RABAT, Morocco - From ancient Arabs to Williams-Sonoma shoppers.
It's the unlikely path of the tagine, the signature slow-cooked and heavily seasoned dish of this North African nation that recently has been co-opted by adventurous American gourmets.
But it's a bit of an oversimplification to call tagine "a dish," for the term refers not only to a multitude of stews that might feature lamb, chicken or fruits and vegetables, but also to the unusual conical vessels in which they are cooked.
"You don't need a tagine to make the dishes, but without it you are losing romance, a certain color, a certain richness and intense flavor," says Paula Wolfert, who pioneered North African cuisine in America with her 1973 cookbook, "Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco."
When Wolfert tested the recipes in her book, she used an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven because at the time few Americans owned tagines, which originated as unglazed clay cookpots with the nomadic Berbers of North Africa.
Today, they are available in numerous styles - ceramic, stainless steel, cast iron and silicone - from upscale producers and retailers, including Williams-Sonoma, All-Clad, Le Creuset and Emile Henry.
"If you have your fancy remodeled kitchen and trophy cookware, you need your tagine," says Kemp Minifie, executive food editor at Gourmet magazine. "And Americans love the exotic."
Originally used on slow-burning embers around the fire, the cone-shaped top was designed to retain moisture - the steam from slowly cooking food rises to the top, then condenses and falls back into the dish.
"You use a very gentle heat working from the bottom up," says Wolfert. "The point of a real tagine, authentic tagine, is to start low and stay low."
Today, some Moroccans have abandoned the tagine for the speedier pressure cooker, but unglazed clay tagines remain a staple of homes and markets.
"There is something special about unglazed clay and the taste of the earth," says Wolfert.
Popular traditional tagines include chicken with olives and preserved lemon; meatballs in tomato sauce with eggs; lamb with prunes, almonds and onions; as well as simple tagines of meat and the seasonal vegetables.
For serving, Moroccan families often sit around one piping hot, communal tagine pot at the table and use fresh bread to mop up the juices and scoop up the vegetables. The meat is saved until last, when it is divided up among the family.
"This is absolutely not the fast-food of Morocco," says Larbi El Attar, who sells tagines in the Moroccan city of Sale.
Tagines have been on a slow rise from obscurity in the U.S. Gourmet magazine ran its first lamb tagine recipe in 1968, though the recipes instructed readers to use a casserole dish.
Le Creuset introduced its best-selling tagine 10 years ago. But it's during the past five years that tagines seemed to gain traction. Kitchen goods catalogs feature multiple models and the Internet offers dozens of retail sources, including Tagines.com.
In 2005, French ceramic cookware maker Emile Henry launched the Flame Top Tagine, which unlike traditional clay tagines can go from cold to hot and withstand the high heat of a direct burner.
Demand has been high enough that this year the company introduced a new color, bringing Emile Henry's total tagine offers to two sizes in four colors, ranging in price from $115 to $150.
Chuck Williams, founder of gourmet retailer Williams-Sonoma, says his stores periodically carried tagines, but recent interest in North African foods prompted the company to regularly offer a $150 Le Creuset tagine starting in 2005.
And the culinary store took the trend a step further by developing a packaged tagine sauce and seasoning blend rub to make North African-style cooking more convenient.
"Customers were interested in more spice in their palate," says Sally Geller, food buyer for Williams-Sonoma. "We created these blends that made it easy to turn chicken or beef into a wonderful tagine meal."
Tagine recipes also are becoming more common in food magazines. Gourmet magazine featured a recipe for chicken tagine with apricots and spiced nuts as recently as its February issue. Though it still called for a heavy pot, not a traditional tagine.
"We want people to make these delicious recipes and not be turned off by the requirement of a special pot," said Minifie. "Though nothing is quite so dramatic as to serve it in a real tagine."
It's great party food, added Minifie. "Just to think - you bring out this dramatic looking pot and you lift the lid. The aromas come out and people love it. It makes stew very elegant," she says.
Minifie and Wolfert insist tagine cooking is not intimidating, which is why it is popular. "People can get this exotic flavored food and the spices are all in the supermarket and they are familiar with it," says Minifie.
"It's a lot of bang, without a lot of pressure."
And tagine, the cookware, can be used for dishes other than tagine, the food.
"You can do anything with a tagine," says Wolfert, who recommends French-style slow-cooked scrambled eggs, gratins or even cakes. "Anything that needs to cook slowly."
Meanwhile, Wolfert says she hopes to update her 35-year-old cookbook, which can easily be converted to tagine cooking by reducing the water by three-fourths.
"I want to redo it. Because now there will be enough people around who have the clay pot, or who can easily get one," she said.
What to consider when buying a tagine
Ready to work tagine into your meal rotation? Here are some things to consider when buying a tagine.
Tagines are available made from a variety of materials, including clay and other ceramics, stainless steel, cast iron and silicone. Price and versatility can vary greatly by material.
• Simple clay tagines are widely available online and in ethnic markets for as little as $20 to $30. However, many of these cannot tolerate high heat on the stove, which means meat cannot be browned in them.
These tagines are best for foods cooked in the oven. Foods must be browned in another skillet before being added to the tagine. Many of these tagines also must be seasoned with oil before first use.
Most clay tagines also cannot go in the dishwasher. Some clay tagines have decorative glazing. Be careful with these, as some glazes contain lead.
• Ceramic tagines from French cookware producer Emile Henry are extremely versatile. They can tolerate high-heat cooking on the stove, in the oven and in the microwave. They also can go in the freezer and dishwasher.
Expect to pay $100 or more for these tagines.
• Equally versatile is the tagine from All-Clad, which combines a stainless steel (and therefore high heat safe) bottom with a glazed terra-cotta lid. This tagine also features convenient handles to make carrying it easier.
