Tagine

all-in-together

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.

Couscous

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Couscous for three – with meat from the Hawli of Eid!

We think we know couscous. In the Moroccan sense though, I’m not so sure. So let’s start with a quiz:

  1. What day of the week is couscous eaten?
  2. How is it cooked?
  3. With what foods does it implicitly always come, when someone says, ‘we’re having couscous’.
  4. What is the dairy product that is often used?

When I say we, really what I mean is, ‘I’, these are just some of the important things that I’ve learned about couscous since I’ve been learning and immersing myself in Moroccan culture over the last two years. So the answers are: a) mainly Fridays b) it’s steamed above the meat and vegetables c) usually there is always lamb (or another meat) squash, courgettes, carrots, sometimes a few chic-peas and a rich broth-like gravy to be poured on top, not to mention the herbs and spices! d) a salty fermented sheep-milk butter called ‘smen’ is often rubbed into the couscous as it is separated. Smen, now there is an easy name to remember!

Twice now has couscous lived up to its Moroccan reputation for me. The idea of couscous in Morocco is something far from the quick-boil stuff that we imagine elsewhere. It symbolises a labour of love to be shared and enjoyed with family, friends and guests. Perhaps like a roast dinner, but maybe with fewer implications of stress. It is also a lot tastier than any couscous I’ve eaten in Europe. When it’s steamed the couscous itself takes on all the flavour of the meat, vegetables and spices.

The first time couscous lived up to symbolising Moroccan hospitality and good-will was in my friend’s flat in Rabat. We were invited to have couscous with the family living upstairs, but we’d already arranged to eat lunch with friends. Later that evening when I came back after a mini-mission around Rabat, the daughter-in-law came and said that they still wanted us to have some couscous. I said that they shouldn’t have, but thank you very, very much (or something to that effect in imperfect French). I was not expecting the small feast that descended from the big house above. It was about 9pm and I was presented with a steaming hot plate of couscous. The size of the gesture was quite literally far larger than what we knew what to do with. I carried the plate over to the fridge and sized it up against the width of the fridge – the plate was far too big for any shelf of the normal size stand-up fridge-freezer. We ate what we could and enjoyed it before the flies of the summer heat got to what wouldn’t fit in the fridge. That seems to be the kind of gesture that turns neighbours into friends, which is really what those neighbours are to my friend.

The second time the couscous really came as a welcome relief from the sometimes intensely stressful nature of travelling to do research. This was the picture above. This was couscous at the house of the academics that are helping me out here. I took quite a long path arriving to the place of my fieldwork and in a way I still haven’t arrived. The couscous at their house, rather than a sultry coffee in a meeting room, felt like a big hug of welcome. And like in Spain, following the meal, you aren’t shooed out the door, but invited to relax, perhaps to watch something that happens to be on a nearby TV, perhaps to sit back and have a tea.

So what can couscous tell me about research? It can tell me that it is personal. In Morocco this means that it doesn’t happen in meeting rooms and hotels. Real sharing of information happens where people are most comfortable, which is in their own homes. How I might repay all these cups of tea and meals of couscous? I’m not yet sure. I try to arrive with the small sweet biscuits that seem to be the European social equivalent of a bottle of wine. It isn’t always possible though. I think that I will be present shopping for more than just friends and family at the end of this trip.

L hawli

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It bleats, it pants, it kicks, it smells, it is: ‘l hawli’.  As I pass by the market with my clearly French face, this is helpfully (and without my asking) translated for me as: ‘le mouton’. L hawli, le mouton, the sheep, has arrived in central Rabat.

The holy festival of Eid l’Kbir (big Eid), officially known as ‘Eid al-Adha’ is this Monday. The celebration remembers Ibrahim’s sacrifice and is a major festival in Islam. The exact date is determined every year according to the lunar calendar, and in Morocco the feast is accompanied by two days of public holiday. Public transport is packed as everyone goes to join their families. The festival seems to be a joyous time for everyone and I’ve never seen some of my teachers looking happier. It’s just the horned protagonists who don’t get to join in with the smiles and celebrations.

For me, the festivities started when the taxi ride to school suddenly got more interesting. Normally you hail down a little blue cab, see whether it’s going in your direction, and whether your journey is compatible with the journeys of anyone else already in it. Then, like taxis anywhere, there will be a speedy journey with strange music or chat about the weather.

This week though, as the empty land which hosted an international music festival in the Spring was turned into a different kind of living hubbub. As we pass by the market the conversations change: ‘have you bought your hawli yet?’, ‘no, not yet!’, or, ‘l hawli, no! In the market they’re too expensive! We have them in the countryside, my uncle buys him cheaper’.

At the language school where I’ve been trying to remember my (Moroccan) Arabic, hawli is clearly the word of the week. I have never seen so many sheep impressions. My first curiosity and question (to a taxi driver) was, ‘do people buy their hawli dead or alive’. The question worked better after I’d actually learnt the words for dead and alive, but by the end of the week I didn’t really need a verbal answer. These sheep were going home in-tact. My teacher confirmed my conclusion: the hawli goes home, it lives in the garden or on the balcony, the children feed it grass, and then a few days later, ta da! The adults have done their work, and no need for any more grass.

I don’t want to romanticise the hawli market. The sheep going home on hand-pushed carts are the lucky ones. A lot of them get a cord around their legs and are then instead headed for a car boot. Be that car a swanky brand new white four by four, or the boot of a small taxi.

Nor do I want to make it sound unreasonable. Perhaps if in Europe we went to the effort of going and choosing a live bird for Christmas, we would value more the life and sacrifice of that animal. Perhaps. In any case, the reality of the provenance of meat is being made painfully clear in the streets of the capital this week.

Unfortunately, I’m going to let you down at the end of this post with no actual food (again!). As an outsider, on this occasion, not wishing to impose on any families and their quality time together, I am not sharing in the festivities and the sacrifices of Eid. Instead I will do what’s expected of me as a French, white, Christian tourist and have a couple of days off too, on the beach. The sea is one thing that doesn’t close for Eid.