North African Cuisine
By Susheela Uhl,
Contributing Editor, Food Product Design Magazine
Mediterranean foods are alluring to those who embrace the familiar with the exotic. Lately, our culinary imaginations have been roaming to the southern Mediterranean and the North African souks and casbas. Products laden with spicy seasonings, such as harissa and berbere, slow-cooked stews and aromatic tagines, seasoned couscous, and pastries dipped in honey and floral essences are appearing in our restaurants and supermarket shelves.
North African cuisine will continue to grow in popularity because it uses fresh vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds. Many of its ingredients and flavors are already well known to most North Americans, such as cumin, hummus or seasoned sausage, plus it introduces new flavors such as ras el hanout, tagines or merguez.
There is great variety in North-African cuisines, from the more familiar Maghrebi cuisines of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia to the interesting and flavorful foods of Libya, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. So let's begin our exploration!
Roots of North African cuisine
North African meals range from simple, subtle and non-spicy to complex, spicy and hot. Communal eating is common, with several varieties of dishes served on the table. All North African regions have slow-simmered stews, charcoal-grilled meats, savory legume dishes and rich, sweet pastries. But flavor differences exist among regions that arise from cultural influences, geographical terrain (barren desert, lush plains or coastal plains), lifestyle (nomadic or city living) and ingredient availability.
Religious cooking and dietary habits of Muslims and Coptic Christians have greatly influenced North African cuisine. In particular, the Muslims' use of nuts in sauces, saffron to scent rice and couscous, floral essences to flavor desserts, and spiced teas and coffees show up throughout the region. Likewise, the Muslim prohibitions against pork and alcohol are commonly observed.
Ancient Phoenicians, nomadic Berbers, traders from the Far East, and Arab, Turkish and European invaders have significantly impacted the cuisine. North Africa was the crossroads of the early spice trade from the Far East to the West as well as from North to South. Thus, caraway and saffron from the Arabs, mustard from the Romans, allspice and cayenne from the Americas, ginger from China, and cinnamon, black pepper and sugar from India, along with indigenous garlic and onions are all incorporated into this unique cuisine.
Many of the foods and flavors are familiar to U.S. consumers because of the European influence. Italian tomato-based sauces and wheat flour, French wines, pickled sardines, and cheeses, and British sandwiches have been incorporated into the North African diet.
As a consequence, regional flavor variations often correspond to foreign influences. A strong French influence, as in Algeria, generally means mild foods: croissants or baguettes of tuna, ham or cheese, marinated olives and anchovy-stuffed tomatoes. Morocco's complex flavors and varied spices derive from Arab, Turkish, Berber and European influences. Tunisia offers hot, fiery sauces (harissas) and mild tomato-based dishes with Arab, French, Italian, Jewish and other Mediterranean influences. Ethiopia offers mild to spicy dishes marked by Bedouin, French and Italian flavors. Egyptian cuisine, influenced through the spice trade and conquest, offers milder dishes that are a hybrid of local and Middle East cuisines. The foods of Libya and Sudan have Arab and European influences.
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See you in November!