My three year old son and I were walking through one of the many vegetable markets in Casablanca, Morocco, feeling extremely out of place and eyes on us everywhere we turned. We had just moved to Morocco and were trying to get familiar with the area, as well as attempting to learn the local language. After greeting a few people, out of the crowd came Zohra, an older woman with a tattooed chin. She grabbed my hand and pulled me out of the market and down the dirt road to some concrete buildings. She gestured that we should wait and went into one of them. She quickly returned with a younger woman, who I later realized was her daughter, Naima. Naima had just started learning English in school. We had a stilted, yet long, conversation that day, and after that we became fast friends. These people became my second family, my home away from home. They took me in, fed me, talked to me, listened to me, and made me one of their own. One of my happiest memories of that time was being in their kitchen and learning to cook. I knew how to cook; I could read recipes and follow instructions, but I had never learned how to put a meal together by instinct. Watching these women cook and knowing these were how their grandmothers had done it, how their great-grandmothers had done it, made me feel like I was a part of history. It is a way they have cooked for generations and will continue to cook for generations to come. There was never anything written down. They just knew how much of each ingredient to throw in the pot.
One of my favorite recipes they taught me to make is Chicken Tajine. Not having access to a pressure cooker (which seems to be essential in Morocco), I use a basic large pot. It takes a bit longer to cook, but it still does the job. Unfortunately, one of the ingredients is a type of olive that you can only find there. I think they are pickled in some sort of lemon and salt mixture. I have tried to find substitutes, but have finally given up and just added lemon juice instead of the olives. I think it comes close to the original, although I’m sure Zohra would be disappointed. When I make it, however, the whole house smells like I am back in that tiny Moroccan kitchen, watching these amazing women at work and it never fails to make me a bit homesick.
Moroccan Chicken Tajine
1 onion, chopped
1 bunch parsley, finely chopped
1 bunch cilantro, finely chopped
1/2 chicken, cut into pieces
2 potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
2 carrots, peeled and chopped into chunks
3 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
Zest from 1 lemon
Juice from 1 lemon
Mix together 1/4 cup of the parsley, 1/4 cup of the cilantro, 1 teaspoon turmeric, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, 1 teaspoon salt, and 3 tablespoons olive oil. Rub all over the chicken pieces, making sure to coat under the skin as well.
Mix together the chopped onions, 1/4 cup of the parsley, 1/4 cup of the cilantro, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and 1 teaspoon turmeric.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large pot. Add the onion mixture and cook over medium heat until the onions are translucent.
Add the chicken, skin side down. Brown on all sides. Add half of the lemon juice and cook about 5-10 minutes. Add the tomato mixture. Stir and cover. Cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes.
Add the carrots and 1 cup of water. Simmer for ten minutes. Add the potatoes and an additional 1/2 cup of water. Simmer until carrots and potatoes are tender and the chicken is cooked through. Add the rest of the lemon juice and zest. Serve with a crusty bread.