Monday, 24 September 2012


It’s hot in North Africa in August. The month of Ramadan, while interesting and impressive to witness, is perhaps not the best time to travel to the Maghreb in search of foodist inspiration. A sunny day on the Andalucía coast, a broken car window and a missing bag (handily filled with all the steal-worthy stuff) is a tiresome way to discover that travel insurance isn’t worth the paperless ether it’s written on... Ah, the pearls of wisdom we uncovered this summer!

Of course we still had a great time: holidays are brilliant! The car was granted convalescence in a posh car park in Algeciras and we dithered around Morocco via boat, train, taxi, bus and smellybus, getting into as many adventures as 45° would allow.

I was excited about the prospect of revisiting the food-stalls at the Djemaa el Fna in Marrakesh. At first it was very disappointing: a massive tourist trap; fun but frustrating. Later, though, we found a little adventure in the shape of a sheep’s head. They’re genuinely delicious. Really. We tried cow’s titty, which was a bit strange but perfectly okay. It was dense and not overly interesting – it reminded me of the time I cooked lamb’s fries*... The mutton face was great though. Like a lamby pig’s trotter. Not everyone’s cup of tea perhaps, but if you can cope with a pig’s foot for your tea then you should find something to love...** The heads have the brains removed and are then boiled. They come straight from the pot onto your plate, so dispelling any worries about bad hygiene, and are topped with some sultry juices from the other item on sale:  Beef Tanjia. The sauce was beefy and bold, but also delicate with saffron and preserved lemon. Yumity-Yum! Grouped in the centre of the market, the guys who sold this stuff were ten times more chilled than the barbecue merchants who clawed at us for custom. Clearly not too many tourists bothered them - and with their gruesome displays it is no little wonder - but even if you’re not a weirdo offal fetishist, go see them to try the beef stew; it’s not a bit scary and it’s the real deal.

 *That’s bollocks to me and you.  I’ve only tried it once... But to be fair I don’t think I nailed it.
**That sentence could be read as a philosophical statement. Harsh, I’d say.

Tanjia is peculiar to Marrakesh. The man who told us about it made it sound cool so we stayed another day and found someone to show us how it’s done. The sneak preview at the market came by chance and now we knew it would be worth the effort!

Like plenty of others, the dish is named after the dish – a terracotta urn, tall and with handles and a lip at the top which ready it for its rather particular cooking method. Tanjia is cooking for boys – when women make it, it doesn’t taste right, Brahim says. Young men in Marrakesh, perhaps at the stage before they have a wife with a stove to cook them their tea, have developed a pretty fancy alternative to a dirty keebab.  Ingredients to a simple stew are plonked in a pot, sealed tight shut, and then carried to the Hammam where they spend the day gently braising in a bath of hot embers from the wood-fired oven that powers the steamy local wash house. Bread and a bowl, and maybe a chum or two, are all that are needed in the evening to complement the finished dish, carried, piffling and steaming through the back streets of town and back home, for a baddass bachelor beast of a feast!

Brahim got me a pot for about 2 quid, and set it to soak overnight, as, when new, the tanjia has a tendency to drink all your gravy. We did a spot of morning shopping: a kilo of beef on the bone, shin or suchlike, pickled lemons, garlic and some Smen (now, now... it’s salty fermented butter. Oh...). I’d already been charmed by a spice vendor, so we didn’t need any more of the two remaining ingredients: cumin and (proper, pungent) saffron. Back to our hotel kitchen to put it all together. This was almost alarmingly simple. The meat had been chopped into large chunks by the butcher; we gave it a rinse in fresh water and stuffed it in the pot. Six or seven cloves of garlic were vaguely chopped and went in too; about ¾ preserved lemon, some of its innards discarded, the rest roughly torn and into the mix; 1 ½ tsp cumin; a small pinch of my saffron was infused in ¼ pint of water, that went in, along with the same amount of olive oil and a good blob of salty Smen. No salt, there’s enough in the lemon and butter. Three or four layers of brown paper, supplied by the butcher, were tied over the top to provide a tight-fitting lid, and we were ready to roll! I walked rather proudly, pot in hand, through the little maze of alleyways to the hammam. Brahim explained that this type of cooking was infinitely variable; it is quite normal to cook tanjias of chicken, rabbit, lamb or fish (conger eel works well), with or without vegetables, with just a little variation on the amount of water (none for chicken), the cooking time, and maybe the spicing.

Click on any photo to get a better look
We got in through the back door and were led into the dark cellar – cluttered with sawdust and bits of kindling – that housed the oven. It was blazing, of course, so that the patrons upstairs could sweat out and scrub away the filth of the day, or the week or whatever*. Adjacent to the fire was a hump of ash, nestled within which were several pots of different sizes from my brother bachelors of the neighbourhood. The boy who tended the fire took my tanjia, gave it a connoisseur’s shake, snuggled it into the embers and handed me a small metal ticket with which to retrieve my dinner in six hour’s time. Shockran. Ya la!

* or a lifetime, if you’re like me. These places are a humiliating lesson in how dirty we are all the time – the layers and layers of filth that came off me... But, by crikey, I was clean when I left!

When we returned, the fire boy had tidied up. Our urn was sputtering along nicely with the others in their smoky lair. He picked it up and gave it another shake, pronounced that it was indeed done, and rigged us up a wire handle with which to carry it home. He got a lobbo for his sterling work and we got a pot full of feast!