Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Rite of Passage and a Tajine in Fez

I lived in Morocco for a year when I was doing research for my doctorate in cultural anthropology. One weekend, a Moroccan friend asked me to join her for a naming feast in Fez. It was for the newborn son of good friend of hers. I was giddy. I was about to become an intimate part of a household and the feast preparations for the event.

It turned out not to be a typical naming feast. The mother was divorcing her husband and was using the feast to alter resistant public opinion about her choices. She was successful in this and I think the turning point happened midway through the long feast, when the chicken tajine, a ginger and spice-rich stew with black and green olives, was served.

That weekend in Fez remains one of the highlights of my time in Morocco. It also possessed all the indications of a pilgrimage: everyone was transformed by the end of the feast. Below is the recipe for the main dish that pulled off the feast.

To read the entire story, called Feasting in Fez, which was a Runner-up Winner in the 2008 Travel Narrative Writing Contest, visit

To read more of my food, travel, and adventure writing, visit

Moroccan Chicken Tajine with Two Types of Olives

(Serves 4)
1 medium sized-onion, cut in long narrow slivers
5 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup olive oil
1 chicken, whole
Water to cover the chicken half way in a
   cooking pot in which the bird can lay flat
   on its back and barely touch the sides of the pot.
1 to 2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon saffron pistons, roughly ground
   in a mortar and pestle.
1 tablespoon ground cumin
Zest from half a lemon
lemon juice from a whole lemon
salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste (Be sparing
   with the salt because later you will add the olives,
   with their own saltiness.)
1/4 cup roughly chopped curly parsley
1/4 cup roughly chopped cilantro
1 cup green olives, preferably the Provence herb
   cured style (with pits) but other types of
   green olives work well too.
1 cup black calamata olives.

Pour the olive oil into the pot for your chicken. Heat it and add the onion slivers and the minced garlic. Saute these for a minute and then add the chicken and quickly pour cold water over it until the bird is half immersed. 

While bringing the water to boil, add the fresh ginger, the saffron, the cumin, lemon zest, lemon juice, and pepper. Once boiling, reduce the heat and allow the chicken to simmer for half an hour. Then turn the bird over and let it simmer for another half-an-hour. After the chicken has fully cooked, add the two types of parsley and the two types of olives. Allow to simmer on very low heat until you are ready to serve the dish.

Serve with freshly baked Moroccan style flat bread or with a fresh baguette. A leafy green salad is a perfect accompaniment to round out this meal.

Suggested Wine Pairing

As Muslims, most Moroccans don't drink wine and won't offer it to you. However, Morocco does produce some very good vintage. One of the best, I think, is Amazir, a red wine that tastes like a French Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend. It is grown in the Meknes wine valley, not too far from the ancient site of Rome's North African provincial capital, Volubilis, known as Walili in Moroccan Arabic.  

Amazir works beautifully with this chicken tajine. The medium-bodied wine joins the meaty olives head on but is delicate and elegant with the refined sauce, rich with garlic, ginger, and saffron.
If you cannot get your hands on Amazir, an alternative, inspired by the saffron, is the La Manchan Jumilla label. This southeastern Spanish wine grows near saffron-producing lands and has absorbed saffron notes into its bouquet and palette: it is a rich experience to taste the saffron-infused terroir.

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