“No other continent has endured such an unspeakably bizarre combination of foreign thievery and foreign goodwill.”– Barbara Kingsolver, “The Poisonwood Bible”
North Africa (also called the Maghreb) is made up of the countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. The area’s cuisines are dramatically different than the rest of Africa, having been heavily influenced by centuries of traders, travelers, invaders, and immigrants. The massive Sahara Desert also separates these countries from the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, creating a unique food culture.
The cuisine of the area is ancient, and delicious.
Ingredients and Flavors
North African cuisine is varied in flavors and cooking methods. There are distinct differences between the sophisticated, full-bodied flavors of Moroccan palace cookery, the fiery dishes of Tunisia, and the humbler, simpler cuisines of Egypt and Algiers.
The ancient empire of Phonetia introduced sausages to the area, while the Carthegenians introduced wheat and its by-product semolina. In the 7th century, the Arabs of the Middle East introduced fragrant spices like saffron, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. The Ottoman’s brought sweet pastries and other baked products from Turkey. The Europeans brought in tomatoes, zucchini and chili peppers from the new world.
Although each of the countries of the Maghreb have their own culinary history and traditions, they also share many ingredients and techniques that make them distinctly North African. Here are a few of those:
Grains: Couscous is the defining staple of North Africa. It is made from crushed durum wheat, semolina flour, and water shaped into tiny granules. It is steamed, and is used as a carbohydrate-rich vessel for saucy meat and vegetable stews. Wheat flatbreads are also eaten with many meals.
Legumes: Chickpeas and Fava beans are used in soups like Moroccan famous Harira soup and Egypt’s national dish Ful Medames.
Nuts: Pistachios and Almonds are common and often found in both savory tagines and sweet desserts.
Meats: Lamb is the most prevalent meat along with different kinds of poultry. As with predominantly Muslim countries, pork is pretty much nonexistent. Fresh fish dishes are also popular as each country’s northern coastline sits along the Mediterranean sea.
Tagine: Tagines are unique to the region and are both a steamed lamb, vegetable, or fish stew and the vessel it’s cooked in. The conical topped vessel steams the stew and produces delicate dishes of meat or fish, dried fruit, vegetables, and nuts. Tagines are served over couscous that soaks up the rich flavors.
Herbs and Spices: Cumin, coriander, paprika, and cardamom are used to create the distinct flavor profile of the area. Those flavors are often accented by fresh mint and saffron.
Condiments: Three essential condiments are important to North African cooking, both as a marinades and condiments- Harissa (spicy roasted pepper paste), Chermoula (herby green sauce for fish), and Preserved Lemon (fermented lemons). All three are unique to the region and to define its unique flavor profile.
Explore the Cuisines of Northern Africa
“To develop a great cuisine, a nation must have four attributes – an abundance of fine ingredients, a variety of cultural influences, a great civilization, and the existence of a refined palace life.”– Paula Wolfert, The Food of Morocco.
Moroccan cuisine is considered to be one of the top ten cuisines of the world. Foreign invasions from the Middle East, especially the Ottoman Empire, introduced fragrant spices and lemons to the Moroccan royal court along with pastries of phyllo dough, honey, and nuts. Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean sea, skilled Moroccan cooks have abundance of seafood and vegetables to work their magic with.
Notable Moroccan Dishes – Couscous (fragrant steamed semolina grain), Bisteeya (classic sweet & savory pigeon pie with phyllo-like werqa leaves), Mechoui (pit-roasted whole lamb), Djej Emsmel (chicken, olive and lemon tagine), Tagine (Moroccan fragrant slow-cooked stews of meats, fish, and/or vegetables, fruits, nuts), Preserved Lemons (lemons pickled in salt), Kaab el Ghazal “gazelle horns” (pastry filled with almond paste and topped with sugar), and Moroccan Mint Tea.
MHT Moroccan Recipes:
This ancient land sits on the crossroads of Asia, Africa, and Europe. Although it has a culinary tradition that combines the cuisines from many countries, it is more similar to Middle Eastern foods than its North African neighbors. Stewed fava beans and mezes of hummus, baba ganoush, tabbouleh, and other vegetable salads are eaten with flatbreads.
Notable Egyptian Dishes – Ful Medames (cooked fava beans), Ta’meya (spiced fava bean falafel), Koshari (layered rice, macaroni, lentils and chickpeas with caramelized onions and garlicky red vinegar sauce), Mashi (vegetables stuffed with rice and herbs), Fattah (crispy bread, rice, meat in a vinegar/tomato sauce).
MHT Egyptian Recipes:
Stretching between Morocco and Tunisia, Algeria is the largest country in Africa. Like its North African neighbors, it a culture heavily influenced by occupiers and numerous dynasties throughout its long history. Romans, Spaniards, Arabs, Ottomans, and the French all played a part in forming the cuisine of Algeria.
Notable Algerian Dishes – Mhajeb (baked semolina pastry filled with spicy hot tomato & onion mix), Bourek (fried pastry filled with mashed potatoes, olives, parsley, onions and egg), Ghrayef (semolina crepes topped with butter and honey), Tajine Lahlou (sweet, thick caramelized meat and fruit stew flavored with orange blossom and cinnamon).
MHT Algerian Recipes:
Tunisia has a cuisine so entirely its own that it will never be mistaken for its neighbors. Tunisian cuisine is very naturally healthy with a strong emphasis on grains, fresh fruits, fish and vegetables. With millions of olive trees lining its coast, olives and olive oil are used everywhere. Different from its neighbors, Tunisian food exceptionally spicy and peppery hot. Throw in lots of fresh vegetables and you’ve got the essence of Tunisian cooking.
Notable Tunisian Dishes – Tunisian Tagine (Egg, lamb casserole, more like an Italian frittata than a Moroccan tagine), Harissa (fiery cooking paste of sun-dried hot red peppers, spices, and garlic), Egg Brik (thin pastry-wrapped triangles of egg, parsley and tuna), Kefta (fried mini-meatballs in tomato sauce), Khobz Mella (crust flat loaf of bread cooked over embers).