By Yan Kie Man*
Clay pot cooking is an old and modern way for cooking food in pots. Have you ever made food with a clay pot? Maybe cooking with clay pots is part of your culture or what some people do in your country.
In many cultures they use different techniques for preparing food in clay pots. In the Asian cuisine, clay pots are sometimes used for specific dishes, so it’s not a daily activity to cook with clay pots. In the Chinese cuisine they use 砂鍋, ‘sha guo’ for pottery dishes. It’s a round pot with a big grip on it. In Japan they have the 土鍋, ‘donabe’ which looks similar to the sha guo. The difference is that the donabe got two small grips on both sides of the pot.
Also some European countries are familiar with clay pot cooking. The Römertopf in Germany is actually a Roman stew pot. Besides the classic one, other Römertopfs are also available, such as smaller pots for garlic stew, potatoes, bananas and apples.
In Ethiopia, they use the shakla dist, a traditional clay pot for many dishes such as meat stews and vegetable stews.
Many people nowadays are more and more interested in cooking with clay pots, such as with a Moroccan tajine. They like to use either a traditional handmade brown tajine or a modern tajine made of cast iron. The traditional tajines can be glazed or unglazed. The tajine is a Berber dish that is named after the earthenware pot in which it is cooked. The traditional method of cooking with a tagine is to place it over coals.
Tajine probably derived its name from ته چین, ‘Tah-Chin’ a Persian word, meaning ‘laid at the bottom’. Another theory is that it has Greeks roots.
A tajine consists of two parts: a flat base unit and circular with low sides and a large cone- or dome-shaped cover that sits on the base during cooking. The cover is designed to promote the return of all condensation to the bottom. So that keeps the food moisty.
A tajine is traditionally cooked over hot charcoal leaving an adequate space between the coals and the tajine pot to avoid having the temperature rise too fast. Large bricks of charcoal are purchased specifically for their ability to stay hot for hours. Smaller pieces of charcoal are reserved for cooking brochettes and other grilled meats. Other methods are to use a tajine in a slow oven or on a gas or electric stove top, on lowest heat necessary to keep the stew simmering gently. A diffuser – a circular piece of aluminium placed between the tajine and burner – is used to evenly distribute the stove’s heat. European manufacturers have created tajines with heavy cast-iron bottoms that can be heated on a cooking stove to a high temperature. This permits the browning of meat and vegetables before cooking.
Cooking with a tajine is for slow cooking, but if you do the slow cooking in a pan, the result will be slightly different. The brown glazed or unglazed tajines are used for cooking. The colourful decorated tajines can only be used as decorative serving dishes. If the lid is colourful on the outside and brown on the inside, then it’s no problem for cooking, but if the whole tagine is colourful, then it’s only for decoration or can be used as a plate. Because what will happen if you cook in a very colourful decorated glazed tajine? Those colours contain lead, which can cause you lead poisoning.
Moroccan and Algerian tajine dishes are slow-cooked savory stews, typically made with sliced meat, poultry or fish together with vegetables or fruit. Spices, nuts, and dried fruits are also used. Common spices include ginger, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, and saffron. Paprika and chili are used in vegetable tajines. The sweet and sour combination is common in tajine dishes like lamb with dates and spices. Tajines are generally served with bread. Because the domed or cone-shaped lid of the tajine pot traps steam and returns the condensed liquid to the pot, a little bit of water is needed to cook meats and vegetables. This method of cooking is practical in areas with a lack of water or where public water is not yet available.
So basically you can put all kinds of meat, fruits and vegetables in a tajine. It’s easier to use meat that is already defrosted. When it comes to vegetables, root vegetables are mainly used for a tajine dish. When it comes to fruits, often dried fruits are used such as dried apricots, prunes, raisins and dates.
What Tunisians refer to as a “tajine” is very different from the Moroccan dish. Tunisian tajine is more like an Italian frittata or an eggah, an Arab omelet.
What important is before you start using the tajine is that you have to put the tajine in water first for 24 hours. After that you can put the tajine on a stove, on low heat and rub the tajine with olive oil. So the tajine will absorb the oil and it’s ready to use. Remember to always use low heat when you use a tajine, because otherwise the tajine will break. If there’s a small crack in the unglazed tajine from the inside, you can fix it by putting the tajine in the oven. Add some milk on the crack and let it boil in the oven for a couple of hours. Let it cool in the oven. The next day you can wash the tajine. If the milk goes through the bottom, it might not work. Also don’t forget to leave the tajine on the stove after cooking or if you put it on a table, always put it on a cloth, because the tajine is hot and if you put a clay pot on a cold surface, it’ll crack.
I personally always had good experiences with Moroccan restaurants. Their food prepared with tajines is very healthy, delicious, not high-fat and it became very popular since like a decade ago in the west. You can make all kinds of dishes with a tajine, whether it’s North African food, western food.
Some famous people are into clay pot cooking as well. Like Paula Wolfert, an American author, a specialist in Mediterranean food has also written books about Moroccan cuisine, especially about clay pot cooking. During an interview with an old friend she said: ‘Oh I’ve been doing it for 50 years. I started my first clay pot in New York, on 6th Avenue and 18th Street.’ Queen Máxima of the Netherlands visited ‘El Moro’, a Moroccan shop in Utrecht back in 2009. She was friendly received by the owners of the shop. Besides having a conversation with the owner of the shop about how the shop was opened with help from micro-credit, she was also introduced to Moroccan and Tunisian pottery. Another person that is mainly famous on the net is: Alia Al-Kasimi, a YouTuber from ‘Cooking with Alia’, who is passionate about the Moroccan cuisine, often shares family recipes on her personal website and her Youtube channel. I like the work that she has done so far with tajine cooking. It’s not that she only cooks, but she also explains about tajines and food. On her website she says: ‘For me Moroccan cuisine is more than just food for the body; it’s comfort for my soul’.
*Yan Kie Man resides in the south of the Netherlands.