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Tagine in heartwarming spoonfuls

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I had my first taste of tagine on a bitterly cold winter’s night in London. There is something terribly romantic about softly falling snow. The cold always sharpens one’s appetite, and you long for something “rib-sticking” and the kind of food that will spread warmth to your bones. We entered a Moroccan restaurant and the heady redolence of Moroccan spices immediately transported me to warmer climes.

The tagine arrived at the table on a bed of fluffy couscous embellished with a scattering of fresh, green coriander, accompanied by a side of searingly hot harissa. Moroccan harissa is a condiment made with a paste of hot red chilies and garlic and cumin and it is not for the faint of heart. But then, I’ve never been faint-hearted.

I took my first bite gingerly not knowing what to expect. The only way to describe a well-made lamb tagine is that it feels like edible luxury. The lamb was meltingly tender and was falling of the bone. There were chickpeas in there too, as tender as the lamb. The lamb, the vegetables and the prunes must have been cooked for hours together for them to have abandoned their individual tastes and acquire this plush personality.

It was subtle, it was mildly sweet with a hint of sharpness and eaten with the couscous it was utterly delicious. A marriage made in heaven.

There is nothing even remotely new-fangled “fusion” about Middle Eastern cooking. It is deeply steeped in tradition. There is loyalty and respect for custom. Like genes, it is passed down through the generations.

When I later read about tagine I discovered what an ancient dish it is. It has been around since the late eighth century, since the time of Harun al-Rashid, ruler of the Islamic empire and fifth caliph of the Abbasid dynasty. It is even referred to, in “Alf Laylah Wa Laylah: The Thousand and One Nights,” the Arabic collection of stories from the ninth century.

Tagine is made in a cooking utensil by the same name. It was originally, and still is, used by the Twarg. The Twarg people are nomads that roam the Moroccan desert. As a cooking utensil goes it is ideal since it’s so versatile. It’s a portable oven, cooking pot and serving dish all in one. It is just a shallow footed terracotta bowl with a tall, conical top. Made of clay, it is ingenious because the tall, conical top traps enough steam to allow the dish to cook slowly and this helps seal in the aroma and intensify the flavors. And this is what creates the magic. In the desert of Morocco, tagine is cooked on a charcoal brazier also made of clay. It is called the majmar.

A lot of Middle Eastern cooks claim that tagines from Fez, Morocco, are the best. In Morocco, practically anything is turned into a tagine: meat, chicken, fish, or vegetables. A typical tagine might have lamb with raisins or prunes and almonds, chicken with olives and preserved lemon, chicken with dried apricots, and meatballs (or kefta) with tomatoes and eggs.

Because tagine takes so long to cook, most women start preparing it as soon as breakfast is over. It is considered a heavy meal and is traditionally served for lunch with harissa, wedges of preserved lemons and copious quantities of mint tea.

When I first consumed tagine in London, heavy it was. But satisfyingly, sensuously so. I felt the warmth spread to my toes and a delicious lethargy steal over me. That night, I slept dreamlessly. As the snow fell and fell.

The chef at the restaurant wouldn’t give me the recipe for his tagine and I have never been able to reproduce the same taste. However, this is a classic recipe from Claudia Roden’s “A New Book of Middle Eastern Cookery.”

Tagine with Prunes:

1 large or 2 small chickens
1 onion, sliced
1/4 teaspoon powdered saffron
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
2 onions finely chopped or grated
500 grams prunes, soaked overnight
Salt to taste

Wash the chicken and put it in a large pan along with the sliced onion. Sprinkle with saffron, ginger and salt to taste, cover with water and simmer gently, covered, until the chicken is tender and the stock is reduced. After about 45 minutes of cooking, add the grated onions.

When the chicken is tender, add the prunes and continue with the pan uncovered for about half an hour, or until the prunes are soft and the sauce is considerably reduced.

Serve the chicken cut into pieces and covered with the sauce and prunes, with plain rice or couscous.

(Umita Venkataraman of Al Arabiya is an accomplished chef, and a veteran of the advertising world. She covers fashion, food and the arts for http://english.alarabiya.net. She can be reached at: umita.venkataraman@mbc.net)