It’s tagine, Jim, but not as we know it.

Posted by | January 07, 2015 | Eats, Travel, Uncategorized | No Comments
Sardine tajine from Essaouira

Sardine tajine from Essaouira

There’s a world of tagines beyond Morocco’s most famous export: lamb tagine, delicious and all as it is. The range of tagine spice mixes are created to work with just about everything from fish and lamb to beef and sweet things too. Not forgetting there are local traditions such as the sardine kefta tajine Naima Lewey shared with me. You won’t find this dish outside Essaouira. Naimi ( guided me with the help of Chez Makki (see earlier blog about the brothers who run Chez Makki) where we gathered the ingredients. The fish came from the harbour that morning where you can buy spanking fresh seafood directly from the fishermen. I should point out that this is not Pier 66 in New York. This is rough and ready western Africa with seaport smells, swooping seagulls and inexplicable detritis.

Naima working the sardines through the  mouli.

Naima working the sardines through the mouli.

The mouli grinds everything so don't worry if there are a few bones or skins.

The mouli grinds everything so don’t worry if there are a few bones or skins.

We set to work back in Naima’s family home on a process that took some time beheading, degutting and skinning the sardines ourselves. I confess Naima beat me hands down on this. My degutting talents were very rusty, I’ve clearly spent too long doing it in print rather than in reality. We then processed the sardines through a mouli which will resolve any problems you might have with little bones. The dish is full of many flavours yet still manages to be a light dish. Quite the lightest tagine I’ve ever had.

Sardine kefta tagine

Serves 6

1.6 k sardines, filleted and skinned

5 large tomatoes, grated on a box grater

3 cloves garlic

6 tablespoons olive oil

4 medium carrots, cut into circles

1 teaspoons of sea salt

4 tablespoons water

2 teaspoons cumin, heaped

1 teaspoon rass el hanout

1 tablespoon of fish tajine spice, a lighter spice than for meat

1 tablespoon paprika

2 pinches of turmeric, a three finger pinch

1 lemon

2 bell peppers, red or green

1 green chilli, finely sliced

1 red chilli, finely sliced

¼ preserved lemon, very finely chopped

Black pepper to taste


A little vegetable oil on your hands will make rolling the keftas easier.

A little vegetable oil on your hands will make rolling the keftas easier.

Fish keftas_6366

Place the sardine keftas neatly in the base as it will be served in the tagine dish.

For the sardine kefta flavouring

1 handful coriander, finely chopped

1 handful parsley, finely chopped

1 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons olive oil

4 grated garlic cloves

½ preserved lemon, finely chopped,

2 pinches cumin

1 pinch rass el hanout,

1 pinch of fish tajine spice

2 pinches paprika

1 pinch turmeric


  1. Firstly, degut, skin and debone the sardines. You can ask your fishmonger to do this for you. Then grind the fish through a mouili. If you’ve missed any bones they will disappear into the fish paste created. Set aside.
  2. Grate the tomatoes on a box grater. No need to peel the skins off, the grater separates them. Then set aside.
  3. Take three cloves and grate them with the box grater into a large tagine dish which is on a high heat. No need to peel the garlic as the box grater separates the skins.
  4. Add two tablespoons olive oil and cook until brown then turn the heat down to medium. Then add the carrots and 1 teaspoon of salt and combine.
  5. Then add 4 tablespoons of water and cook for 5 minutes.
  6. Add all the dry spices, cumin, rass el hanout, fish tajine spice and turmeric. Combine and simmer for three minutes then add a quarter of the tomato mix and the juice of half a lemon, reserving the other half to garnish. Simmer to garnish.
  7. To make the fish balls: take the bowl of ground sardines and add two tablespoons of the coriander and parsley mix, 1 teaspoon salt, Meanwhile make the, 4 tablespoons olive oil, 4 grated garlic cloves, ½ preserved lemon, finely chopped, 2? teaspoons cumin, 1? teaspoon rass el hanout, 1? tablespoon of fish tajine spice, 1? tablespoon paprika, 2? pinches of turmeric. Combine thoroughly by hand.
  8. At the stage check the pot and make sure nothing is sticking. Add a ¼ chopped preserved lemon to the pot.
  9. Then form balls of the mixture about the size of a walnut, they all must be the same size in order to cook properly. If you put some vegetable oil on your hands it will make it easier to roll the balls. As you make each ball place it in the tajine on top of the simmering mixture. Place them neatly in a circle around the edge working your way in to the centre. It will be presented to the table in the tajine it is being cooked in so it needs to look good for the big reveal. If you have any left over at the end you can take the pieces placed earlier on top of other ones. They will have changed colour underneath as they are cooked and won’t stick to the newer ones.
  10. Cover and simmer for 4 minutes. Then add the remaining tomato mix drizzling it between the fish balls. You’ll need to be parsimonious here to get it all in between all the balls. Then neatly decorate with the bell peppers, lemon and chilli as shown in the picture. Replace the tajine lid and simmer for a further 30 minutes.
  11. Serve en famille, in the tajine, only revealing the contents when everbody has taken their seat. A dramatic lifting of the lid releases all those lovely spiced fragrances. You will need a plain accompaniment with this such as simple couscous or rice. The tajine is the star.

This was the first fish tajine I’d had and it was filled with complex flavours yet it’s a light dish, ideal for a lunch. You can make the fish balls the day before and refrigerate them, in fact Naima says they’ll taste even better. If that’s possible.

Tomorrow we are off to meet the famed argon oil producers, unique to Morocco. Follow me on twitter at @goldenshots for notifications all the tasty updates this week. #Essaouira









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