Coming from the southern half of this region, North African cuisine is adding to the richness of the Mediterranean diet.
Years ago, when I was a young associate editor at Food Management, I had the opportunity to go “backstage” at Walt Disney World in Florida, to see how Disney employees were fed. As a sidelight, I got to spend some time in Epcot Center and I took advantage of that visit to have dinner at Marrakesh, the restaurant in the Moroccan pavilion.
I had heard much about Moroccan cuisine, but I came away from this experience steeped in disappointment. Either the meal had been “Americanized”—toned down nearly to the point of blandness—or I had been misinformed about the wealth of flavor that was supposed to make up this North African cuisine.
Of course, I have since learned that Moroccan foods—and North African recipes in general—make use of a wide variety of spices and an interesting array of cooking techniques. As Mediterranean cuisine becomes more mainstream, the foods of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt are finding a place at many non-commercial foodservice tables.
Because these countries border the Mediterranean Sea, their cuisines have been influenced by a host of cultures, as travelers, immigrants and invaders all have left their mark. For example, the Phoenicians introduced sausages, and invaders from Carthage brought wheat, from which the native Berbers made couscous. The Romans carried with them olives and olive oil, while Arabs were responsible for introducing many of the spices that flavor North African recipes, such as saffron, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon and cloves.
As operators become more acquainted with North Africa, the following are some of the ingredients and dishes you’ll want to know.
Bistilla or Pastilla| A meat pie made with either shredded chicken or pigeon meat mixed with such ingredients as rice, nuts, dried fruit, eggs, spices and sugar and wrapped in a phyllo pastry and baked.
Couscous | Made with semolina flour, couscous originated in the Mahgreb region of Morocco and has made its way into virtually all of the North African cuisines. Made with two parts semolina and one part flour, salt and water, it’s molded in the hand until the “grains” are separated. The grains are mixed with a bit of oil and are ready to be used in a variety of dishes. It can be eaten by itself or mixed with a broth or stew, topped with vegetables, meat and/or fish. Tunisian couscous is usually made with harissa, making it spicy and giving it a red hue.
Harira | This thick mix of beans, lentils, pasta, tomatoes and spices is the traditional dish used to break the fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Like the ubiquitous chicken noodle soup, harira’s ingredients can be unique to the cook. Spices can include turmeric, ginger, paprika, nutmeg and others. Cilantro, coriander leaves, caraway seeds, parsley and onion may also find their way into the rich broth. Traditionally, harira is made with a lump of dough from the previous day’s bread and is eaten with a wooden spoon called a mgurfa.
Harisa or Harissa | An Arabic word meaning “to break into pieces,” harisa is a hot chili paste that is added to couscous, soups, pastas and other recipes. It is considered by some to be the most important condiment used in Algerian and Tunisian cooking. The simplest recipe is a blend of red chiles and salt that is made into a paste and covered in olive oil.
Ras el Hanout | A blend of spices that is as unique as the person who mixes it. There is no one recipe for this, as ras el hanout can contain as few as 10 or as many as 100 different spices. The name literally translates to “head of the shop,” referring to the spice shop vendor. Among the spices that can be found in the blend are allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper, ginger and turmeric.
Tagine or Tajine | The word refers to both a type of dish and the clay pot in which the food is prepared. The tagine pot comes in two pieces. The bottom holds the food during cooking and also is used as the serving dish. The top is conical and contains a hole at the top to allow steam to escape during cooking, which keeps food from becoming soggy. In Morocco, tagine is essentially a stew of meat—chicken, fish, lamb or pigeon, for instance—vegetables, fruit and spices. By contrast, Tunisian tajine is an egg-based recipe, made with chopped meat and flavored with such additions as grilled peppers, cheese or parsley.
Desserts and Snacks| These are not as essential to North Africans as they are to Americans. When snacks are consumed they are often fresh fruits. But there are a number of sweets that can be found in the region, often with honey as the main sweetener. Among the treats to savor are honey cakes stuffed with makhroud dates; baklava, made with phyllo dough, nuts and honey; basbousa, made from semolina pastry soaked in honey and topped with hazelnuts; and bbouzat haleeb, an Egyptian ice cream made with misika—Arabic gum—milk, sugar, cornstarch and rose water. The misika makes the ice cream gummy.