News | March 14, 2001

North African Cuisine

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. North African flavors and ingredients can be a source of inspiration for food product designers who wish to create healthy and flavorful products for consumers who want familiar flavors combined with stronger, spicier and authentic profiles.

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.

North African meals
A North African day begins with a breakfast of breads, grains, beans, vegetables or cheese, which vary greatly by region. Breakfast may include croissants with cheese or ham, seasonal fruits, porridge made from millet or chickpea flour, flatbread with grilled vegetables, crispy fried fava bean cakes with tahini sauce, hummus, salad or fluffy pastry with savory vegetables or chicken. Juices, tea or coffee are commonly enjoyed with breakfast.

Before lunch, kemia, or tapas-like assortments of pistachios, peanuts, olives, fresh and pickled vegetables are eaten with juices or liqueurs. Lunch can be light or served with several courses. A Moroccan lunch, for example, begins with spiced tomato and cucumber, grilled vegetables and chickpeas, followed by vegetable or fish soup, noodles, or tagines accompanied by salads, breads or pastas.

In Tunisia, lunch can include brik, a thin, savory pancake filled with spinach, mashed potato and soft boiled egg or sandwiches made with tuna, hard boiled eggs, peppers, diced tomatoes, onions and olive oil with a touch of harissa. In Egypt, lunch may consist of hearty stews, kebabs, falafel or breads with hummus.

Dinner is the main meal of the day in many regions. Mezzas, from the Arabic word, t'mazza, meaning "small dishes of meals," are served as appetizers. They include lamb kebabs, pickled olives or cheeses, savory pastries, seasoned salads, fried cheese, grilled chickpeas or sardine fritters. Dinner generally consists of several courses, including chicken, fish or meat accompanied by couscous, pasta or breads.

A typical Moroccan dinner begins with bistilla (pigeon pie). Next comes the tagine (spicy stew of chicken, fish, vegetables or meat) served with couscous or khubz, a flatbread. A salad of eggplant or chopped tomato is served with the tagine. The meal's last course is generally a dessert of fresh or dried seasonal fruits (oranges, bananas, melons, tangerines, figs, dates), nuts or puddings, sometimes followed by sweet pastries or crumbly almond cookies. The meal ends with sweet mint tea.

Soups, served with any meal, are generally thick, hearty and spicy. Breads and many relishes and condiments accompany them. Harira, a soup eaten at sunset to end each day of fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, has many regional variations. It is made with lamb, chickpeas, lentils, tomatoes, bell peppers or rice. Other popular soups are spinach, meloukhia with beef or chicken, akoud (tripe and tomato), lentil with cucumber and yogurt, chakchouka (a ratatouille-like soup with chickpeas, eggs, bell peppers and lemon), shorba bilhout (fish soup with tomatoes and parsley), and cheruba with lima beans, chickpeas, lamb, macaroni, tomatoes and spices.

Long-simmering stews or sauces called tagines and wets are basic to North African cooking. Tagine refers to the finished simmered dish (meat, chicken, fish, fresh seasonal vegetables or fruits) seasoned with spices and slowly stewed in a covered earthenware dish. Tagine also refers to the earthenware pot, topped with a conical lid. The cooking liquid is a combination of water and seasoned smen, broth or olive oil. The finished product is soft and tender and eaten with the hands. Popular tagines include chicken with preserved lemons, ginger and saffron, fresh fish with tomato sauce and cumin, and lamb with prunes, cinnamon and rosewater. Moroccan tagines are topped with hard-boiled eggs, Tunisian tagines are served with baked egg, and Algerian tagines are topped with potato cheese croquettes. Tagines are accompanied by couscous or flatbreads.

Wets, the signature main dishes of Ethiopia, are spicy stews of lamb, beef, chicken, beans or vegetables. They are served over a moist, spongy bread called injera. Torly, a mixed vegetable stew with lamb or beef, with onions, beans, potatoes and peas, is a popular main course in Egypt.

Other meal-time musts
Sweet, rich North African desserts or confections are enjoyed later in the day as snacks with mint tea, when friends visit or during special celebrations. They include briks (sweet fritters of dried fruits), kab el ghzal (gazelle-horn-shaped pastry with almond paste), konafa (nuts, sugar and shredded wheat), fatirs (pancakes stuffed with eggs or apricots), baklava (flaky pastry with chopped nuts and saturated with honey) and makhroud (semolina cakes or cookies stuffed with dates and soaked in honey-orange flower water).

Between-meal snacks with tea or coffee are popular. Small, deep-fried or baked pastries or turnovers, called briwat, brik or bourek, are popular street foods containing many types of savory, sweet and sour fillings such as olives, lamb, tuna, chicken, beef, sausage, rice pudding, spinach, tomatoes, anchovies, cheese, eggs or almonds with spices. Bistilla, a Moroccan pastry, contains shredded chicken or pigeon meat combined with nuts, dried fruit, scrambled eggs, spices and sugar, encased in a flaky, phyllo-type dough.

