Fish Tajine at Tasra Inn, Morocco
In the village of Imssouane, a small fishing harbor on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, we stopped to take a shower and have lunch in an inn we spotted when entering the village: the shaded white and bleu patio, decorated with a few plants and impressively huge fossils, which, we heard later from Aziz, the inn-owner, had been found nearby. While we showered, we were thinking of our first fish "tagine" (a local stew cooked and served in a round clay dish with a coned lid) which was being prepared with sea bass, just brought back by local fishermen.
When the dish arrived, it met our hopes, from the start playing with all our senses: once lifted the red clay coned lid, the smell of steaming bass took our noses by surprise, as our eyes were kept busy by a colorful composition made of yellow twists of lemon, of red and green slices of pepper, and the silver fish underneath. Our palates enjoyed similarly contrasting tastes: the seabass flesh was tender and moist, vegetables were crunchy and potatoes were melting in a mysterious and elaborate combination of spices and herbs.
This kept us silent and busy at first, but curiosity was next: I wanted to know how this delicious dish was prepared and was particularly interested in the sauce, so Aziz took me to the kitchen, and explained to the chef - his niece Zarah and the young male help Rachid -, that I wanted to see the next round of fish tagine being prepared.
Zarah spoke only very few words of French, so instead she invited me in with a wide smile. Her eyes quickly returned to her preparation, a gesture from a hand inviting me to focus on the counter, where carrots had been cut in sticks and were being laid at the bottom of the slightly oiled tagine dish.
Meanwhile, Rachid was washing fresh herbs: a big bunch of coriander (cilantro) and parsley. Observer or observee, the situation seemed just as awkward on either side of the counter, so I went across it and improvised myself into Zarah's second kitchen aid by taking from her hand the knife with which she was cutting a potato (*) in slices ½ inch thick.
After a brief moment of surprise and a timid attempt to return me to the other side of the counter, she let me continue and, taking the teacher role, she was now pronouncing ingredient names in Arabic, which I tried to repeat while she was putting the sauce together: parsly and cilantro thinly chopped, 3 cloves of garlic crushed, 1 large teaspoon of "k'moon" (ground cumin), 1 dose of "zafran" (saffron type food coloring), 1 large teaspoon of "ras el hanout" (an oriental mix of at least 12 spices) 1 large tablespoon of "alcool" (vinegar), 1 large teaspoon of paprika, salt, pepper, 1 large tablespoon of olive oil, a small glass of water.
She then poured some of this mixture inside the fish, rubbed some on the outside, laid it on the potato slices (laid on top of the carrot sticks layer), she decorated the fish with slices of tomato and green pepper, and poured the rest of the sauce, diluted with ½ cup water on top. She put the final touch with a few lemon twists and green olives, covered the dish with its cone lid and set it to cook medium-high for approximately 40 minutes.
Zahra managed to explain that it was crucial to maintain some liquid at the bottom of the dish during the entire cooking process, to prevent it from sticking/burning. The purpose of the carrot sticks suddenly became cristal clear in my mind...
I was so proud of having participated in this preparation, of having learned how to make this traditional dish, along with a few words in Arabic, but most of all, I was delighted to have penetrated, were it only for a brief moment, the mysterious inside story of this inn’s kitchen: having a chance to take a look at the old pots and pans, piles of plates and dishes, the basic stove, the gas operated fridge, and most of all the "actors" in their environment of white and blue tiles...
Much better than being a guest, switching to an active role in the kitchen, that’s what makes me tick, gives me a sense of satisfaction and fills me with a deep and special joy !
(*) To hear kitchen sounds, click on this link (if you possess RealPlayer).