Both the conical earthenware pot and the dish prepared in that cooking vessel share the name of tagine. History tells us that the nomads in North Africa used this timeless pot as a “portable oven,” which allowed them to prepare food while moving from one place to another. Due to its ancient nomadic origins, the tagine dish is from Berber cuisine. However, over the centuries, the dish was influenced by different civilizations including Arab, Moorish and Ottoman and became one of the most emblematic dishes of Moroccan cuisine.
Tagines were formerly placed on an open fire for cooking, creating an oven of sorts with two pieces: a wide, shallow base and a conical-shaped cover that fits the base to create a seal. While the food is being cooked, steam rises into the cone, condenses and then falls back down into the dish to continuously baste the dish.
Classic tagine pots are made from earthenware such as clay and are not glazed. Today, tagines are also made for serving, which come in a variety of materials and are often glazed and beautifully decorated. If you want to purchase a tagine, you will have to decide whether you want to use it for serving food or for cooking, as the ones designed for exclusively serving food cannot be exposed to heat. If you want to use a tagine pot for cooking, purchase an unglazed pot, which allows all the natural and earthy flavors of the ingredients to be tastefully released.
Tagine Pot vs. Dutch Oven
As described above, a tagine’s cooking method mostly relies on slow cooking and keeping the food moist. As a result, the tagine’s cooking method is very similar to a Dutch oven’s method since it allows to keep the food moist and infuse the spices while simmering.
So, if you have a Dutch oven, do you need a tagine pot to make a real Moroccan tagine? The answer is no. Today, Moroccan families rarely cook their daily homemade tagines in actual tagine pots. The majority of them use pressure cookers in order to save time. That said, using a proper clay tagine is a special experience, and I definitely recommend it when time allows it. Your tagine will cook slower than a regular saucepan or Dutch oven, but we can all agree that sometimes time and effort are worth the reward.
Traditionally, tagines are placed on an open fire or a bed of charcoal at a very low heat. In order to use your tagine pot at home on a gas or electric stove, use a heat diffuser and start at a very low temperature, then slowly raise the heat as necessary. This will allow your earthenware pot to not crack if exposed to a thermal shock. When the tagine is cooked and ready to be served, be sure keep the pot off any cold surfaces, such as marble or a granite worktop, as it might create a thermal shock. Instead, place it on a wooden board to avoid cracking. It’s important to note that earthenware (unglazed and glazed) pots should be seasoned before use to prevent them from cracking, don’t forget to season your tagine according to the manufacturer’s directions.
For Moroccans, a tagine is not a random stew seasoned with exotic spices and randomly dressed in dried fruits or nuts. Tagines answer to certain criteria and rules. There are four main categories of tagines in Morocco. Each kind of tagine can be customized with seasonal vegetables, dried fruits, preserved lemons, olives and nuts.
Tagine mqualli is cooked in olive oil and seasoned with ground turmeric, ground ginger and saffron. The color of this tagine is a bright and dark yellow.
Tagine mhammer is cooked in butter and seasoned with paprika and ground cumin, creating a dark brownish red color.
Tagine mchermel is seasoned with chermoula, which is a Moroccan marinade made with spices, herbs, lemon, garlic and olive oil.
Tagine in tomato sauce is a tagine that kind of speaks for itself and is typically cooked in olive oil and seasoned with ground cumin, paprika, herbs and garlic.