Cooking Moroccan stews Part 2: how to handle a stew/marqa from start to finish

I have witness an interesting discussion between a few people on whether Moroccan cooking requires browning meat and birds or not.

In the panel, there were Moroccan cooking amateurs, Moroccan home cooks as well as some Moroccan food experts. One thing for sure, the discussion shows the diversity of Moroccan food..

While this was happening, I did spot a small confusion related to the word "browning" which maybe got lost in translation.

So, do we brown the meat or not? when do we add the spices? when do we add the oil? how the we start cooking a Moroccan dish with marq'a (sauce) from scratch anyway?

There are few practices depending on the regions and sometimes depending on the families, a sort of secret of the trade.

The old method of cooking consisted of making a sort of runny spice rub then rubbing the pieces of meat or the bird with it. They will be then left to infuse all the spices.

The spice rub will be slightly liquefied with water and not oil as opposed to other methods around the world. Then the cook moves to the first method of cooking mentioned below. Do people still do that? I can't answer for all the Moroccans out there unfortunately. I can only say that some still take time to pre-marinate their meats and that's good news.

The boiling method

Unlike the browning/searing method commonly used in some Western cooking, we would like to achieve 2 things here:

  • Make sure the meat absorbs all the flavours from the spices and all what's around it. The browning method will rather stop this process as the meat develops a crust that will disturb this process. While people believed that searing meat traps the moist inside and makes it tender, cooking this way as well makes the meat easy to pull off the bone especially when it takes time to cook and goes beyond the stringy point. 
Bear in mind that meat in Moroccan cooking should reach a falling-off-the-bone sort of tenderness and should be cooked through.
  • Make sure the meat infuses its flavour in the sauce to make it even better (instead of adding bouillon). The slow cooking method in Moroccan cooking allows the concentration of flavours by the very end of cooking time.


In this method, we place the cooking pot over medium heat. We add a few spoons of water so anything that comes after does not stick. We start adding the pieces of meat or birds one by one and ideally not overlapping. Either we start layering the chopped onions or the meat.

Marinated meat, spices and onions are layered in a big cooking
pot without browning and cooking over low heat 
We carry on with the salt and other spices, onions, herbs, garlic (if the recipe call for that) and we pour enough water to cover the ingredients. Give the mix a few minutes until in starts bubbling. Add the fat (smen, olive oil..) from the sides of the pot. We cover the pot and reduce the heat.

In this method, it's more like boiling the meat over low heat in a fragrant water. As the meat cooks and water reduces, the flavours concentrate as you are actually making your own bouillon.

If we are making a vegetable tagine, we wait until the meat cooks to add them to the sauce (we can pile them on top of the chicken and cook straight away altogether since chicken takes less time).


If the recipe calls for a few minutes of roasting, fish out the meat /bird which you place in the oven while you carry on reducing the level of liquid in the pot to reach a thick consistency.

Some people like to have a runny marq'a (sauce) to soak their bread in but some dishes really can't taste that good if they're not properly reduced, M'hammer or M'qalli are one of them.


In this case, we would start with boiling then we get to browning (throught roasting) and reducing (to concentrate flavours). We kind of reverse the process of the usual browning commonly known in the Western world.

Getting every bits from the pot and concentrating the flavours
at the end of the cooking

The reason why fat is added from the sides of the pot is to allow the meat to keep "communicating" with the spices (Ref: Khadija Bensdira who is a great reference in Authentic Moroccan cooking for decades, she covers all types of cooking accross Morocco).

This sort of cooking is called "Makhzani" in reference to the Royal Palaces who keeps the centuries old traditions alive.

It's also one of methods followed by the old folks in my family.

A form of searing

Instead of starting with a few spoons of water in the pot. This method consists of adding a fat element (a mix of olive and vegetable oil) then onions and meat or meat and onions followed by spices. The ingredients are stirred and we cover the pot which should be on medium.

While searing meat to brown it is about high heat to caramelize the surface and form a crust, this Moroccan practice traps the moist into the pot by covering it. So can we still talk about searing and browning? In Moroccan, we refer to this step as Chahhar which intend that I infuse the meat with the other flavours around it, or Q'alli which has a hint of frying in it.

In this tagine, I started with heating the oil then I added onions, chicken and
spices which were covered for a few minutes until the onions are transparent

In this method, the ingredients render their own liquid and blend from a few seconds to a few minutes without any intention of browning the meat the conventional way. A bit of water can be added before we add the rest of it.

We top the ingredients with the necessary water needed and carry on the cooking as instructed in the recipe. 


Chicken does not take much time to cook so vegetables are
 placed on top at the same time

This method is quite common and we do tend to use one of them depending on the dish.

Both methods give slightly different depth of flavours but the first method allows the meat or bird to take in some colouring from the spices used while the second one does not. Each one of them has its fans.

Browning

Fat is heated on a medium heat, comes in the meat with salt to be seared for a 5 to 7 minutes until the browning stage.

The rest of the ingredients will be added after this step and the rest is just like the methods above.

Fatima Hal, an international reference in Moroccan cooking has used this method in many of her recipes (See The Food of Morocco and Le Grand Livre de la cuisine Marocaine).

Browning is not a method used in the cooking of Fes and I can't really tell if this is an old method as far as the cooking of "Imperial cities are concerned". 

In his book of "Delicacies of the Table, the Best Foods and Types of Dishes" written by Ibn Razin al-Tujibi between 1228 and 1243, he mostly describes the 1st and 2nd cooking methods which happen to be the method I grew up familiar with.

Having said that, if you have difficulties to reproduce a dish you had in Morocco, one of the reason could be that the cook has started cooking the dish differently than what you may be doing. Knowing about it is a good starting point.








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