Every country has its national food, though few are so clearly defined by the dish they are cooked in as Morocco's tajine. A cookery class in a Moroccan kitchen is a great way to learn about this endlessly versatile meal named for the dish it is prepared in.
A tajine is a shallow terracotta dish, with a conical lid terminating in a knob that serves as its handle. Tajines are traditionally cooked over charcoal, and its here that the simple design turns out to be fiendishly clever. The thick base holds and distributes the heat from the coals, while the design of the heavy lid traps steam and allows it to freely circulate. This way, you can use less water in the stew to concentrate your dish's flavours until they reach mouth-watering perfection, while slow-cooked meat falls gently off the bone.
The best cookery lessons start with a trip to the markets to buy fresh produce for the kitchen. If you haven't shopped in a Moroccan souk before, be aware that this an experience quite removed from a regular supermarket. Stalls are piled high with fresh vegetables, to be weighed and possibly haggled over. Elsewhere, a butcher carves cuts and puts them down on his tiled counter with a slap.
Best of all is the spice shop, where you'll pick up those special ingredients that give Moroccan food its special flavour. Jars of preserved lemons are plucked from jars, while heaps of ras el hanout are scooped into bags. Every shop produces its own particular blend of this mix, often containing more than 20 spices. It's name in Arabic means 'head of the shop', alluding to where the exact make up of the secret blend is stored. Moroccan palates would undoubtedly be much duller without it.
Back in the kitchen, it's time to cut and chop. Preserved lemons go into the tajine dish with joints of chicken and a handful of green olives. The ras el hanout can be used to season vegetables or mixed with ground beef to make a kefta (meatball) tajine with tomatoes, that will have eggs cracked into it to bake near the end of the cooking process. Lamb tajines is often matched with prunes and a sprinkle of sesame seeds.
A tajine is one of the great one-pot meals where you assemble the ingredients in the dish and then just leave it alone for the heat to work its magic. The most traditional way of cooking is over a charcoal brazier specially designed to hold the dish. You'll see this low-and-slow cooking method outside street restaurants, often with a blackened onion or tomato on top of the cone to show that things are cooking inside.
While charcoal is more authentic, you can easily pop your tajine onto a low gas burner instead until it's done its business. But (whisper it) plenty of commercial kitchens in Morocco actually cook everything in half the time in a pressure cooker, before serving in a pre-heated tajine dish.
But there's no need to for such short cuts when you're the cook. That slow simmer leaves plenty of time to anticipate sitting down for lunch with fresh bread to soak up those rich tajine juices, and new friends from your cooking class.