As I type this article, we are witnessing the crisis in Egypt. After three decades of the Mubarak regime, the people have had enough. Last week, I mentioned how the growing food crisis was having an adverse effect on Egypt's North African neighbours, Algeria and Tunisia. The latter country's dictator, ex-President Ben Ali, had to flee to Saudi Arabia. Like many, I am enthralled by the events happening there, not only because they are hot headlines in international news, but also because I have friends from those countries. Over the years, they have shared with me real stories of what it's like living under oppressive regimes. Many of these conversations took place over good food.
I love the cuisine of North Africa, a perfect hybrid of the bounty of the continent and the Mediterranean. It has been influenced through the years by Arab, Berber, Turkish and, later, French traditions. The fare is similar in terms of technique, ingredients used and taste. Moroccan is the most popular, which I have already covered in this column. Goat and lamb meat followed by beef is commonly consumed. Due to the dominance of Islam, pork is frowned upon and alcohol is not consumed widely. The use of legumes, fruits, nuts and spices make the cuisine of the Maghreb, as this region is known, highly attractive with its many flavours providing an adventure for the palate.
Egyptians can trace their cuisine's history from the ancients. The famous Nile meanders through fertile territory. Like Algerian and Tunisian cuisine, Egyptian tends to be more rustic than the more sophisticated Moroccan. A popular street-side dish is Koshari, a mixture of rice, macaroni and lentils in a tomato sauce, and is considered a national treasure alongside the well-liked broad bean-based Ful Medames. Alexandria is famous for its fish dishes. Tunisia is famous for its seafood. Its national dish is couscous. It's served with fish, meat or vegetables cooked in a variety of sauces. The food of Tunisia also tends to be spicier and hotter than its 'neighbours'. Merguez is one of Algeria's famous exports. People often mistake it for Moroccan food but it's not. This delicious lamb sausage is a tasty treat. Khabz is flatbread served with every meal.
Clifford A Wright, an authority on cuisines of the Mediterranean put it best: "Cuisines do not spring from nowhere and do not spring from restaurants. Cuisine is a cultural phenomenon that evolves from real people in kitchens cooking to provide for their families guided by culture, history, agricultural needs and wants." Whilst many might never have the opportunity to visit these lands of ancient civilisations the palate can certainly travel, especially if you experiment in the kitchen with today's recipes.
Algerian Lentil and Beef Soup
This North African meat and vegetable soup is healthy, filling and tasty. It makes a great supper on its own with bread or served over couscous or rice. This recipe is adapted from The Great Book of Couscous by Copeland Marks. Vegetarians can omit the meat.
500g/ 1lb stewing beef, cubed
500g/ 1lb lentils
1 onion, finely chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 carrots, finely chopped
1 large tomato, roughly chopped
4 stalks of celery, chopped
1 large potato, cubed
1/2 tsp each salt, pepper, cumin, caraway
1/4 tsp each cayenne, turmeric
4 sprigs of parsley, chopped
2 tbsps tomato paste
1 tbsp olive oil
750ml/ 3 cups water
Heat olive oil in the pan, and sauté beef, onions and garlic for 5 minutes.
Add all the spices and cook for a further 5 minutes.
Next, add the vegetables, herbs and water, bring to a boil and cook on high for 15 minutes.
Lower heat to medium, add lentils and tomato paste and cook for one more hour.
Tunisian Salad (Mechouia)
A typical Tunisian salad features tuna with boiled eggs. These same ingredients can be added to a French style baguette sandwich. Classical mint is used, but if you can't find fresh mint, substitute with dried mint or fresh parsley. Likewise, you can interchange between red wine vinegar or lemon juice.
1 can of tuna in oil
2 boiled eggs
1 tsp capers
Handful of black or green olives
1/2 red onion, diced
2 tomatoes, diced
1 green pepper, deseeded and finely diced
2 tsps red wine vinegar (or lemon juice)
2 tbsps olive oil
1/2 tsp harissa (substitute with hot sauce)
2 to 3 mint leaves, thinly sliced
In a bowl, whisk the red wine vinegar, olive oil, harissa and mint together.
Add the onions, tomatoes, green peppers and tuna and mix to coat.
Place in a serving dish and scatter over capers and olives, arrange egg slices around the dish and garnish with any extra herbs.
Egyptian Dukkah (aka Dukka, Duqqa)
This dry spice, herb and nut mix epitomises the flavours of Egypt. Typically the nuts featured are hazelnuts, but you can replace with pistachios or almonds, as the recipe can vary from family to family. It can be eaten as dip mixed with olive oil to go with flatbread, or used to season grilled fish or chicken.
175g or 2/3 cup hazelnuts
100g or 1/2 cup sesame seeds
1 tsp dried thyme
2 tbsps coriander seeds
2 tbsps cumin seeds
2 tbsps, freshly cracked black pepper
1 tsp sea salt
Dry-toast the nuts until they are golden brown in a frying pan. Do not burn.
Repeat with the coriander and cumin seeds for a couple of minutes.
Using a mortar and pestle, ground all the ingredients together.
My focus shifts to Valentine's Day, next week. Please enjoy today's recipes.
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