chickentagine

Moroccan Cuisine — Djaj Mqualli: Chicken Tagine With Preserved Lemon and Olives

Morocco is famous in Western culture for a lot of things: the film Casblanca, the fez hat, the once-seedy underbelly of Tangier (and its citrus fruit the tangerine), and the High Atlas Mountains.  As far as the food is concerned, easily the most important Moroccan export is couscous.  To us, calling couscous Morocco’s national dish is a little like saying that rice is Japan’s or that mashed potatoes are the United States’ national dishes; while probably true, those statements do not shine a lot of light on their national cuisines.  In search of something more interesting to present here, we noticed that every single Moroccan cookbook had a recipe for a particular dish, a tagine (a Moroccan stew named after the clay pot in which it is traditionally prepared) of chicken with olives and preserved lemons (recipe follows).

Morocco quick facts:

  • Capital: Rabat
  • Population: 33,250,000 (2014 estimate)
  • Notable Moroccans: Leo Africanus, Adel Tarrabt, the monkey paw vendor from “Treehouse of Horror II

More Moroccan features on The World Cup of Food:

The main North African dynasties of the Middle Ages through the modern era, the Almoravides, the Almohads, the Merinids, the Saadians, and today’s Alaouites, each held as its capital one of today’s major Moroccan cities.  These empires’ lands stretched from Spain in the north to Senegal in the south and east all the way to Persia at their greatest extents.  The royal court cuisines created in these capital cities from these varied influences, combined with the local Berber culture, have given rise to today’s Moroccan culinary tradition.

Couscous is Morocco’s most important food, served at special occasions, offered to its religious leaders by devotees, and eaten to celebrate the return from a pilgrimage to Mecca.  The tiny, rolled semolina dough “grains” are of ancient Berber origin (the Berbers call it kesksu) and can be claimed as the national dish of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania, with local variations of course.  Couscous can be made by rolling dryish semolina dough back and forth between the hands until the dough forms little grainy pearls, which are then steamed and served with vegetables or meat.  Modern convenience has led to the creation of instant couscous, a parboiled and dried product that is actually not too bad, and is the one available at United States supermarkets.

A tagine is a Moroccan clay pot used to slowly cook meats, vegetables, and legumes using minimal additional water:

Tagine potter at work. Image from Wikimedia Commons

The conical lid of the tagine helps to keep the steam created in cooking inside the pot, instead of allowing it to escape from the gap between the lid and the pot of a vessel with a flatter lid.  Water is a precious resource in North Africa, and the tagine is perfectly suited to the area.

Tagines were originally used over the coals of a wood fire, cooking their contents gently over several hours.  Nowadays, Moroccan cooks do not always have time for such endeavors, and the tagine name has come to describe any stew that resembles the old-fashioned, tagine-braised ones.  Today’s tagines are more often cooked in a Dutch oven over an electric stove and in much less time.

There are two main categories of tagines: mhammer, cooked in butter and colored red from paprika, and mqualli, cooked in oil and made yellow with saffron.  There are few restrictions on what can go into a proper tagine.  Local Islamic rules prohibit pork consumption, of course, but aside from chicken a tagine can feature other types of poultry like squab or quail, veal knuckle, lamb chops, potatoes, or legumes like garbanzo beans or lentils.

We do not own a tagine pot, as one might imagine, so we made ours in an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven.  Every recipe for a tagine made in a Dutch oven that we found cooked the stew on the stovetop in under an hour.  Not wanting to lose the low-and-slow tenderness achieved in a clay tagine, we sought to determine if similar results could be had in a very low oven.  We were pleased with the result.

Djaj Mqualli

adapted from Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon by Claudia Roden, A Taste of Morocco: A Culinary Journey with Recipes by Robert Carrier, Moroccan Modern by Hassan M’souli, and the television program Gourmet’s Adventures with Ruth

SERVES 4 TO 6

  • 3 Tbs canola oil
  • 6 bone-in chicken thighs, skin removed
  • salt and pepper
  • a 1 1/2″ piece of ginger, peeled and minced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 medium onions, minced
  • 1 Tbs ground cumin
  • 1 Tbs ground turmeric
  • 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 generous pinch saffron threads
  • 2 preserved lemons, rind only, sliced
  • 1/2 cup olives (the choice is up to the cook, we used pitted kalamata olives, though any variety, pitted or not, is fine)
  • one handful each parsley and cilantro leaves, minced

First we set the oil in our Dutch oven on medium-low heat and preheated the oven to 200 degrees (yes, 200 degrees).  We patted dry and seasoned our chicken thighs:

chickenthighsseasoned

Once the oil was heated, the chicken went in the pot, where it was very lightly browned on both sides, about four minutes per side:

chickenbrowning

Next we added the spices, onion, garlic, and ginger:

spicesandonionadded

The stew was stirred to combine everything, then brought to a simmer with the lid on.  Once simmering, it went into the low, low oven where it very gently braised for about two-and-a-half hours, until the chicken was starting to separate from the bone of its own accord:

chickencooked

The chicken was ridiculously tender at this point, so it was removed carefully one piece at a time with tongs so we could finish the sauce, adding the olives, preserved lemon slices, parsley, and cilantro:

olivesinsauce

The sauce was stirred together and simmered over the stove for about ten minutes, just enough time for it to thicken slightly and for the olives and preserved lemons to heat through:

saucefinished

To serve, we topped some good ol’ American instant couscous with a piece of chicken and a generous scoop of sauce, making sure to get some lemons and olives in each serving:

chickentagine

First, we must report (proudly) that this method of extremely low and slow cooking produced the most tender, juicy chicken we’ve ever had.  The spices, olives, and lemons are subtle and complex flavors that make this dish taste unlike anything else we’ve featured here.  Our instant American couscous, while certainly no match for the real thing, was a fluffy sponge underneath it all, ready and willing to absorb any flavors and juices presented.  Quite simply, this dish was a complete home run.

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