The All-Clad tagine costs about $200.
• Le Creuset takes a similar approach with its tagine, which combines a ceramic top with an enameled cast-iron base. These cost about $150 and have superb heat retention.
• A number of companies also offer silicone tagines. These inexpensive tagines cannot go on the stove at any temperature, but can be used in the oven.
A better choice among silicone options is SiliconeZone's Tagine Lid, which is a $20 silicone tagine cover that can be used with any skillet. This is a cheap way to do tagine-style cooking without the expense.
Chicken Tagine with Prunes and Tomatoes
If your tagine doesn't have a stainless steel, cast-iron or other high-heat tolerant bottom, you will need to brown the meat in a skillet before proceeding with the recipe. If you don't have a tagine, most tagine recipes also can be done in a Dutch oven.
This recipe may make too much for some smaller tagines. If so, cut the recipe in half or cook in batches.
Start to finish: one hour 30 minutes (30 minutes active)
8 bone-in chicken thighs, excess fat trimmed
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, cut into 1/8-inch wedges
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
28-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, drained
1/2 cup (about 4 ounces) packed pitted prunes
2 tablespoons honey
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
In a large bowl, combine the chicken, 1 teaspoon salt and a generous grinding of pepper. Set aside.
In a small, dry skillet over medium heat, toast the cumin seeds, stirring constantly, for 2 to 3 minutes, or until they darken by a shade darker and are fragrant.
Transfer the cumin seeds to a mortar or an electric spice grinder and grind finely. Add the cumin and turmeric to the chicken and turn to coat with the spices.
Heat a high-heat tolerant tagine base over medium-low heat and add the olive oil. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle, add the chicken, skin side down.
Use a rubber spatula to clean all the seasonings from the sides of the bowl and add it to the chicken.
Increase the heat to medium and cook the chicken for 5 minutes, or until lightly browned on the first side. Use a spatula or tongs to turn the chicken pieces.
Spread the onion wedges over the chicken and cook, occasionally stirring
the onion and turning the chicken, for
10 minutes, or until the onion is wilted and golden.
Add the chicken broth, tomatoes, prunes, honey and cinnamon, breaking up the tomatoes with the side of a wooden spoon. Cover and cook over medium-low for 35 to 45 minutes, or until the chicken falls from the bone.
Preheat oven to 200 F.
Uncover the tagine and use a slotted spoon to transfer the chicken and prunes to a plate. Cover with foil and keep warm in the oven.
If there is an excess of broth, boil the liquid, uncovered, over medium heat for
5 minutes, or until reduced slightly. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Return the chicken and prunes to the tagine.
Sprinkle the sesame seeds over the top. Re-cover the tagine and carry it to the table. Uncover and serve.
• Serves 4 to 6
(Recipe from Marie Simmons' "Things Cooks Love," Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2008)
Kefta Tagine with Lemon and Cilantro
This meatball-like tagine can be prepared ahead, then refrigerated and reheated. Serve it with crusty bread, couscous or a salad.
Start to finish: one hour
For the kefta:
1 pound finely ground lamb or beef
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped or grated
Small bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper or 1 teaspoon paprika
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For the tagine:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter or ghee
1 medium yellow onion, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, halved and smashed
1-inch chunk fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 small red chili, seeds removed, finely sliced
2 teaspoons turmeric
1 1/4 cups water
Small bunch cilantro or parsley, chopped
Small bunch mint leaves, chopped
To make the kefta, in a large bowl, use your hands to pound the air out of the ground lamb or beef. To do this, pick up the meat and slap it back down into the bowl several times.
Add the onion, parsley, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, cayenne, and salt and pepper. Use your hands to mix together the ingredients, kneading and pounding the mixture well.
Form the mixture into walnut-sized balls and set aside.
For the tagine, in the base of a tagine or heavy-based casserole dish heat the oil and butter over medium-high. Stir in the onion, garlic, ginger and chili. Saute until they begin to brown.
Add the turmeric, water and half of the cilantro. Bring the water to a boil then reduce heat, cover and simmer 10 minutes.
Carefully set the kefta in the tagine then cover and continue cooking for about 15 minutes, rolling the kefta occasionally during cooking.
Juice one lemon and pour the juice over the kefta. Season with salt and pepper. Cut the remaining lemon into 6 wedges and tuck the pieces around the kefta. Cover and cook another 10 minutes.
Sprinkle with kefta with the mint and remaining cilantro.
• Serves 4 to 6
(Recipe adapted from Ghillie Basan's "Flavors of Morocco," Ryland, Peters & Small, 2008)
Spicy Carrot and Chickpea Tagine with Turmeric and Cilantro
This rustic, vegetarian tagine from Ghillie Basan's cookbook, "Tagine," is common to areas of Morocco where meat is considered a luxury. This pairs well with yogurt and flatbread.
Start to finish: 40 minutes
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons turmeric
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon honey
4 medium carrots, sliced on the diagonal
Two 14 1/2-ounce can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
Sea salt, to taste
2 tablespoons rosewater
Bunch cilantro leaves, finely chopped
1 lemon, cut into wedges
In a tagine or heavy casserole dish, heat the oil over medium-high. Add the onion and garlic and saute until soft. Add the turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, cayenne, black pepper, honey and carrots.
Pour in just enough water to cover the base of the tagine. Cover, reduce heat to low and cook 15 minutes.
Add the chickpeas and toss. Add water, if needed. Cover and cook for another 10 minutes. Season with salt, then sprinkle with rosewater and scatter the cilantro over the top. Serve with lemon wedges.
• Serves 4
(Recipe from Ghillie Basan's "Tagine," Ryland, Peters & Small, 2007)