Moroccan tangia (also spelled tanjia) is not a festive dish. It’s a dish for friends, colleagues and groups of people who gather to break bread and enjoy time together without formalities. It’s a communal dish, so people gather around it to appreciate it better. It is an invigorating dish, subtly spiced and it can also have a sweet or tangy note (although not both at the same time). Tangia is not for people in a hurry as it should take its sweet time to cook and be ready to impress.
Definition of Tangia
A tangia is cooking vessel as well as the dish that cooks in it. It is made of clay and has an urn shape. It comes in small and large forms, somewhere between 10 to 16 inches long. This glazed terracotta or clay amphora is a recipient dating back to Roman times. It was originally used to transport olive oil, but in Morocco it eventually became a cooking vessel associated with working men.
So tangia, like tagine, is a cooking vessel which gives its name to the dishes cooked in it. Both involve slow cooking methods; the tagine is ideally cooked over charcoal or a wood fire while a tangia is best cooked in the ashes from a wood fire. However, a tangia takes longer to cook as the meat must reach an exquisite confit texture while remaining intact. The meat used to make tangia should include bones, tendons and fatty matter that will become gelatinous after that long time cooking. Oxtails, neck, legs and trotters are cuts of choice.
Tangia is also called bachelor’s dish or bent r’mad, literally translated as “daughter of ashes,” as the tangia vessel is traditionally nestled into ashes for its long, slow cooking, where it’s nurtured until it becomes perfect.
What’s In a Tangia?
Anyone can make a tangia, from amateur to experienced cooks. In Marrakesh, butchers often take care of it and you just need to pay them for the ingredients and bring your pot to the public oven. Depending on regional variations and taste preferences, tangia can be sweet, savory, tangy, sweet and sour at the same time.
The Meat for Tangia
The preparation of this dish traditionally required a gelatinous and tender meat; ideal cuts include the hock, the collar or a mixture of several pieces such as calf’s feet, calf’s tail, shank, cheek and tongue of veal. However, anything can be cooked in a tangia, including rabbit, chicken, lamb, etc. There is even a modern vegetarian version of tangia as well as a fish version in Tangier.
Pulses and Grains
Wheat, beans or chickpeas can also be ingredients in tangia. Wheat berries are usually wrapped in a purse of muslin or cheesecloth, a reminder of the Moroccan Sephardic dafina or skhina for shabbat.
Liquid and Oils for Tangia
The tangia is cooked with very little liquid, using a long braising process known in French as à l’étouffée. Thus the meat becomes confit without crumbling. This cooking method allows all the ingredients to mingle in an impeccable way. Hardly any water is needed—on average less than a cup to every two pounds of meat—and only a tiny bit of olive oil and Moroccan smen are added.
Spices and Condiments for Tangia
The basic spice is saffron, but a generous amount of ground cumin is used for savory versions. Preserved lemons and garlic are heavily used in this dish in its savory version, too. Most tangia recipes do not call for herbs of any kind. The sweet variety might include honey.
Vegetables or No Vegetables
Onions make an entrance in some versions of tangia and so do potatoes, but generally this is a vegetable-free dish. Although this is a dish for meat-lovers, we have seen modern vegetarian versions making their way through the traditional ones.
A Dish for Men
Tangia was originally a dish prepared by and for working men, particularly in cities where craftsmanship was a prime economic activity. Athough Marrakesh seems to be the primary city associated with this dish and its vessel, we have versions of tangia in Meknes, Moulay Driss Zarhoun, Fez, Sefrou and Taroudant—cities and places famous for their conglomerations of souk traders and copper, wood, fabric and leather artisans.
Traditionally a group of artisans would pitch in the day before to buy all the necessary ingredients for tangia, then take it late evening or early morning to the fernatchi, the person in charge of the communal oven. These ovens are typically located adjacent to public hammams, Turkish or Moorish baths. The fernatchi would settle the tangia into smoldering ashes and leave it to cook throughout the night or early part of the day. At lunch time, when the shops were closed, the group of artisan friends would enjoy their tangia along with a good mint tea.
How to Prepare and Cook Tangia
Preparing a tangia is a real ritual: we fill the container with meat, spices and ingredients of the recipe. The amphora is then covered with craft or parchment paper, which is secured with wire or string. Last but not least, the surface of the paper is pierced with small holes to let the steam escape. The paper will not burn as the tangia cooks in very low heat.
In my modern kitchen, I use loose baking paper over the meat then cover the tangia with aluminium foil; this works just fine. The edges should be sealed properly and sometimes dead bread dough (without yeast in it) can be used to seal the sides, but I really do fine without it.
Fernatchi, the Key Man in the Success of Tangia
The fernatchi has a sort of superpower which enables him to cook tangia the right way. He cooks the tangia in exchange for a tip. Nestled in the pile of ashes (louza) left from burning wood used to heat the water for the hammam, the tangia braises for hours under his watchful eye. It will cook overnight, slowly but surely, until it reaches its confit-like state. The smell that emerges indicates that the dish is ready.
The fernatchi remembers each person and which tangia each brought with exactitude; there is no mismatch during the pick-up time. The dish will be served during n’zaha, a picnic just before lunch time, when it will be enjoyed with friends or family. Tangia is served with Moroccan bread and hot tea is the beverage of choice, although we also find soft drinks.
There is a mindset about this dish and the ritual around it. But again, we have to adjust to the life outside Morocco, so I cook it for 3 hours (depending on the content) in a 300 F/150 c oven and it comes out wonderful. If you don’t have a tangia pot, you can use a deep terracota pot or, for the confit texture and less the enchanting wooden flavor, a dutch oven. I tend to add a pinch of smoked paprika, which is a cheat touch to get some of that smoky taste. This method gets me closer to the real thing. Nothing replaces long hours of slow cooking in ashes, but we’re not far off.