By Caitlin Scott
Anyone who has strolled the central square in Marrakech, Jemaa el-Fna, as the heat of the day subsides and darkness gathers will have experienced this. The sounds of people laughing and chatting over a shared meal or food vendors shouting to passers-by. The smells of spices are in the air and the gatherings show just how important breaking bread together is in this outgoing and food-loving culture.
Two Christmases ago, before the words ‘Covid’ or ‘travel ban’ had entered our vocabularies, a friend and I were filming about eating vegan in Morocco. We had found specialist cafes, delicious street food and occasionally some good-natured confusion; eventually we decided we would have a go at self-catering in the uniquely Moroccan style. Rather than just picking up some ingredients and cooking at our digs, we would have a go at preparing a Tangia.
Immediately in went beans, olives, vegetables and a huge dollop of harissa.
Enter the Moroccan ready meal. The tangia is normally seen as the meal for the single person who is hungry at the day’s end but cannot be bothered to cook. The same feeling that gets me into the quick and easy aisle of Morrisons or Eroski. However that feeling is about where the similarity ends. With the tangia comes no cardboard sleeve, plastic tray or microwave instructions, neither is the selection or cooking a rather lonely process where the only human contact is with the supermarket cashier.
Step one is to get slightly off the usual tourist trail. Although nothing is very far apart in the Medina, the local fresh food markets tend to be just outside and after asking a couple of shop owners they recommended finding the tangia man at the market at the end of Derb Sqaya. (My impression is that every market has one though.) We duly found Said, who provided me with a tall earthenware amphora – a very different shape to the flat, round dishes used for the tagine usually thought of as Morocco’s national dish. The pot is yours for the day, and is normally filled with meat, garlic, seasoning, legumes and sometimes some vegetables. We explained that this was to be meat-free and immediately in went beans, olives, vegetables, handfuls of fresh parsley, preserved lemons, olive oil, ras el hanout (a Moroccan spice mix) and a huge dollop of harissa. The top was covered with parchment firmly secured with string and the whole thing given a vigorous shake.
The magic of the tangia is in the cooking process. We walked back the way we came and asked where the local hammam was – a communal steam bathing houses separated for men and women. We were guided to some rusty metal gates – the back entrance – because this is the way down to the huge fires that burn night and day, the beating heart of the hammam. We’d gathered something of a following and added to the general hilarity by trying to talk into the camera and walk down the stone steps. This led to my body surfing down a massive pile of wood and sawdust. For a small fee our tangier joined a line of others in the fire’s embers where it would cook slowly for the next few hours turned occasionally by the fire stoker. Usually a meat dish will cook for the entire working day, resulting in a delicious, rich confit-type dish to be eaten with flatbread or saffron rice and salad. It was generally agreed that our vegan offering would be very overdone by then, so three hours later we were back to pick it up. The guys were still shedding tears of laughter over the sawdust fall incident as they removed slid the top open so that we could all inspect the contents.
This led to my body surfing down a massive pile of wood and sawdust.
We then sat on the steps with some borrowed eating implements and had what was honestly one of the best vegan meals I’ve ever eaten, and which was greeted enthusiastically by our new local friends. Spicy and textured, it was the harissa and preserved lemons that really made it, with the unique slow cook of the hammam fire.
When one day we can travel again I strongly recommend a hop over to Morocco and having this delicious and social experience. Until then, here’s a vegan recipe you can reproduce; you can always make your own harissa so that you get the spiciness just right for you. To make your own preserved lemons, pack lemons in a sealable jar with some salt, cinnamon sticks, dried chillies and a couple of bay leaves and leave for at least three months. They are well worth the wait!
Vegan ‘Tangia for Two
- 1 aubergine
- 2 garlic cloves
- 120g green beans
- 40g pitted green olives,
- 1 chopped onion
- 1 handful of fresh parsley
- 300g chickpeas and any other beans you fancy
- 40g preserved lemons (chop into 8ths or more if you’ve made your own)
- 1 tsp ras el hanout
- 1 vegetable stock cube
- A big dollop of harissa paste
Slice your lemons into small pieces, thinly slice the onion and crush the garlic. Trim the beans and cut the aubergine into 2cm pieces. Dissolve the stock cube in a jug with 250ml water. Heat a medium sized pan with 1 tsp oil on a medium heat, cook the onion for 5 minutes, add the aubergine and cook for a further 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and ras el hanout for 1 minute then add chickpeas, beans, stock, olives and preserved lemons. Either simmer slowly for 30 minutes or until the sauce is thickened, or place in the oven on a medium heat in a casserole dish or tagine for 45 minutes.
- 1 preserved Lemon
- 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 1tsp ground cumin
- Half a tsp chilli powder
- 300g couscous
- 400ml boiling water
- Salt and pepper to taste
Halve the preserved lemon and put it in a mixing bowl. Add olive oil, cumin, couscous and boiling water, cover with a dinner plate for 8-10 minutes, uncover and fluff up with a fork. Serve with some pomegranate seeds, pistachios and coriander or parsley.