In English ‘tagine’ means to me a big brown plate with a cone shaped lid. I would probably imagine the dish itself sitting empty on someone’s shelf from a trip they did five or six years ago. In Morocco that earth coloured dish is filled with food.
If you go to someone’s house at a mealtime and it isn’t Friday you are most-likely served tagine. It’s not a fast-food, it takes a while to cook, but it’s practical. For example, you don’t actually need a cooker to cook a tagine, you just need one of the ‘buta-gas’ cans and a small clay or metal stand on top of it. Then everything else can be cooked directly in the tagine. First the meat and spices, then the vegetables, then the potatoes, then any olives or dried fruit. So if you come looking for work and you need to buy something to cook with quickly and cheaply, you are pretty much there with a buta-gas can, a tagine and bread.
Tagines are always round. This is also practical. You can fit as many people around a tagine as you can fit around the table. The food is supplemented by bread so whether you get a little tagine and a lot of bread or a lot of tagine and a little bread, overall you get a more or less balanced meal.
The worst tagine I ever ate was on a rooftop in Fez last year, it was a vegetable tagine which consisted of potatoes a few peas and a carrot. The best must have been the first that I ate in my friend’s house who lives in a small house in a small village outside Thursday. What can I say, personal relations get you further in Morocco than how much you pay to sit and see the view.
At this point I should come clean. I might be giving the impression that I’ve been visiting houses and eating tagines for the last couple of weeks. In fact, I’ve been in Spain. I had a week and a half break from my fieldwork, for several reasons, mostly work-related and an opportunity to see wonderful friends. So you can imagine I was tempted to write this blog-post about that first glass of wine when back in Europe… or about jamón, something considered worse than divorce in Morocco. The words didn’t come. Getting back to my flat, I then nearly wrote a blog called ‘the last of the oatcakes’ because like every good mountaineer, I’d come prepared for the empty-cupboard moments, and one little pack of oatcakes was still in my flat when I came back hungry.
Yet it was quite honestly the tagine the day after I got back that made me think a bit more. Seven people, one plate. It could have been designed by Taylorists or management experts for the efficiency of the idea. Wikipedia calls the tagine a stew, but it seems more baked to me, inside it’s little cone-shaped hat. The meat and potatoes remain in-tact, any olives or dried fruit sit beautifully on top, as they have been placed. Only the onions and any other veg underneath have disintegrated into a stew-like consistency. More to the point, the tagine feels like a great leveller in Morocco. Rich or poor, north or south, east or west, a good tagine in within reach.