My classification of North Africa includes the countries of Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia. This is quite a diverse part of the world, economically, culturally and politically. It has influences and ingredients from the rest of Africa, as well as from France, Italy and Spain to the north and east. Having said that, influences can be hard to pick apart, given that parts of North Africa was in the Roman empire as early as 200 BC, and was therefore subject to interregional trade and immigration. I remember doing a project in primary school about the ancient Egyptians, and being vaguely surprised that they ate garlic and beer. Apparently my life up to the age of 8 had implicitly informed me that garlic and beer were relatively modern foods. I got over the shock quickly, with a resilience that only children can have when faced with massive disproof of their fundamental assumptions, but the image of pharaohs eating garlic bread in aluminium foil and drinking beer out of cans never quite left me. It turns out that there is quite a lot of garlic indeed in Egyptian, and most North African, food. My baseline level of existence is walking around day-to-day with my hands smelling vaguely of garlic. Such is the blight of an international cook. But this week I’m fairly sure the rest of me smelled strongly of garlic as well; it has a tendency of seeping through the skin when you reach a critical level of ingestion. Happily, my friends were too polite to say anything (or were just equally afraid that they, too, smelled strongly of a socially unacceptable odour, as all humans constantly do).
Tagine and kemia
Tagines are named for the earthenware pot they are cooked in, consisting of a slow-cooked spiced meat stew flavoured with dried fruits and nuts. The typical tagine pot has a shallow bowl on the bottom that holds the stew, and a conical lid that fits snugly on top. The pot is then traditionally placed over hot charcoal to slowly cook for many hours (although I suppose an electric stove top on a very low heat will do). The design of this vessel is primarily designed to conserve the steam produced by the food inside, which is particularly important in North Africa where water can be a scarce resource. It also helps to evenly and slowly cook food, while lightly caramelising the ingredients by virtue of limiting the amount of liquid in the dish, thereby bringing out bright and sweet flavours. The small well in the top of the lid is designed to be filled with cold water to help this process of sealing in the steam. The net result is that you can turn cheap cuts of meat into beautifully tender and moist stews without the addition of much water, so really, you can’t afford not to buy one! This cooking technique dates back to the 9th century, evidenced by its reference in the famous ancient text “One Thousand and One Nights”, a collection of fold tales written during the Islamic Golden Age. I made my tagine with lamb, chickpeas, tomatoes, almonds, butternut squash, sweet potato, carrots, olives, preserved lemon, dried apricots and dates, with spices such as cumin, cinnamon, ginger, paprika, garlic and coriander. I particularly like the addition of fruit to savoury dishes, and have therefore always loved North African stews. I suppose my rejection of all things dessert means that the primary way I enjoy cooking with fruit is in savoury dishes, but my highly-biased opinion is that fruit is better that way anyway! Kemia is a similar concept to Spanish Tapas or Eastern European Meze, being a general term to meal of lots of small and varied plates, sometimes served alone or alternatively accompanying a main attraction. For my Kemia I made (clockwise from the top): Moroccan green salad, beetroot salad, spiced couscous, lhzina (orange and olive salad), bakoula (stewed greens) and taktouka (stewed capsicum and tomato salad).
Chermoula-marinated snapper with Tunisian fried-pepper salad and couscous
Chermoula is a wet north African marinade, made of finely processed coriander, oil, cumin, onion, preserved lemons, chilli, salt and pepper. It turns out sort of soupy and green, and reminds me of the Argentinian chimichurri aesthetically, although with quite a different taste. The chermoula is traditionally eaten with seafood, which I complied with by marinating a whole snapper in it, then grilling briefly. I liked the sound of the Tunisian fried-pepper salad before I’d even made it. I happen to think that capsicums are kind of magical. Fresh, they come in many varieties of amazing colours that look fantastic in salads and fresh dishes. They also have great crunch and freshness, with a little bit of sweetness. Slow-roasted or barbecued, they get a soft silky texture and sweet caramelised flavour that makes incredible sauces, dips or warm salads. Stir-fried, they have some crunch and colour left, but start to release all of their juicy sweetness. This last preparation is used to make the Tunisian fried-pepper salad, along with onion, garlic and tomatoes. Couscous is a fantastic dish because it’s like rice except much quicker and more idiot-proof to make. The grains of couscous are balls of semolina, and they puff up to be fluffy and delicious when immersed in hot water for a little while. The couscous was spiced with parsley, coriander, garlic, pistachios, chickpeas, lemon juice and harissa. Harissa is a spice mix of roast peppers, garlic, various chilli peppers, coriander seed, caraway and saffron. It’s becoming quite popular in hipster cafes at the moment, but despite that, it’s really quite a good way of adding a lot of quick flavour to dishes.
