Bisteeya (pictured above) is the pride of Morocco. It's a rich poultry and nut pie encased in flaky phyllo dough, dusted with confectioner's sugar and cinnamon for a sweet twist. Reserved for special occasions, like weddings, it is served to welcome guests and display kindness and generosity. Like many traditional North African dishes, it is a labor of love to make, requiring great care and attention to detail from start to finish.
The regional cuisines of North Africa, from the luxurious cooking of the Maghreb (the Mediterranean coastal areas of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco) to the robust cooking of Egypt, have plenty to contribute to the world food scene. All have vibrant and varied influences from civilizations that have inhabited the area over many centuries: the Phoenicians, Romans, Ottomans, Arabs, Spanish Muslims, Turks, French and others brought their own traditions, mixing with the indigenous culture of the Berbers.
Staple foods in North African cuisines include wheat (durum wheat, from which couscous and pasta are made, is native here), olives, olive oil, nuts, dates, and lots of vegetables, beans, lentils and legumes. Seasonal vegetables are eaten at every meal - tomatoes, eggplants, artichokes, peppers, pumpkins, and wild greens are especially popular.
Hearty main dishes like couscous and tagine are served alongside intensely-flavored condiments like salt-preserved lemons, harissa chile paste, and charmoula sauce. These condiments are used on plates of cooked vegetables, grilled meat and seafood. Spices, especially cumin, ginger, paprika, cinnamon, and saffron, are in almost everything.
Likely the most well-known North African dish abroad, couscous is the core of Moroccan cooking. It can be traced back to the nomadic Berbers, who were the first to turn durum semolina wheat into dry couscous, an innovation that stemmed from their need to preserve wheat to carry with them. Today, a specialized two-chamber couscous pot can be found in many North African households. The couscous sits in the upper chamber, and is cooked by the steam from a simmering stew in the lower chamber. The two are served together for an extraordinary – and ingenious – meal.
Tajines and Tadjines
Another specialized cooking vessel out of North Africa is the Moroccan tajine, a cone-shaped clay pot designed to intensify the flavor of slow-cooked meat, poultry, seafood, or vegetable stews. The cone shape allows for a continuous cycle of condensation – and flavor – to circulate around the food. A similar dish – tadjine – is a household staple in Algeria. Both names also refer to the dishes made in them. Algerian tadjines are more like deep-dish egg pies, similar to Italian frittatas, flavored with stewed vegetables, starchy thickeners like white beans or chickpeas, eggs, and cheese. Tajines and tadjines demonstrate a common thread through all North African cooking: a love for vegetables.
Full of Ful
Ful medames, or stewed fava beans, is the national dish of Egypt. It’s eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner there, and home cooks take great pride in their renditions. The fava is the only native Mediterranean bean; all others came from the New World along with tomatoes, peppers, and other modern Mediterranean staples. The southern shores of the Mediterranean, including Egypt's coast, were less influenced by New World products than the northern shores of Spain, France, Italy and Greece, explaining why the fava is more widely used there. Fava beans are used in many other delicious Egyptian dishes too, such as bagula, a smoky bean salad, and the Egyptian version of falafel, bean fritters typically made with chickpeas in the Middle East. Middle Eastern influence can be found throughout Egyptian cuisine, in Egyptian hummus, baba ghanoush and whole wheat pita bread, for example.
Sweet, Savory, and Spicy
Sweet and savory flavor combinations can be found throughout North African cuisine: lamb with prunes, chicken with honey, and carrots and cumin, for example. Tagine stews often contain fruit (fresh or dried) and vegetables. A popular street food in Algeria is mahjouba, thick semolina crepes stuffed with tomato jam, chiles, and sweet cooked carrots. Tunisians are known for their use of chiles, most notably in harissa paste, a fiery mixture of sun-dried hot peppers, spices, garlic and oil. It’s used in similar ways to tomato paste in Italian cooking: stirred into sautéing onions for the base of sauces and stews, and in marinades for meat and seafood.
Olives and Olive Oil
One cannot discuss any type of Mediterranean cooking without mentioning olives and olive oil. Olives are an important agricultural product in the Maghreb region, and olive oil is the primary cooking oil there. Beyond the standard bowl of olives, little plates of spiced octopus, shrimp, and vegetable-based dips cooked with olive oil adorn Moroccan and Tunisian tables, along with olive-oil-pickled vegetables.
For more information, we highly recommend Paula Wolfert’s award-winning cookbook, The Food of Morocco. You won’t be disappointed.
To start cooking immediately, try the recipes below and enjoy the delightful flavors of North Africa.
Click on a title or photo below to go to the recipes.