Cooking Moroccan stews Part 1: terminology and methods of cookings

Many people automatically link Moroccan cooking to tagine, these conical vessels which are sold in all different materials and colours.

Plain cooking tagines (unglazed at the front and glazed at the back)
Generally speaking, the tagine has 2 reasons to be our preferred cooking vessel: 
  • The way ingredients cook due to a specific circular way of  cooking which steams the food from the top while it infuses in fragrant sauce from the bottom.
  • The earthy flavour coming from the tagine itself, which, as it ages, seals itself with the previous dishes cooked in it. It becomes the personal signature of its owner. THAT my friends, can't happen with a cast iron or any non-clay tagine no matter how expensive it is. The only option here is to own a proper clay tagine, ideally unglazed from the inside.
A tagine used for serving but not for cooking
I have gone through the subject of cooking the Tagine the Moroccan way previously. Make sure you read the post dedicated to it.

Tagra (the one with a lid), also used to cook stews and keep the bread or baghrir dough for proofing
The good news is, if you don't own a cooking tagine, you can still cook beautiful Moroccan dishes.  Actually, many Moroccans use enamel pots and pressure cookers (not my favourite thing but comes in handy in some cases) on a daily basis, especially working people. You will only have to balance the flavours and know a few things to start cooking Moroccan dishes.

Obviously, like most of the other Cuisines, Moroccan cooking also uses the known methods such as cooking stews with broths (or marq'a) and boiling (Maslouk), steaming (M'bakhkhar), grilling (Mechoui), baking (fel ferrane), roasting (M'hammar)...

However, if you are interested in Moroccan cooking or are already cooking authentic Moroccan food, you should be aware of these words referring to a set of spices, a sort of code that will help you figure out how a saucy dish is being made Moroccan-style. That could save your face in front of your mother-in-law in case she's Moroccan.


M'charmel

There are two angles to this word.

This word refers to marinating an  ingredient (meat, vegetables) with spices and/or herbs. We can basically chermel (marinate) something and set it aside to infuse before cooking. Many Moroccan dishes require this step to ensure the meat tastes at its best. 

Veg and prawn tagine


Technically, you can chermel a bird then cook it M'qalli-style or M'hammer-style.

M'charmel of chicken with chargrilled peppers
Brain M'charmel

But M'charmel is also a method of cooking using most of the usual ingredients we use in our Moroccan chermoula: cumin, paprika, salt, garlic, fresh coriander and/or parsley, lemon juice or vinegar, preserved lemons (depending on the recipe), ground ginger and pepper (Some m'charmel dishes will have these added).

Moroccan cauliflower stew (see previous post)

The iconic baked-fish smothered with chermoula. Mchermel as method of cooking 
goes very well with fish and seafood

The diced and steamed vegetables are mixed with chermoula while the chicken
has been massage with it. All was steamed and it's going to be roasted for
 a M'hammer finish (oven-roasted in this case)
Mchermel can be spicy hot with the addition of soudaniya (equivalent of cayenne pepper).

M'qalli/Mqualli/M'qualli

Mqalli is a word that derives from "fried". Unlike Kadra (see below) where the sauce (marka) is rather light and more like a broth or consommé, Mqualli's sauce is rather oily and should be reduced to nothing. 

Nowadays, the meat or chicken used in Mqalli goes to the oven in a second cooking step after it has cooked in a sauce. In the past, it used to be literally fried and served on top of the reduced sauce. We would pile up the layers on the dish following a specific logic depending on the Mqalli dish cooked.

Obviously the most famous M'qalli in Morocco has to be chicken with green olives and preserved lemon (browse the chicken recipes in this blog). Its thick onion gravy, a result of a long process of cooking and a few tactics, is an incredible concentration of flavours: the fragrant broth where the chicken has cooked is used to cook the chopped onions to tenderness and silkiness.

That sauce (called daghmira) has some secrets in the making and in the finishing. If one has to choose between both, you could literally skip the chicken but fight for an extra serving of that onion gravy.

Deboned chicken and stuffed with ground chicken meat, all cooked M'qalli-style

Mqalli cooking must have ginger, turmeric, saffron, smen. Depending on recipes, garlic, onions, coriander and/or parsley can be added. 


The first steps of M'qalli chicken being cooked by old cooks for a wedding ceremony
A Moroccan favourite: Chicken M'qalli with olives and preserved lemons.
Note the thick onion gravy which is a pure concentration of flavours.


Q'edra /Kadra

Kadra cooking style is the easiest and yet the most restricted when it comes to spices.

Saffron, turmeric, salt, pepper (white and/or black), smen or/and butter, cinnamon stick, herbs (mainly parsley). Onions in this recipes should be young white or at least from the yellow sort. NEVER RED. 

There are many Kadra recipes. However, there is one main rule that can't be ignored, especially in the traditional cooking of Fes: There should be no ginger or hardly any. It other cities, adding this particular spice is fine and actually required while in Fes it might become a matter of bad taste.

Most of (if not all) recipes calling for a sweet topping have a Kadra base. In some cases, the sauce takes cinnamon stick and a hint of honey to complement the sweet topping (and also highlight the saltiness of the sauce), while garlic can be omitted especially in the cooking of some regions of Morocco.

To be fair, I have tried one of the Kadras with ground ginger in it and new chickpeas. I never had anything better than that!

A casual family Kadra with potatoes and chickpeas, note the delicate clear broth which is the key to this dish 

Kadra also refers to a consommé with more onions in the mix. It needs meat with a strong (maybe gamey flavour). During Eid El Adha, my dad always insisted on making a Kadra with sheep's testicules.


Kadra requires the use of a good amount of onions and a light broth due to a the use of butter instead of heavy amounts of oil such as in Mqalli

M'hammar

This word refers to two methods which can also be used at once; M'hammar usually refers to a roasted condition of a red meat or birds. It also refers to the colour Ah'mar which is red (not H'maar which means donkey), hence the use of paprika in the sauce.

M'hammar of chicken: a semi-roasted bird after it has cooked in the
sauce with paprika used in the same reduced onion sauce.

You can actually cook a bird M'qualli style and fish it out of the sauce. Roast it for about 20 minutes from all sides while you reduce the sauce to the desired thickness. But you can't add paprika to a Q'edra dish. It would be a lack of taste and a sacrilege.

M'hammer of meat with its thick onion sauce, a
traditional dish for major family events

In their traditional form, all these methods call for smen (Moroccan cured and aged clarified butter).

Most of our traditional food does not require the addition of broth because the slow cooking method will give that deep layer of flavour anyway. However, those who use pressure cookers tend to add a cube of bouillon in some cases..



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