse spectrum of cultural influences that is nowhere more evident than in the multitude of flavors represented in its dishes. Originating in an expansive region called the Maghreb, a geographic range comprising Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco, it evolved from the blending of Arab, Berber, Moorish and Mediterranean cooking customs. North African cuisine is largely characterized by slow-cooked stews and vividly seasoned meats braised tender by their time spent over low-to-medium heat inside a vessel called a tagine. Also spelled “tajine,” this word of Berber origin refers also to the meal prepared inside this clever device. Having tasted in my own home the fruits of tagine cooking, having removed from it portions of lamb and beef so tender that I pulled them apart with dessert spoons, I can scarcely imagine my kitchen ever again being without one.

A tagine is a two-piece pot consisting of a circular base with low sides (traditionally composed of heavy clay, and more recently, enameled cast iron), and a conical or domed lid composed of glazed earthenware with a grasping knob at its apex. The lower edge of the lid fits securely into the base rim, the lid’s height and interior concavity designed with a deliberate purpose to which the tagine’s artistic aesthetic, though visually impressive, is secondary.

Because the lid’s design places its highest point well above the heat source over which the tagine is placed, it remains cooler. That relative surface coolness, when brought into contact with steam rising from its delicious content, returns every drop of condensation created to the food within, ensuring levels of moistness and flavor to be treasured. This construction, paired with the even heat distribution of the cast iron base that is becoming more typical of modern models, makes the tagine an item well-suited to cooking a variety of meals over a variety of heat sources. Able to withstand the blazing heat of charcoal and wood fires as well as searing stovetop flames and electric ranges, the tagine base can also be brought to the dinner table after cooking is done, and utilized as a serving vessel.

Rarely do versatility, durability, and visual attractiveness converge in a single kitchen item in such abundance as they do in the tagine. If that isn’t endorsement enough, then one needs only to sample a bit of perfectly-cooked meat or fish or vegetables taken from one in order to appreciate its appeal. Where functional practicality and artistic charm fail to entice, sealed-in moisture and one-of-a-kind flavor infusion will work epicurean sorcery that endures. The proof, as the old adage goes, is in the eating.

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