A journey through Marrakech cuisine
Tonight, as they close down for the day, hundreds of hammams in Marrakech will allow just one other, and rather special guest in that will spend the entire night on the gleaming charcoal: the neighbourhood’s tanjia.
“Tanjia is a clay pot that can be any shape, but usually look tall and narrow, a bit like a flower pot. They are used to cook Marrakech’s most famous dish — tanjia — a slow cooked lamb,” said Nejd Souaidy, Chef de Cuisine at Agadir, the Moroccan restaurant of Westin Abu Dhabi Golf Resort and Spa.
“It is an easy dish! You put all the ingredients in the pot, including the lamb shank, cover it with the lid, and leave it on the glowing charcoal for a few hours, overnight. That is why we normally cook it in the hammams. They have the fire going all day for the baths, so in the night we just give some money to the security guard to put our tanjia on the remaining charcoal, which will cook by itself. No need to stir or do anything to it,” he went on explaining.
It is not just tonight, but every night that the Marrakech hammams turn into kitchen ovens. The dish is rich and sumptuous enough to make it on a royal wedding table, but due to its easy cooking technique, it has become the daily lunch of Marrakech Moroccans.
And, since Westin’s Agadir is running this month a journey through Marrakech cuisine, tanjia is big on the menu!
“We don’t have a hammam here, so I have to improvise the cooking method. I use a normal oven with a bit of an added secret,” smiled Souaidy.
His secret is some charcoal placed around the tanjia pot to create that earthy, smoky flavour. After eight hours of slow cooking, the meat literary falls off the bone and the aromas released when the lid is lifted are those of heavenly autumn.
Along with the lamb shank, the tanjir contains salt, garlic, olive oil, pickled lemons, cumin powder and Moroccan ghee, which is stronger than the Indian ghee, tasting somewhat like blue cheese.
“Myself, I also use herbs to add freshness and ‘Ras Al Hanout’, a Moroccan blend of 56 spices,” said the chef.
He laughed at the thought of naming each of the 56 spices, but he did mention some popular ones — nutmeg, turmeric, chilli, cinnamon — and some less heard of — ash berries, grains of paradise, monk’s pepper.
A bowl of rice cooked with saffron, raisins and spices, sprinkled with crushed almonds was served alongside the rich, dark, velvety tanjia, but Souaidy could not leave the table to its bare essentials. Couscous with seven vegetables was added.
“Did you know that the first ever Moroccan professional chef came from Marrakech,” he asked proudly.
A city in the foothills of the snow-capped Atlas mountains, Marrakech was founded in 1062 by Abu Bakr ibn Umar. Led by the Almoravids, pious and learned warriors from the desert, numerous mosques and madrassas were built, developing the community into a trading centre for the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa.
The Berbers, the Bedu of North Africa, were the heart of Marrakech, their culture and traditions, including the gastronomic one, giving this iconic city its personality.
Tanjir apart, another famous Moroccan dish that comes from Marrakech is the harira, a thick soup, famously served in the nights of the holy month of Ramadan.
“Harira is made with chick peas, lentils, vermicelli pasta, lamb, tomato paste, coriander, Moroccan spices and parsley and it is served with chebakia, a sweet pastry, dates and lemon,” explained Souaidy.
A spoon of soup is usually followed by a bite of dates, another tasting of soup and finally chebakia, and then the tasting steps are repeated. It is a sweet and sour play on the tasting buds!
As for typical Marrakech desert, also on Agadir’s menu, are sweet tartlets, made with lots of fillo pastry and dried fruit.
“Most Moroccan deserts involve dried rather than fresh fruit, simply because we eat fresh fruit as they are. Every home in Morocco will have a basket of fresh fruit on the table and guests are welcome to help themselves. Besides, to cook with fresh fruit means lots of peeling, and it would be too much on the wife’s shoulders, who already has so much to do,” said Souaidy.
The journey through Marrakech, which followed two other culinary trips through Tangier and Casablanca, each a month-long promotion, will come to an end in the last day of April. Chef Souaidy, though, promised to keep on the menu some of the more popular dishes, harira and Tanjia Marrakchia included. A mini Marrakech souk is also complimenting the experience.
Yet, nothing quite makes up for the real trip to Morocco.
“You must experience a Moroccan wedding. We have the most extraordinary weddings! It’s not just about the food, but the entire mood! In some villages, a wedding can go on for over a month! Even in the big, busy cities we have weddings that last up to a week,” said the nostalgic Casablancan chef.
His food alone is an invitation to his homeland, and the added flavour of his stories makes that invitation impossible to resist!
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