Water, tea and coffee generally are enjoyed with meals. Green tea with mint and sugar not only ends a meal to aid digestion, but also accompanies sweet confections or desserts. It is served in cafes and bars, and takes the place of alcohol for most North Africans. Men gathering to socialize sip strong, thick Turkish coffee, plain or flavored with sugar and cinnamon or cardamon. Sweet syrupy drinks, sherbets and juices with a dash of rose or orange essence and sugar are common throughout North Africa. Vegetable drinks made from cucumber, tomato or carrots are also widespread. Licorice and karkaday, a bright red drink made with dried roselle flowers and cinnamon, are taken for overall well-being. Almond milk with orange-flower water and sugar is served cold during the hotter months, while hot chocolate is served during the colder season. Buttermilk is also popular. Although alcohol is prohibited, inhabitants of regions with French or Italian influence indulge in beers and liqueurs made from figs and dates, as well as western soft drinks.

Serving up couscous
Couscous, especially popular in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, is a flour-based pasta with a texture similar to that of rice. It is generally cooked with other ingredients (such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, dates, raisins, harissa or spices) and takes on their flavors. It can be topped with seasoned meats, fish, chicken, sausages or vegetables, or made into desserts with fruits, nuts, floral essences and spices.

Couscous presentation varies among regions. Tunisians like it very moist with sauced meats or vegetables spooned over it. In Morocco, sauced meat or vegetables are served in a hole formed in a mound of couscous. Algerians serve couscous, meat and sauce in individual dishes, and mix them together at the table.

Traditional cooks prepare couscous by moistening the grains and steaming them over a couscous pot called a couscoussière, a two-piece, traditionally unglazed earthenware vessel lined with tin or copper. The upper part has an inner tight-fitting sieve that holds the couscous grains; in the lower part, seasonal fish, meat, poultry and vegetable broth are cooked slowly and their aromatic vapors rise through the holes of the sieve to cook the couscous. The cooked grains plump up to three times their original size, then smen or butter is added to separate the grains and to give this dish a soft, fluffy texture and rich flavor. Modern methods include boiling it with water or broth on the stove or reconstituting instant couscous with hot water.

North African staples
Vegetables and grains, such as wheat, rice, t'ef, corn, millet, bulgur wheat and barley, form the staple diet of North Africans. Wheat, corn, rice or pearl millet are made into couscous and a variety of leavened and unleavened flatbreads such as kesra, tabouna, khubz, aysh baladi or aysh shami. These breads scoop up food, mop up sauces or form sandwiches. Breads are dipped into pureed chickpeas, harissa, olive oil or spice mixtures.

In Tunisia, diners find grilled barley with meat or fish and millet porridge. In Sudan, rice is made into couscous and other dishes flavored with meats, vegetables, onions, dates, orange-blossom water, raisins, smen and pistachio. Wheat and barley breads turn up in Egyptian meals, while rice acts as spiced stuffing for vegetables and grape leaves. T'ef or teff, a member of the grass family, is milled into flour to make injera, an Ethiopian staple used to scoop up stews. T'ef has 14% protein and two to three times the amount of iron of wheat or barley.

Going to the souk
Vegetables are eaten as starters, main meals, accompaniments to meals and as snacks or street munchies. They are prepared in many interesting ways — pickled, grilled, pureed into dips, stuffed with meats or rice, made into kebobs, or added to stews, soups or grains. They include eggplant, zucchini, cucumber, carrot, bell pepper, tomato, green beans, okra, spinach, kale, collard greens, cauliflower, potatoes and squash.

Okra is prepared in several ways: Egyptians make a sweet and sour dish with honey and lemon; Ethiopians boil it with red onions, tomatoes and spices; and Tunisians pickle it and steam it with olive oil and lemon juice. Meloukhia, a summer vegetable that provides a slippery mouthfeel to soups and stews, is available as fresh, dried or frozen.

North African salads, stews, soups and dips feature many legumes, such as chickpeas, fava beans, haricot beans, red kidney beans, pigeon peas, and red, green and brown lentils. Fava beans are used in ful medames or ta'amia, chickpeas in harira, pigeon peas in shiro wet and lima beans in cheruba. Fava beans seasoned with salt and pepper, or cumin are eaten as snacks.

Fresh and dried seasonal fruits, such as dates, figs, tangerines, peaches, pears, apricots, cherries, melons, banana, grapes, mangoes or watermelons, are added to savory and sweet dishes, and beverages. Preserved lemon and cured olives flavor fish, chicken and lamb dishes, and salads. Dried fruits are essential in sweet pastry fillings. Dried dates are eaten as nibbles throughout the day with roasted almonds, fruits, cheese and olives or stuffed with almond paste.

Popular cooking oils in North Africa include smen (clarified butter from goat or buffalo's milk), alya (rendered fat from sheep's tail), olive oil, cottonseed, peanut, corn, sesame and sunflower oils. Olive oil, a favorite in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, is generally favored for cold dishes, such as dips and salads, and fish dishes.

