Desserts

Milk and Pastry Pudding, 56 Coconut and Semolina Cake, 58

Johnnycake With Coconut Milk

introduction

North African cuisine abounds in rich, savory flavors and aromas, yet the basic ingredients are familiar. They include fish, poultry, eggplants, zucchini, bell peppers, carrots, lentils, chickpeas, beans, apples, peaches, lemons, limes, dates, and nuts. Lamb is the favorite meat in North Africa.

North African cooks transform these familiar foods with an array of flavorful herbs and spices. Common among them are cumin, cinnamon, ginger, saffron, coriander, turmeric, mint, cilantro, chili peppers, and garlic. Harissa, a paste made of garlic and chili peppers, and tahini, a paste made from crushed sesame seeds, are frequent additions to recipes.

The recipes in this cookbook represent a sampling of dishes from throughout North Africa. They range from tasty appetizers, called maze, to fragrant stews, called tagines. With so many different recipes to choose from, you'll no doubt find several to your liking.

In this lamb stew, typical North African ingredients such as eggplants, apricots, dates, and cinnamon accent the flavor of the meat. (Recipe on pages 64-65.)

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EGYPT Gulf of Suez

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EGYPT Gulf of Suez

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The Land and the People

North Africa encompasses the countries of Morocco, Algeria,Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Other countries, including Western Sahara and Sudan, are sometimes also considered part of the region. The North African countries share a common history, language, and culture.

Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya are located in northwest Africa, in an area known as the Maghreb. Maghreb means "sunset" in Arabic. Islamic conquerors from the Arabian Peninsula who came to North Africa in the 600s gave the region this name because it lies to the west of other Arab nations. Egypt, farther to the east, is considered part of the Mashreq, or Arab east. Mashreq means "sunrise."

North Africa is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the Mediterranean Sea to the north, and the Red Sea to the east. The landscape ranges from mountains and high plateaus to low, flat regions. The northernmost region, called the Tell, runs along the Mediterranean coast. In this fertile land, vineyards, olive groves, and wheat fields flourish. The dry, hot Sahara Desert stretches across the southern part of North Africa.

During most of the year, the North African climate is dry and hot, but some rain falls in winter and spring in the higher elevations. Temperatures in the Sahara Desert vary from more than 100°F at midday to below freezing at night. During the summer, hot, dusty winds called siroccos sweep northward from the Sahara, creating sandstorms that move across the Mediterranean to southern Europe.

The high, rugged Atlas Mountains in the northwestern corner of North Africa have snow-covered peaks reaching over 10,000 feet. At 13,665 feet, Jebel Toubkal is the highest mountain in North Africa. Egypt's highest peak, Gebel Katherina (8,652 feet), lies on the Sinai Peninsula, which is separated from the rest of the nation by the Gulf of Suez and the Suez Canal. Nearby Gebel Musa (Arabic for "Mountain of Moses") is thought to be Mount Sinai, where, according to the Bible's Old Testament, Moses received the Ten Commandments.

Although North Africa has thousands of miles of coastline, freshwater is a scarce commodity. The Medjerda River, running from the highlands of northern Algeria to the Mediterranean Sea, provides Tunisia and Algeria with its only year-round supply of water. Egypt depends on the Nile River and wells for its water. Many Egyptians who live in the south have never seen rain. The area along the banks of the Nile River—which makes up only 4 percent of the land in Egypt—is suitable for farming. The main summer crops are cotton, rice, corn, and sorghum. Wheat, beans, Egyptian clover, and vegetables are winter crops.

Morocco's chief crops are wheat, barley, corn, sugar beets, citrus fruits, potatoes, tomatoes, olives, and beans. They are grown mainly in the coastal lowlands bordering the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The rich farmland in this area gets plenty of water from many shallow rivers. In Tunisia date palms and olives are the most important crops. Algerian farmers primarily grow wheat and barley along the coastal plains, but other crops include dates, grapes, olives, potatoes, and citrus fruits. Only 5 percent of Libya is farmland, so the country imports much of its food. The crops grown there include tomatoes, wheat, barley, olives, potatoes, dates, and citrus fruits.

The two main ethnic groups in North Africa are the Arabs and the Berbers. Many Egyptians also trace their ancestry to the ancient Egyptians. Other North African ethnic groups include the Tuareg people of southern and western Libya and southern Algeria, the traditionally nomadic Tebu and Bedouin people, and the Nubians of southern Egypt.

The people of North Africa are linked by language and religion. The majority of people speak Arabic, even if it is not their first language. Almost everyone follows the Islamic religion. North Africa has more in common with the Middle East than with the rest of Africa because of the regions' shared religion, language, and culture.

