The term t’faya (tfaya, tfaia, tafaya), which refers to a Moroccan cooking style and the dishes which fall under it, seems unknown outside the Moroccan culinary repertoire. It dates quite far back and its origin might be a mix of Persian-Baghdadi and Amazigh practices, perhaps connecting in Andalusia in the Middle Ages.
During the period when the Almoravid dynasty controlled Andalusia, t’faya was referred to as tafaya. Ibn Rushd described it as the most balanced way of cooking all kinds of meat, and it was made by simmering meat in water with salt, onion and a touch of oil.
Back then several recipes fell under the t’faya umbrella. Today’s versions seem quite different from those original dishes. We may have dropped a letter from the name but we have certainly gained a wonderfully flavored and spiced cooking method and garnish.
A Dish for Special Days
The ingredients used to make a t’faya dish are also found in a regular qadra recipe, making these two styles of cooking quite similar to each other. However, I’ve always known t’faya in all its forms, sweet or savory, to be reserved for special days. At those times, family and friends would gather around the t’faya dish, which might be a savory meat tagine topped with fried almonds and hard boiled eggs, or perhaps a mound of couscous generously garnished with a sweet and spicy confit of onions and raisins.
Types of T’faya
It’s the confit of onions and raisins that so many people associate with t’faya. This includes many Moroccans themselves and not only novice Moroccan food enthusiasts. Whenever I mention the traditional savory t’faya dish from Fez, I have to explain it in detail and sometimes convince others that there is a world aside from the onion and raisin garnish, and that t’faya as a word is not monochrome.
There are three main t’faya recipes that have survived until now: t’faya tagine, t’faya confit, and t’faya as a custard, sabayon or soup. The first two require a considerable quantity of onions, which is presented as garnish, while the last version does not.
T’faya as a tagine is slow-cooked dish of stewed meat and onions, seasoned with pepper, ginger, saffron, cinnamon and coriander. It’s usually associated with almonds, which are either be simmered with the meat or fried in butter or oil and and then added at serving. Sometimes we include chickpeas, with or without raisins, and we might add hard-boiled eggs as a garnish. Both savory and sweet versions of t’faya are known for their light, clear sauce; this sauce is similar to a m’qualli sauce in the sense the liquids are reduced and the meat is topped with a silky onion sauce.
The ancient tebbakhates of Fez and Rabat make the distinction between t’faya souiria and t’faya twimiya. The first term refers to the geographical region near Essaouira while the latter term refers to the use of almonds and chickpeas. Twimiya can also be used to describe a qadra with those ingredients.
T’faya as a Confit of Onions and Raisins
This is the t’faya that is most well known. Onions and raisins are cooked from pale to a caramelization stage with honey or sugar and seasoned with aromatic spices such as cinnamon, ginger, and saffron. It serves as a garnish to a meat dish also called t’faya tagine, or to a wheat couscous made only of onions (rarely other vegetables) called k’sksu b’t’faya.
T’faya as a Custard, Sabayon or Soup
In the Jewish tradition, t’faya is a dish which can be cooked either in a bain-marie or over medium heat using chicken broth. The amount of liquid determines the dish’s consistency, which can range from a custard to a soup. This preparation is served for Yom Kippur or prepared for a couple on their wedding night.