Smen, or samna, flavored with spices also flavors dishes. Ethiopian dishes use nit'ir qibe, a butter seasoned with onions, ginger, garlic, fenugreek and turmeric. Yogurt, eaten unflavored or flavored with honey, preserves or mint, is found in sauces, dips, cheeses and refreshing drinks. Salads and sandwiches contain goat or sheep cheeses, such as feta, gebna and labna.

Popular proteins
Meat dishes include Moroccan tagines and keftas (ground meat, mixed with spices and roasted on a spit); Tunisian zaytun mechoui (olive-stuffed grilled meatballs) and lamb kebabs (grilled, seasoned tender cubes); Ethiopian kitfos (steak tartar in spiced butter, chilies and spices); Algerian lamb crochettes and Egyptian roast chicken.

Lamb and mutton are generally marinated with spices for kebabs or combined with grains, vegetables and nuts for patties, soups and sauces. Ground lamb serves as keftas or as fillings for pastries and vegetables. Chicken is roasted, broiled or added to tagines and made into casseroles. Duck, goose, game and pigeon are also commonly stuffed, stewed or roasted. Pork is considered haram (forbidden) and is not readily available.

Chopped liver or liver strips are fried Sudanese-style with garlic, tomato paste and cinnamon or made into Egyptian kaftagi (spicy meatballs) with baharat, cumin or parsley. The French in Algeria enjoy meguena (brain pate), tripe, liver sausage, kidney brochette and stuffed spleen. Seasoned lamb or goat sausages, merguez, are eaten hot or cold in Tunisia and Morocco. Ethiopians frequently marinate meat and eat it raw or cooked with spiced butter and spices.

Seafood is popular along coastal areas, but can be expensive in other regions. Ethiopian yasa wet (braised fish seasoned with paprika, garlic onions and spices), Libyan shorba bilhout (fish soup made with tomatoes, smen, and spices), Moroccan chermoula samak (spiced, marinated trout), keftas, kebabs, pickled sardines and seasoned, fried octopus are customary entrées and nibblers.

Eggs are boiled, stewed, stuffed, scrambled with merguez, cheese, tomatoes, hot peppers and spices, made into omelets or used as toppings.

Almonds, hazelnuts, chestnuts, pine nuts and pecans provide texture and taste to pastries, cakes, sweets, stews, rice or couscous. Almond paste fills cakes and cookies, while roasted, sugared almonds, sometimes drizzled with olive oil and dusted with sugar and sesame seeds, serve as snacks.

Spice trade
Most North Africans eat mild to moderately hot dishes, except those in Tunisia, where some seasonings are fiery. A market, or souk, provides a variety of spices including cumin, cinnamon and mint from Morocco, fresh ginger, sesame and fenugreek from Ethiopia, cumin, coriander and cayenne from Tunisia, and cinnamon, caraway and coriander leaf from Egypt. Garlic, onion and fresh ginger are indispensable to North African cooking. Cinnamon complements tagine; green cardamon pods are blended into coffees; coriander leaves marinate fish; toasted fenugreek seeds season stews; and dried mint leaves are steeped in teas.

Spices are also added to drinks, used to flavor cooking oils or made into dips for breads and meats. Kebabs are dipped in ground cumin and then doused with red-pepper sauce and served with couscous. Egyptians dip bread in olive oil and then into dukkah, a crumbly mixture of black pepper, cumin, sesame, hazelnuts/ peanuts, dried chickpea, coriander and mint.

Each region has its signature seasonings. Morocco's ras el hanout (or "head of the shop") includes 25 to 40 different ingredients, including cinnamon, black peppercorns, green cardamon, caraway, nutmeg and rosebuds. Like curry powder, each vendor creates his or her own recipe. Chermoula, a Moroccan marinade contains garlic, onions, mint, paprika and almonds. Tunisia's harissa, a deep-red, hot table condiment with red chilies, cumin, garlic, tomatoes, vinegar and olive oil even is used for breakfast. Morocco and Algeria have milder versions. Berbere, a basic Ethopian ingredient, contains garlic, red chilies, fresh ginger, basil, red onions and cinnamon. Egyptians use baharat, which includes cinnamon, cumin, allspice and paprika, to season meats.

Floral waters or essences from orange blossoms and rose petals add unique scents to sweet pastries, couscous, tagines, meatballs and pies. Rose petals are also added to spice mixtures and used as garnishes for desserts. Dried leaves and flowers from roselle, a hibiscus relative, are made into a refreshing beverage.

By understanding the diverse foods and beverages of North Africa, we can add more interesting flavor dimensions to the products we create. We can add variety to the healthier alternatives by incorporating North Africa's unique seasonings, grains, nuts and vegetables, preparation techniques and meal presentations.

Susheela Uhl is president of Horizons Inc., a Mamaroneck, NY-based food-consulting firm. She creates culinary concepts and develops ethnic and fusion products (U.S. and global), provides information on spices and other flavorings, and gives presentations exploring culinary trends and the factors contributing to their emergence. She can be reached via e-mail at or by visiting

• Photo: American Spice Trade Association

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SOURCE: Food Product Design Magazine