Thursday, January 21, 2010

Chicken Cat Tajine, a la Layla

Because cooking is such a big part of my life here in Morocco, I’m going to try to make more of a concerted effort to post my favorite Moroccan recipes here. One, so that you can glimpse a little bit more into my life. Two, so that I don’t forget the recipes. And Three, so that you can try them yourselves!

I have been taking informal cooking lessons from a fabulous woman named Layla. Though she’s only 26, she’s an incredible chef who is often called upon by tour groups to give private cooking demonstrations or to cater. She cleans my language school part-time and lives with her new husband nearby. Every few weeks or so, she and I get together and go shopping at the Marche Central in the afternoon, then we cook after class that evening. She has taught me all sorts of fabulous dishes, which I’m trying my hardest to reproduce without her. In addition to her invaluable recipes and access to her favorite fruit, veggie, chicken, and nut vendors, she also shares with me information about the science and art of cooking and eating in Morocco. Why do you prepare dishes this way? Why do you cook the vegetables in this order? Why does it have to be presented with this symmetry? Why do men and women eat separately sometimes? What is so funny about the word “raisin” in Darija?** Why is Fes famous for Pastilla and Tangiers famous for Tajine? Why do Moroccans eat at certain hours?

She is a la fois a cordon bleu chef, an anthropologist, a psychologist, a chemist, a prankster, and a big sister to me. Most of the following recipes are straight out of her own head, as she’s been cooking since the ripe old age of 13. Just so you know, all measurements are approximate and all recipes are in stream-of-consciousness, just like the real cooking lesson. We never use measuring utensils, aside from teacups and tablespoons and our own eyeballs. I’ll start with my personal favorite:

Chicken Apricot Tajine (Or, as I was accidentally calling it in Arabic: “Chicken Cat Tajine”)

According to (yes, there is a “A tagine is named after the special pot in which it is cooked. The traditional pot is made from clay, consisting of two parts, a base unit which is flat and circular with low sides, and a large conical and dome-shaped cover that rests inside the base ring during cooking [over live coals for a long time]. The cover is so designed to promote the return of all condensation to the bottom. Tagines in Moroccan cuisine are slow-cooked dishes braised at low temperatures, resulting in tender meat with aromatic vegetables and sauce.” Enticing, huh?

I don’t have an actual tajine pot, so I just use a big soup pot, then transfer it to a nice platter for serving. If you have an actual tajine, you should be able to place it directly on your stovetop flame, and leave it for an hour. Be sure not to fill it up too much, or it will boil over. Real tajines are made in single-serving portions only.

1. Buy chicken from live chicken vendor. Pay about 3 dirham for a tip for him to kill and feather it.

2. Cut up chicken and wash very well, removing excess fat and innerds. (Hint: about ¼ kilo per person should suffice). Rub with coarse salt and wash again. Cut into logical pieces (ie. Legs, breast, wings, etc)

3. Cut 4 medium onions and 7 cloves garlic

4. Grate ½ large tomato

5. Tie cilantro and parsely into little bundles with string. (This is so that you don’t have floppy, slimy pieces of brown herbs floating around in your sauce at the end. You remove the bundles just before serving)

6. Place all these ingredients in a large pot. Add 1 Tbsp black pepper, 2 Tbsp ginger, 1 Tbsp salt, and 1 tsp Saffron (or a pinch of saffron stems, if you have them).

7. Add ½ cup vegetable oil and ½ cup olive oil and 1 Cup water

8. Bring to a boil for 15 minutes. Don’t stir!

9. After 15 minutes of letting all the flavors boil into the chicken, add 4 cups water and stir.

10. Simmer 1 hour, stirring very occasionally

11. While that’s rollin’, Boil ½ kilo of dried apricots for about 20 minutes in a separate pot, until light-colored and puffy-soft.***

12. Pour out most of the apricot water, leaving just enough to cover the bottom of the pot. Add 4-5 Tbsp sugar and 1 Tbsp cinnamon. Simmer on low heat about 5 mins, until a sauce starts to thicken.

13. Remember your chicken? After about an hour it should be falling off the bone. Delicious! (Ladeed, as they say here). Remove from the pot and arrange on the platter. Boil the sauce a little longer to thicken. Add a liiiittle bit of cornstarch if you like, for even thicker sauce.

14. How to arrange it: you can put rice or couscous on a large platter, put the chicken pieces in the center on top, the apricots around it, and some sauce on the side. Or else, just serve the chicken by itself and apricots on top. Moroccans eat it with everyone sitting around the big dish, using pieces of bread as their utensil to pick it up, spitting out the bones. Right hands in the dish only, please!

**Answer: the word “Zbibi” is dangerously similar to the slang word for a man’s genitalia. I know you all wanted the answer to this one.

***There are many sweet alternatives to apricots, which follow the same basic idea. You can boil prunes, raisins, figs, or pieces of quince. Drain most of the water, add cinnamon and sugar (nutmeg if you’re feeling festive). Simmer into a thick sauce and serve over the meat. Prunes are best with lamb, and raisins are traditional with couscous.

****Photo credits:,


molly rae said...

so, what's the actual slang word then? I want to have it in my ammo stores when I get really angry at an annoying customer... or doug :)

wendy said...

Thanks for the recipe! Amazing to be eating sweet fruit with meat.