About half the population of North Africa is rural. Most of these people live in the Nile Valley, the Mediterranean coastlands, and the Atlas Mountains, which are the most fertile regions. Still, almost two million people live in the Sahara Desert or on its edges. Nomadic people, for example, keep flocks of sheep or goats and move from patch to patch of vegetation and water. But more and more North Africans are moving to the large cities and towns to find work.

Wealthy North Africans live in modern houses or apartment buildings, but most urban residents live in crowded conditions in older neighborhoods. Rural people tend to live in small villages. Some farmers have their own plots of land, but most work for wealthy landowners.

The family is the most important part of Arab culture. Arranged marriages are common, but this practice is slowly changing. Men are usually the heads of households and work outside the home. Some urban, educated women also work outside the home. In Libya's Tuareg population, women hold the economic power. In Tuareg society, only women can own or inherit property.

The Food and Culture

North Africa is home to a mosaic of cultures. The region is close to both southwest Asia and southern Europe. Over the centuries, North Africa was frequently invaded and occupied by people from other countries. At different times, Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Turkish, and Arab peoples took over parts of the region. Each group brought different customs, religions, and foods, but the Arabs, who arrived in the 600s, had the greatest impact. In more modern times, starting in the 1800s, European nations began claiming much of the African continent as colonies.

North African cuisine reflects this diverse and layered history. Influences of the early Bedouin, Berber, and Arab peoples can be found in the cooking of the Maghreb. In Egypt some dishes date all the way back to the pharaohs. Couscous, made from semolina wheat, was a contribution of the nomadic Berbers. It has become a staple throughout North Africa and accompanies many dishes.

Thanks to the diversity of cultural influences, North African cooking includes a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, soups, stews, salads, and pastries. Religion also plays a role in North African eating habits. For example, Muslims do not eat pork or drink alcohol. Mint tea is the most common drink.

Historically, North Africa was a stopping point on the spice trade route between Europe and the Far East. As a result, North African cooks adopted many spices into their cuisine.The freshness and variety of spices are crucial in North African cooking.

People can buy freshly ground spices and fresh herbs in the souks, marketplaces lined with open-fronted stalls, typically found in the old quarters of cities. Sellers present great mounds of spices, creating a rainbow of colors and a delicious array of smells. The markets also abound with fresh fruits and vegetables, herbs, fish, fresh and dried fava beans and lentils, grains, and jars of olives and olive oil. The souk is a feast for the eyes and nose.

A typical North African breakfast, fatour al-sabah, consists of tea or coffee and a porridge made of either millet (a type of grain) or chickpea flour. Sometimes people eat flatbread or fresh fruit. In Egypt breakfast usually consists of tea and ful, or seasoned beans, the country's national dish.

Lunch, al-ghada, is the main meal of the day in North Africa. It typically begins with mezze, or appetizers. These range from a simple selection of nuts, olives, or vegetable wedges to a large array of tempting cooked delicacies. Perhaps a tagine—a tasty stew prepared in an earthenware pot of the same name—will follow, usually with a heaping platter of couscous. Pastries or fresh fruits are served with mint tea for dessert. Dinner, al-acha, might be several appetizers, a hearty soup, or a single meat or fish dish.

Hospitality is a cherished tradition in North Africa. When preparing a meal for guests, people take great pains to offer a lavish display of dishes and make sure everyone is enjoying the meal.

Although Western-style tables and chairs are creeping into the culture, meals are traditionally served on large trays resting on low, round, wooden stools. The trays are made of copper, brass, or silver decorated with ornate patterns. People sit on cushions surrounding the tray. Although knives and forks are increasingly being used, many people eat with their fingers in the traditional manner. To do so properly is a delicate, refined art.

The meal begins with a young member of the family pouring warm water over the guests' hands into a decorative basin. When hands are dry, a few drops of scented water are sprinkled on them. Only the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand are used for eating from the communal dish on the tray.

The meal begins and ends with prayer. The host asks for Allah's (God's) blessing by saying Bismillah! ("In the name of God") before the meal. At the end of the meal, guests offer thanks by saying Hamdullah ("Thanks be to God").

Although each North African country has its own national holidays, the countries all share the same Islamic religious holidays, when family and friends come together to celebrate. Food always plays a central role in the festivities. Guests are welcome and are offered food and drink. To refuse is unthinkable.

Muslims use a lunar calendar, in which each month starts with the new moon. The Islamic lunar calendar is about 11 days shorter than the 365-day Western calendar. Every year, each Islamic month starts

11 days earlier than the year before, so the dates of Muslim holidays and festivals vary from one year to the next.

