August 1, 1995

3 Min Read
What Makes it North African?

Food Product Design

What Makes it North African?
August 1995 -- Flavor Prints

  What sets one country's foods apart from those of its neighbors? To a great degree, the difference is in the spicing - the ones most frequently used and the combinations utilized with different foods. We call these habits characterizing a nation's cuisine its "flavor prints." In their way, they provide identification much like fingerprints do for humans. In this series, developed in cooperation with the American Spice Trade Association, Food Product Design explores nations' flavor prints as a guide and inspiration for food product designers.  From a seasoning viewpoint, North Africa can be divided into two parts. The western region (often called the Maghreb) consists of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia; the eastern includes Libya and Egypt. Dishes like couscous (the semolina-based vegetable and meat stew) are served throughout North Africa, but the spicing varies from west to east.  In general, Morocco and its western neighbors view spices about as seriously as Indians do - using a great variety and making them the focus of many of their dishes. Countries like Libya and Egypt, on the other hand, are heavier users of garlic and the rest of their seasoning tends to be simpler with less variety.  If one spice could be called universal in North Africa, it would be cumin seed - a reflection of the Middle Eastern influence throughout the area. In a ras al hanout blend (similar to the curry powders of India) the Moroccans combine cumin with coriander seeds, cinnamon, ginger and turmeric for their basic flavor combination. Black pepper also appears in most recipes and other sweet spices, such as allspice, may be used. Couscous in the Maghreb will usually contain saffron in addition to the ras al hanout spices.  In Morocco and Tunisia, the diner can choose how hot he/she wants couscous to be, because it's served with a harissa sauce on the side. This incendiary condiment is made from hot peppers, cumin, garlic and salt, moistened with the couscous cooking broth.  While seasoning in North Africa is heavily influenced by the ingredients and habits of the Middle East, it also reflects some European ideas. The Moors, for example, left many imprints on Spain, but when they returned to Africa they also brought back a number of Spanish innovations. Today, it's common for a Moroccan meal to begin with b'stilla, a crisp pastry that is filled with a spicy chicken mixture. We think of it as very Moroccan, but it's actually a recipe the Moors brought back from Andalusia in Spain.  In Egypt, a meal is more likely to begin with a vegetable soup that has been a tradition in that country since the time of the Pharaohs. A combination of chickpeas, sweet peppers, spinach, tomatoes and lentils, it is seasoned with cumin, onion, garlic, black pepper and mint. While the recipe is ancient, it did not include tomatoes or sweet peppers until after the discovery of the New World.  The spicy beef and vegetable casserole called tajin is part Jewish. North Africans have added their spicing - cumin, black pepper, paprika, coriander, ginger and cinnamon - but the focus of preparation is slow, lengthy cooking, reminiscent of Jewish Sabbath day stews.  North African desserts run the gamut from simple fruit preparations to gossamer-light pastries. Honey, almonds and sweet spices are typical flavor notes.  What makes it North African? The spices that give food the enticing aromas and flavors of the casbah are cumin and coriander seeds, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, garlic and onion. But spice shelves in these countries are well-stocked with black pepper and hot chilies, paprika, sesame seeds and aromatics like cloves and allspice as well as such herbs as bay leaves, marjoram, parsley, mint and cilantro. And many cooks count saffron indispensable.
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