Mediterranean food has been the flavour of the last decade. Chefs loved dabbling in recipes from this area because the food has a cunning simplicity, the ingredients are of great quality, and the dishes in which they are served are homely and rustic, with little fuss, frills and garnishes.
The latest in Mediterranean food is cooking from the southern and eastern Mediterranean—influences from Muslim as opposed to the Christian areas, with spices and aromas replacing lemon, garlic and parsley. In the East and South, there are the enchanting smells of orange and lemon blossoms in winter, jasmine in summer and spices such as cinnamon, coriander, pepper and cumin throughout the year. Food is cooked in olive oil, grilled over charcoal, long-simmered and deep-fried. Sauces are thickened with bread, ground almonds or walnuts, or emulsified with egg, which gives it a unique rustic and healthy quality.
One dish I love is the tagine—for me, it is the epitome of Muslim Mediterranean food. This is a famous Moroccan stew, traditionally cooked in an earthenware pot by the same name, much like our matkas in Goa and Kerala. The tagine is a large round dish which you put directly on coal or gas. It is then sealed with a large conical hood, also made out of the same earthenware. This allows the dish inside to stew naturally. It represents the kind of food I love—full of flavour, interesting and wholesome, and which can be made without too much effort.
Incidentally, tagines are perfect as gas to tableware and keep food warm for up to an hour after you have cooked or served it. If the tagine is unglazed, it is said to impart a special flavour to dishes.
Fish tagines are flavoured with charmoula, a ground mix of garlic, salt, cumin, coriander and olive oil. You can add tomatoes or preserved lemons as well. Lamb tagines are often spiced up with cinnamon and ginger and sweetened with prunes and honey. The whole dish is flavoured with saffron and topped with almonds. I also make a wonderful vegetarian one with pears and chunky vegetables. Tagines are available at The Oberoi gourmet shop in Mumbai, or can be ordered directly from firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lamb Tagine with Prunes
Serves 6 to 8
1 kg boneless lamb/mutton, cut into large chunks or 2 inch pieces
1½ tsp salt
½ tsp saffron or turmeric
2 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
1 tsp ginger, chopped
1½ tbsp garlic, chopped
1 large onion, chopped fine
½ cup parsley, chopped fine
4 tbsp sunflower oil
300gm pitted prunes
2 tsp powdered cinnamon
1 tbsp grated orange rind
3 tbsp honey
For the garnish:
2 tbsp sesame seeds
½ cup blanched almonds, coarsely chopped
Put the lamb in a pan with salt, pepper, saffron, ginger, garlic, onion, parsley and half the oil. Add enough water to cover and simmer for about 1½ hours, or until the lamb is very tender. If you are using a tagine, you can cook the meat in a large vessel and then transfer it and its juices to a tagine. Add the prunes and cinnamon and cook for a further 10 minutes. Lastly, add the honey and orange rind and cook until the gravy thickens (about 10 to 15 minutes). Just before serving, toast the sesame seeds in a frying pan, fry the almonds in the remaining oil and sprinkle both over the meat. Serve hot with nan bread.
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