A word designating both the container (conical clay dish) and the contents, the tagine is often assimilated to the Moroccan recipe: vegetables, fruits and meat cooked in a stew. But did you know that there is a Tunisian alternative, totally different? We take stock of these specialties from the Maghreb with the culinary author Pierre-Brice Lebrun.
A gourmet and epicurean writer, this is how Pierre-Brice Lebrun likes to define himself. Specialized in tourism and gastronomy, he has travelled a lot, carrying tasty recipes in his luggage. Among them, the tagine of course! No jealousy, the author is as much a fan of the Moroccan tagine as of the Tunisian tajine. Here are the author’s explanations and passionate advice.
1 – What is the origin of the word tajine ?
It would come from the Berber “tajin”, meaning “flat” in the broadest sense. Its etymology is also related to the Greek “têganon”, a term designating an earthenware dish. This is also where the Provençal term “tian” comes from.
2 – Popular in the Maghreb, the tagine designates two different dishes in Morocco and Tunisia. What are these differences?
The Moroccan tagine is the best known: it is a kind of stew very long stew simmered in a glazed terracotta dish. It contains a mixture of meat (often lamb, or beef keftas), poultry or fish, vegetables, fruits (dates, candied lemons, prunes, olives) or dried fruits (almonds, raisins), spices and of course olive oil or clarified butter (saman). Honey can also be part of the party!
As for cooking, the food must be cooked slowly, until candied. The conical cap allows the steam to condense and regularly sprinkle the dish. Thus, the flavours are concentrated and the food keeps its softness. The tagine dish is placed on a brazier (a kanoun) or on a gas burner. But it can also be put in the oven! There are now electric tagine dishes, others made of cast iron. They are practical, even if they depart a little from tradition.
The Moroccan tagine is part of the convivial dishes of nomadic populations, which are shared by many. Just like couscous, mansaf (equivalent to couscous in the Middle East) and Bedouin maglouba.
The Tunisian tagine is very different, simpler and faster to make. Hard to know why it bears the same name! It is a kind of quiche without baked dough: a mixture of beaten eggs (like an omelette), herbs (coriander, parsley), potatoes and cheese (grated Gruyere cheese, Laughing Cow), meat (chicken, livers) or fish (crumbled tuna). A very nourishing dish, extremely effective for recycling leftovers!
3 – How was the Moroccan tagine born? How was it introduced?
As is often the case, we don’t know much about it. Some date it to the time of Harun al-Rashid (765-809), the fifth Abbasid caliph (the Abbasid Caliphate is the Sunni caliphate that ruled the Muslim world from 750 to 1258, just after the Umayyads (661-750). We also find the tagine in “The Thousand and One Nights”, an anonymous collection of tales of Arab, Indian and Persian origin from the 9th century. Kamaleddin Ibn al-Adim (a Syrian chronicler, 1192-1262) gives us a rather precise description of it in his “Bughyat al-Talab” (Pupil’s Desire), a sort of encyclopedia of the entire Muslim world. He gives the recipe for a dish “that must boil until it is cooked and the broth is absorbed“, with a sheep’s tail, garlic and fennel hearts.
4 – What are your favorite tagine recipes?
The Tunisian tagine with chicken livers is particularly tasty and simple to prepare. Four potatoes are cut into small pieces and pan-fried in a little olive oil. In the same way, 500 g of poultry liver and an onion are fried in the same way. Mix it all with chopped parsley, cumin, salt and pepper. Let it cook for a few minutes on a low heat. Pour the cooled mixture into twelve beaten eggs with 200 grams of grated cheese (Emmental, Gruyère, Comté). Bake for 30 minutes at 230° C. We traditionally use a square or rectangular dish and cut the tajine into squares to enjoy it warm with a salad (or cold for a picnic).
On the Moroccan side, I’m a fan of the tagine with chicken, candied lemons and olives: it’s a great classic. And it’s even better if you prepare your own candied lemons!
5 – What are the secrets of a good Tunisian tagine and a good Moroccan tagine?
Product quality, again and again! Farm eggs and fresh herbs for the Tunisian tagine. Fresh vegetables, dried chickpeas instead of jars, organic lemons candied at home for the Moroccan tagine. For the latter, the cooking is decisive. It must simmer for a long time, over low heat, at constant heat for about 24 hours. And it is always better when shared with family or friends!
Thanks to Pierre-Brice Lebrun, author of a “Petit traité de la boulette” and a “Petit traité du pois chiche” published by Le Sureau.