Why It Works
- Marinating the chicken with spices and lemon juice beforehand results in more tender, flavorful chicken.
- Using a regular cooking pot instead of a traditional tagine allows for a more consistent and even cooking process that prevents moisture from evaporating too early.
This recipe—chicken m’qualli with olives and preserved lemon—is one of the most common ways of preparing a m’qualli in Morocco. As a child, I wasn’t a big fan of meat, but I became enamored with this tagine because of deghmira, the flavorful sauce of reduced onions. I loved it so much that I used to eat it with a spoon, and my mother would prepare the dish for me each time I visited from university.
Bold, sweet, fragrant—but also sour and bitter with the addition of olives and preserved lemon—m’qualli carries a myriad of flavors that make it a special and comforting meal. The word “tagine” refers to both the earthenware pot with a conical lid as well as the dish prepared within the pot—a meal that has become one of the most emblematic of all Moroccan dishes. Hundreds of years ago, North African nomads used the conical cooking vessel known as a tagine as a portable oven, enabling them to cook any time while on the move.
The base of a traditional tagine is wide and shallow, with a conical lid that sits on the base. Together, the two components constitute a sort of clay oven that is placed on a low flame for cooking. While the food slowly cooks, steam rises into the cone, condenses, then drips back down into the dish, keeping the ingredients constantly basted, moist, and tender. This cooking process and the resulting meal are very similar to stew and braises.
The challenge with using tagines today is they come in so many styles. There are the traditional clay tagines, but there are also cast iron tagines commonly sold at cookware stores that match the form of the original if not the material. These differences end up making a big difference in how the tagine cooks, which makes it difficult to write a recipe that works across all formats. For example, a dish’s cooking time can vary a lot depending on the type of tagine used: A proper old-fashioned clay tagine will result in a significantly longer cooking time, while a cast-iron pot in the shape of a tagine will take just a touch longer than a regular pot. This could also explain why nowadays, even many in Morocco prepare their tagines in other dishware, including casseroles, Dutch ovens, or even pressure cookers.
While the tagine is commonly described as a Moroccan stew, it’s important to note that within Moroccan cuisine, there are more specific categories of tagine that indicate the way they are prepared and/or the ingredients used. Just as there are a variety of curries in Thai cooking, there are also different types of tagines within Moroccan cuisine.
Each type of tagine can be prepared with a choice of meat, fish, and/or vegetables, and can be customized with dried fruits, preserved lemons, and olives. The single element that most tagines have in common is the fact that they are all onion based. Onions add flavor and sweetness, but they also bring texture: as the onions cook, they thicken into a jammy sauce called deghmira.
There are four main categories of tagines in Morocco:
- M’qualli: This is the tagine featured in the recipe below, and is cooked in olive oil and seasoned with turmeric, ginger, and saffron. M’qualli has a vivid deep yellow color and can be made savory or with a bit of sweetness. A common way to prepare m’qualli is to remove the meat from the pot once it’s cooked, set it aside, then let the onions cook and turn into deghmira.
- M’hammer: This type of tagine is cooked in butter and seasoned generously with sweet paprika and ground cumin, spices that lend it a brownish-red hue. “M’hammer” comes from “ahmar,” the Arabic word for red, and refers to the color of the sauce and the use of paprika in the seasoning. The meat in m’hammer is cooked twice: first in the pot with the spices, then it’s removed and either shallow-fried or roasted.
- M’chermel: This type of tagine is seasoned with chermoula, a marinade of olive oil, sweet paprika, ground cumin, lemon juice, cilantro, parsley, and garlic.
- Tomato tagine: Tomato-based tagines are typically cooked in olive oil and seasoned with ground cumin, paprika, and garlic. Towards the end of the cooking process, eggs and/or meatballs are added to the tomato sauce.
While these four kinds of tagines are the most common, there are others that are more unique, such as m’rouzia (a sweet and savory lamb tagine with raisins) or k’dra (a savory tagine with chickpeas).
What makes a tagine special is the way the spices transform during the cooking process. The most important ingredient for this to happen properly is time: Making a tagine means giving the spices enough time to slowly steep and meld. The longer a tagine cooks, the more complex its flavors will be.