Supping On 'Bachelor's Stew' In Marrakech

IMAGINE you were a man who worked at one of Marrakech's bustling souks. Perhaps you rented a stall at the historic Djemaa El Fna, the city's main square, that dates back to the 11th century. Surrounding your stall were those of your friends and neighbours, all of whom had come down to the square for a few weeks of trade. But today was Friday, and you would all have some well-deserved rest — and of course, tanjia.

Tanjia is not the same as 'tagine', its more famous Moroccan counterpart, although both dishes get their names from the pots they are cooked in. Unlike the tagine, the tanjia is shaped like a tall urn with handles, and was used at one time to carry olive oil. Tanjia — the dish that is cooked inside this ceramic pot — is a tangy meat stew eaten with bread. It is also commonly known by another name — "Bachelor's Stew" — a nod to the subset of citizens who prepare it most frequently. 

On Thursday night, after you'd finished your business for the day, but the lights of the other stalls still cast their mellow golden glow over the square, you might have walked briskly to the butcher's and asked for some fatty cuts of meat — beef, lamb or veal. He'd oblige, filling up the tanjia you'd brought, after invoking the name of god.

You might then drop in a bulb of garlic, and some onions, followed by smaller quantities of saffron, cumin, pepper, salt, herbs like parsley and cilantro, ginger, turmeric and preserved lemons. A few pinches of ras el hanout for the finish. You'd add a healthy swig or two of olive oil and smen (a Moroccan ghee/butter), and a splash of water. 

The butcher would step in to help you, covering the top of the urn with some parchment paper, then securing it with bands and briskly piercing a few holes into it, from where the steam would escape the tanjia while the contents cooked. You'd pay the butcher with the money you and your friends from the souk, who dined with you, had pooled.

With your packed tanjia, you'd head to one of the local hammams, where great coal and wood fires kept the bath water steaming hot through the day. The man who tended the fire would take your pot and bury it in the ashes and embers of the communal oven/furnace, i.e. the "furan". You'd spot several other tanjias in the furan; all the men would eat well tomorrow, even in the absence of their wives and mothers during this long stint away from home. 

On Friday morning, you'd get your tanjia back from the oven. Overnight, the meat would have cooked in its own juices, and imbibed all the flavours of the spices. You'd carry the pot home, where your friends awaited your return. You would all sit around the tanjia and pass around freshly baked loaves of khobz (bread). None of you were dab hands at cooking, but a stew so simple, hearty and fuss-free — this you could manage.

You'd serve the stew from the tanjia, and as you scooped up the tender meat with a piece of bread, mopping up some of the rich sauce that had pooled at the bottom of your bowl, you'd know that life could be good, and that simple pleasures were all we needed to make our time on earth worthwhile.