The countries that make up Africa’s north are richly diverse in geography, culture and politics, and this is reflected in the cuisine of the region. A harmony of cinnamon, ginger, saffron, nutmeg and cloves lend themselves beautifully to the staples of couscous and potatoes, accented with chillies, tomatoes, aubergine and dates—not to mention North Africa’s abundance of tender lamb, goat, beef and chicken, finished with nuts, parsley, coriander or mint to create an explosion of flavours.
To truly transport yourself to Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, you’ve got to get to know the blend of spices that are signature to North Africa. Most dishes are spiced with cinnamon, cumin, ginger, paprika and saffron. You can get hold of spice blends such as ras el hanout and berbere from most supermarkets, or you can make them yourself quite easily. The recipe for ras el hanout contains spices you may well have in the house already, while berbere (considered the culinary foundation of Ethiopian cuisine and popular all over north Africa), is simply a blend of cayenne, paprika, black pepper and chilli flakes.
Harissa is an incredible hot sauce to compliment your dish. Seen particularly in Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya, it only takes ten minutes to whip up. Before beginning, soak 10-12 dried red chillies in hot water for about 30 minutes. Blend the soaked chillies together with 3 cloves of garlic, ½ tsp salt and 2 tbsp olive oil. Add in 1tsp each of ground coriander and caraway seeds, along with ½ tsp cumin and blend. Use in place of ketchup, salsa, or Tabasco to perk up couscous, soup or pasta. These spices will form the foundation of your cooking, creating a wonderful flavour sensation right from your own kitchen.
Once you’ve got your hands on these regional spices and blends, your food will take on a new dimension; the classic Moroccan tagine, its name deriving from the conical vessel in which it is cooked, makes for a wonderfully aromatic dinner. Slow cooking a richly-spiced casserole of meat with your choice of vegetables and dried fruits will impress at any dinner party. But for something even easier, try our recipe for Tunisian shakshouka.
Shakshouka is a north African classic which you can create as a nutritious breakfast or light lunch. A welcome variation from the usual boiled, scrambled or fried egg, this dish makes a wonderfully healthy and filling dish. You will need:
½ tsp cumin seeds
180ml olive oil
2 red and yellow peppers
4 tsp muscovado sugar (or substitute with brown)
2 bay leaves
Pinch of thyme
2 tbsp parsley
2 tbsp coriander
6 plum tomatoes
½ tsp saffron threads
Pinch cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper
2 eggs per person
Dry-roast the cumin seeds on a high heat for 2 minutes, then add the oil and onions and sauté for a further 5 minutes. Add the peppers, sugar, bay leaves and herbs, then, when a strong colour forms, add the tomatoes, saffron, cayenne and salt and pepper. Cook for 15 minutes on a low heat, adding water to keep the consistency. Remove the bay leaves and then portion the mix into a deep frying pan, enough for a generous individual portion. Place it on a medium heat to warm up, then make two gaps in the pepper mix in each pan and carefully break an egg into each gap. Sprinkle with salt and cover the pan, cooking on a gentle heat until the eggs are just set. Sprinkle with coriander and serve your authentic North African dish!