Ful medames and koshari
Both ful medames and koshari are among several close contenders for the contentious position of Egypt’s national dish, with molokhia (a stew made from a native leafy green unavailable to me here) and felafel (also shared by much of The Middle East) being additional forerunners. Ful medames literally derives from words meaning “buried beans”, perhaps referring to the process of immersing the beans in water and/or a large vessel to cook them. To prepared the dip, which is popular all over the Levant, a variety of bean (most famously fava beans) are boiled in salt and water until soft, then a proportion of the cook’s choosing is mashed to create a thick creamy consistency. The beans are usually served hot, garnished with olive oil, parsley, tomato, boiled eggs, cumin and frankly obscene amounts of raw garlic. It is standard fare at all kinds of communal meals, where the thick mash is scooped up by piping hot freshly baked flatbreads. The dish is sometimes described in Arabic as “the rich man’s breakfast, the shopkeeper’s lunch and the poor man’s dinner”, alluding to the ubiquitous nature of the dish across all echelons of society, with entire restaurants dedicated to serving this single dish. Evidence of stores of dried fava beans has been found in Egypt from the Neolithic, with some even claiming that their consumption dates back to Ancient Egypt, also demonstrating that this tradition is deeply rooted in history. Koshari, in comparison, is a relatively recent dish, tracing back to merely the 1800s, when clever Egyptians took advantage of the rise of multicultural influences and globalisation to create the delicious combination of macaroni pasta and a garlicky tomato and vinegar-based sauce (from Italy), lentils and rice (influenced by Indian khichdi, from which the name is thought to derive), chickpeas and crispy fried onions. This dish has many practical attributes including (not least) being incredibly tasty, providing an enormous amount of nutrients and dietary fibre from all of the legumes, being easy to prepare, and one of the cheapest dishes I’ve made! I totted up the numbers and conservatively estimate that the enormous batch I cooked cost $5.50AUD total to make, and lasted for 8 meals, which comes to $0.60AUD per serving, and would be even cheaper had I not taken the shameful shortcuts of using tinned beans and store-bought passata. To give you a frame of reference, a single big mac burger costs around $5.85AUD. Students and penny pinchers of the world take heed – koshari may be cheap in price, but it’s wealthy in delicious flavours!
Bastilla and arugula salad
I watch a lot of cooking shows. It should be no surprise that the major ones I like are those that travel around the world. This means I see an awful lot of recipes, but surprisingly, very few really stick in my mind and obsess me. One of these rare recipe ideas that was seeded by a cooking show, and then coursed through my veins like a disease until I could try it, was bastilla. It’s a famous dish from Morocco, originally made from pigeon, but more recently adapted to chicken. As most of my favourite dishes are, this one is all about balance between many elements: sweet versus salty, acidic versus bitter, and crunchy versus moist. It’s a little bit of a hassle to make, but well worth the effort. I started off by frying chicken breasts, then shredding them. I then fried up a mix of butter, onion, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, cumin, ground coriander, turmeric, saffron, chicken broth and fresh coriander and parsley. After almost all the liquid had gone, I turned the heat off and added beaten eggs until a soft cream formed, then added the chicken back in and mixed it all together. For the pie “topping” (which actually just forms layers within the pie crust), I finely ground toasted almonds, sugar, cinnamon, butter and orange flour water into a paste, which I layered above and below the chicken. For the pie crust, I used frozen phyllo dough. I’m not sure how I would have actually gone about making it myself, but it seemed impossibly thin when I removed it from the package, so I think I made the right decision. I layered several sheets on top of each other in a pie dish, slightly staggered each time and buttered in between, then poured the fillings into the middle. I then folded the edges up, then layered yet more phyllo sheets on top and tucked the edges in underneath. After baking, the phyllo pastry layers get wonderfully golden and crispy on the outside, but still moist and a bit doughy on the inside. I don’t think I’ve ever cooked with this type of dough before, but I’m definitely a convert. I sprinkled icing sugar on top, which is traditional, but I had a sudden inspiration all of my own to use an old lace doily as a stencil while doing so. I must say that I feel more pride about this idea than all of the ones in my recently-submitted PhD thesis put together, which is slightly worrying.