Most Muslim holidays and festivals mark important events in the life of Muhammad, the Arab prophet and founder of Islam. The Hegira celebrates Muhammad's escape from Mecca, where the people began to persecute him, to Medina (both in modern-day Saudi Arabia), where people welcomed him in the year 622. Hegira marks the Islamic New Year. Meelad-ul-Nabal celebrates the birth of the Prophet. The birthday of Muhammad's daughter, Fatimah, is observed as Women's Day.

In the city of Kairouan,Tunisia, celebrating Muhammad's birthday takes on special importance. Tradition holds that if Tunisian Muslims visit this city seven times, they can fulfill their religious obligation of pilgrimage. Pilgrims come from far away to observe the joyous occasion, called Mouled or Moulid an-Nabi in Tunisia. Brightly lit souks are open night and day, and the city is decorated with carpets and garlands. Mouled is also a time of feasting. Almost everyone eats assida, a sweet pudding, the morning of Mouled to mark the beginning of the festivities. Makroudh, small cakes stuffed with dates and soaked in honey, are another favorite treat.

Laylat-ul-Isra commemorates the night the angel Jibril (Gabriel) took the prophet Muhammad to heaven. According to Muslim beliefs, Muhammad toured the seven heavens and decided with God how many times a day—five—Muslims should pray, or recite salah.

The holy month of Ramadan is the most important holiday for Muslims. Ramadan commemorates Allah giving the Quran (the holy book of Islam) to Muhammad. This holiday is observed with fasting and prayer. Most Muslims do not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset. A light breakfast is eaten before dawn. During the day, devout Muslims visit mosques (places of worship) to pray and attend services. After sunset family and friends gather for another meal, such as harira, a Moroccan soup made from lamb, vegetables, chickpeas, and grains.

The feast of Eid al-Fitr ends the Ramadan fast. This celebration usually begins with special prayers at a mosque. The day gives everyone an opportunity to rejoice and to reflect on the past month. People dress up, often in new clothes. Many people exchange gifts, and children receive candy and money. Families and friends get together to enjoy special foods. Each family has its own favorite dishes.

Another important Muslim holiday is Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice. This holiday falls during the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Muslims must try to make the trip at least once during their lifetime if they are physically able. Eid al-Adha celebrates the journey of the pilgrims. It also celebrates a story in the Quran in which Abraham is willing to sacrifice his son for Allah but is stopped and rewarded for his faith.

To commemorate this story, Muslim families traditionally roast a lamb, sharing the meat with friends, neighbors, and the poor. Those who cannot afford such an extravagant feast might eat a stew, such as a chicken tagine. Like Eid al-Fitr, this holiday usually lasts for a few days and includes visits to mosques, family gatherings, and perhaps gifts and toys.

Local festivals and celebrations in North Africa are known as moussems. People may dance, sing, eat, and pray together, celebrating a local crop, market, or holy person. For example, in Morocco the Almond Blossom Festival takes place during the second week in February. Since the blossoms do not last long, their appearance is cause to celebrate.

Perhaps one of the most interesting festivals in Morocco is Imilchil Moussem, the Festival of Fiancés. Imilchil is a small village high in the Atlas Mountains. Traditionally, the young men and women of the area get married on the day of the moussem. In ancient times, a holy man used to bless the newly married couples, and, according to legend, they lived happily ever after. Thousands of people from the mountains gather under tents for three days of dancing and celebration.

People who live in the Algerian oasis (a fertile area in a desert) of Taghit celebrate the harvest of dates at the end of October. Other Algerian towns celebrate the cherry and tomato harvests.

All the North African countries have their own Independence Day and other national holidays. In Tunisia, for example, Independence Day takes place on March 20. In Algeria it occurs on July 5. Libyans celebrate Evacuation Day on June 11, marking the day in 1970 when British troops left the country, where they had occupied military bases since World War II (1939-1945).

Whether holidays and festivals are national or regional, religious or patriotic, the people of North Africa celebrate them with delicious foods. You too can try these delectable treats. Enjoy!

How Make North Africa Cooking

Before You Begin

Cooking any dish, plain or fancy, is easier and more fun if you are familiar with its ingredients. North African cooking makes use of some ingredients that you may not know. Sometimes special cookware is also used, although the recipes in this book can easily be prepared with ordinary utensils and pans.

The most important thing you need to know before you start is how to be a careful cook. On the following page, you'll find a few rules that will make your cooking experience safe, fun, and easy. Next, take a look at the "dictionary" of cooking utensils, terms, and special ingredients.You may also want to read the tips on preparing healthy, low-fat meals.

Once you've picked out a recipe to try, read through it from beginning to end. Then you are ready to shop for ingredients and to organize the cookware you will need. When you have assembled everything, you're ready to begin cooking.

Smart cooks will be attentive or ask for help when making this Algerian eggplant salad, which requires using a hot oven and heating oil on the stove. (Recipe on page 42.)

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