A tagine or tajine is a dish named after the distinctive cone-shaped dish it is made in. Traditionally made from painted or glazed clay, and used for cooking over coals, tagines are now made from a wide variety of materials for cooking on both coals and a gas or electric stovetop, or even induction or oven cooking.
Tagines came from the Berber culture, and are now used throughout North Africa but most commonly in Morocco, where meat, fish or chicken are cooked with dried fruits, spices and nuts. A sweet and sour combination using cumin, coriander and cinnamon, as well as other spices and sometimes even chilli, is the hallmark of a classic tagine.
That said, traditional tagine recipes are intensely regional and if you're travelling through Morocco, for example, tagines in the north will be completely different from those in the south. Recipes differ in the use of oil or ghee and spice combinations.
The lid traps steam, returning the condensed liquid to the pot, so little water is needed for cooking. In countries where water is scarce, it's a practical method of cooking.
It's also very simple, gentle simmering follows minimal preparation – chopping onions, meat and vegetables and adding spices. Chermoula, a mix of herbs, oil, lemon juice, salt, garlic and cumin, is used to marinade fish or chicken before cooking in the tagine. Meat is usually browned before spices, fruit and nuts are added to the pot. Many recipes advise against stirring the dish while cooking or adding too much water. Slow cooking, so that meat falls off the bone to be scooped up with bread or couscous, is the end goal.
Tagines are usually served with couscous or bread.
Since Maha opened its doors in 2008, award-winning owner, chef and author Shane Delia says this simple tagine has made a regular appearance on the menu. The recipe may not be traditional – it's cooked quickly over a stovetop - but Delia says it draws on the flavours and techniques of classic Middle Eastern and North African cooking - inexpensive chicken shanks are matched with the luxury and sweetness of dried Iranian figs, silky eggplant, the crunch of nuts and aromatic spices.
“After my travels through Morocco I was really inspired by the use of meat, sweet fruits, nuts and vegetables in the countless tagine combinations. I wanted to create my own tagine that was easy to make and could be enjoyed by the whole family.”
Delia says children love this dish made with chicken shanks as they can pick up the bones and eat with their fingers.
On the table in just over half an hour, this is an easy recipe that will quickly become a mid-week favourite.
Using a tagine
Delia says that if you want to make an authentic tagine you must use this classic pot. The distinctive shape and narrow lid allows moisture and flavour to keep circulating with the pot, guaranteeing a moist, flavourful dish. The classic tagine is made from glazed clay, but there are now versions available for all types of stovetop and cooking methods.
Of course, you can still make a delicious dish in an ordinary pot, but it won't be exactly the same.
For the same reason, Delia encourages cooks to use ghee, rather than oil or butter, in order to achieve the tagine's distinctive flavour. Ghee keeps for a long time, so if you buy it for this dish, you'll have plenty of time to use it in other recipes before it's past its best. A combination of vegetable oil and butter is an acceptable substitute although you won't be able to recreate ghee's signature nutty flavour and richness.
A chicken shank has the skin and joint edge of the drumstick removed. You can also use wingettes, drumettes or ribs in this recipe.
It's important not to overcook the chicken. Chicken stewed too long will fall off the bone, creating an unappetising mess of bones and meat in the dish.
Buy in small quantities and use quickly to get the maximum flavour form your spices. If you can, buy spices whole and grind in a mortar and pestle before using for the freshest flavour.
Chicken, eggplant and fig tagine
½ cup of ghee
3 cinnamon quills
2 star anise
4 cardamom pods, cracked
110g blanched whole almonds
3 tblsp cumin powder
3 tblsp coriander powder
20 strands saffron
1 onion, peeled and diced
4 cloves crushed garlic
32 chicken shanks
3 tblsp honey
10 whole dried white Iranian figs, rehydrated in warm water for ten minutes until soft
4 lebanese eggplant, sliced into 2cm discs
500ml chicken stock
Coriander sprigs to serve
Place the ghee, cinnamon, star anise, cloves and cardamom in a tagine and simmer on the stove for a few minutes until the spices begin to release their aroma.
Add the nuts, cumin, coriander and saffron and stir until the nuts are golden.
Add the onion, garlic, chicken, salt and honey and stir until the chicken is well coated in the spice mix and the honey begins to caramelise.
Add the drained figs, eggplant and stock, bring to a simmer, cover with a lid and reduce the temperature to low. After 20 minutes, give the chicken a stir. If the tagine seems dry, add a little more stock or water. Cook for another 10 minutes.
Serve with a garnish of coriander and a bowl of rice.
If you can't find small Iranian figs, use brown figs, cutting them into quarters before adding to the tagine. Use other varieties of eggplant, making sure they are cut into small uniform sized pieces.
Substitute chicken shanks for other cuts of chicken, or use lamb, adjusting the cooking time until the lamb is tender.
Add chilli for a kick of heat.
Correction: The original version of this story listed the serves for this recipe incorrectly. It has been updated in the text.