It could well be Morrocan, Algerian, Egyptian or just plain North African but whatever name you discover this cuisine goes by, you're in for a treat. Spanning the length of the southern Mediterranean Sea and (obviously) the northern edge of Africa, food from this region is influenced by the many thousands of years trade, war and intrepid travel as well as what geography and climate can offer.
The canny diner will spot Turkish, Spanish and Italian dishes and flavourings but with differing names and with more emphasis on spices than herbs, such as cumin, coriander, saffron, chillies, cinnamon and ginger. Cooking methods also differ from what the Europeans do with reference to the nomadic peoples of the region and this also makes North African food stand out as a category of its own.
We've rather unfairly clumped the region together, with the intimation that the food is all the same be it Egyptian, Algerian or Morrocan - but let us strenuously stress that though the same dishes may occur in each country's culinary repertoire, each country will have its own stamp, be it heating up the flavour with extra chillies or loading up the spice for a fuller tasting meal. With all this in mind, what does a diner order when faced with a North African menu? Read on for more advice...
Lamb is the prinicipal meat but there is also chicken and pigeon and excellent vegetarian dishes to be found. Dried fruit (apricots, raisins, dates, figs) crops up in savoury dishes, as do cashew nuts, pine nuts, pistachios and almonds - those with nut allergies are warned to check with the kitchens before ordering. Lemons preserved in salt and their own juices add piquancy to chicken and pigeon dishes.
All dishes are served with flatbreads, rice or couscous and, good news for vegetarians, North African cooking is primarily meat-free with excellent options for the non-meat eaters. There is a vast array of vegetables and pulses used, mainly aubergine, courgette, tomatoes, okra, sweet potatoes, chickpeas, fava beans and lentils. There truly is something for everyone and the best way to enjoy a good North African meal is with lots of friends and family, around a big table, passing dishes back and forth to one another, having a good time. The breadth of dishes and their variations are too numerous to list in detail but the following is a guide to what to look out for when in a North African restaurant.
houmous, falafel, tabbouleh (cool and refreshing salad with parsely and cracked wheat)
pastilla - (also known as bisteeya) flaky pastry with a savoury filling of minced chicken or pigeon, almonds and spices with a sweet topping of sugar and cinnamon
piyaz - white beans in slightly spiced marinade
harira - hearty bean soup
tagine - the name of both the cooking method and the dish itself, this is the earthenware cooking pot for slowcooking stews, served with couscous
couscous - granular semolina, similar to rice and served as a side dish or as a dish in itself, cooked with spices, vegetables, nuts and raisins
harissa - garlic, chilli, salt and olive oil paste added to dishes with fiery effect
charmoula - a tangy, savoury sauce, also a marinade, made from cumin, lemon juice, salt, black pepper, sweet paprika, ginger, marjoram, and olive oil
mechoui - tender roasted lamb
djej emshmel - roasted chicken cooked with olives and lemon
chakchouka - peppers, garlic, cumin and tomatoes cooked with harissa and olive oil, with eggs fried among the vegetables
ferakh maamer - a whole chicken casseroled with a sweet couscous stuffing
tagine barrogog bis basela - lamb tagine with prunes
Sweets and desserts
A lovely range of sticky things for those who have left enough room for them... items to look out for are baklava-type pastries made from chopped nuts and / or dried fruit baked in layers of filo pastry and dipped in honey or deep fried pastry dipped in honey and sometimes rolled in sesame seeds or chopped nuts. Honey is usually flavoured with orange water or orange blossom, ensuring that pastries and puddings are not just sweet but flavoursome too.
At the end of your confidently ordered North African meal, sit back and let everything settle with a traditional cup of sweet mint tea. Ahh. Lovely.