Traditional Algerian cuisine, a colourful combination of Berber, Turkish, French, and Arab tastes, can be either extremely mild or packed with flavourful seasonings. Ginger, saffron, onion, garlic, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, parsley, and mint are essential in any Algerian pantry. Tomatoes, potatoes, zucchini, and chillies, significant to Algerian local cuisine, were brought over from the New World.
History of Algerian Cuisine
Algerian cuisine traces its roots to various countries and ancient cultures that once ruled, visited, or traded with the country. Berber tribesmen were one of the country’s earliest inhabitants. Their arrival, which may extend as far back as 30,000 B.C., marked the beginning of wheat cultivation, smen (aged, cooked butter), and fruit consumption, such as dates. The introduction of semolina wheat by the Carthaginians (who occupied much of northern Africa) led the Berbers to first create couscous , Algeria’s national dish. The Romans, who eventually took over Algeria, also grew various grains. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Algeria ranked among the top ten importers of grain (such as wheat and barley) in the world, according to ArabicNews.com.
Muslim Arabs invaded Algeria in the 600s, bringing exotic spices such as saffron, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon from the Spice Islands of eastern Indonesia. They also introduced the Islamic religion to the Berbers. Islam continues to influence almost every aspect of an Algerian’s life, including the diet.
Olives (and olive oil) and fruits such as oranges, plums, and peaches were brought across the Mediterranean from Spain during an invasion in the 1500s. Sweet pastries from the Turkish Ottomans and tea from European traders also made their way into Algerian cuisine around this time.
In the early 1800s, Algerians were driven off their own lands and forced to surrender their crops and farmland to the French. The French introduced their diet and culture to the Algerians, including their well-known loaves of bread and the establishment of sidewalk cafés. This French legacy remains evident in Algerian culture. In fact, Algeria’s second language is French, Arabic is the official language.
Couscous , the national dish, is often mistaken as a grain itself, rather than pasta. The pasta dough is a mixture of water and coarse, grainy semolina wheat particles. The dough is then crumbled through a sieve to create tiny pellets. Algerians prefer lamb, chicken, or fish to be placed on a bed of warm couscous, along with cooked vegetables such as carrots, chickpeas, and tomatoes, and spicy stews. Couscous can also be used in desserts by adding a variety of ingredients, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, dates, and figs.
No Algerian meal would be complete without bread, normally a long, French loaf. Similar to Middle Eastern customs, bread is often used to scoop food off of a plate or to soak up a spicy sauce or stew. More traditional Berber families usually eat flat, wheat bread.
Mechoui , a roasted whole lamb cooked on an outdoor spit, is usually prepared when a large group of people gathers together. The animal is seasoned with herb butter so the skin is crispy and the meat inside is tender and juicy. Bread and various dried fruits and vegetables, including dates (whose trees can thrive in the country’s Sahara desert), often accompany mechoui .
Beverages such as mint tea are a favourite among all North African countries. Tea is usually offered to visiting guests, though coffee flavoured with cardamom is another option. With the abundance of fruits year round, fresh juices are plentiful and children tend to favour apricot nectar. Sharbats , fruit or nut-flavoured milk drinks, are popular with all ages, including sahlab , a sweet, milky drink. Traditional Berbers, in particular, prefer drinks made from goat milk, although cow milk is now available. Basbousa (Egyptian semolina cake), tamina (roasted semolina with butter and honey), and sweetened couscous are just a few sweets enjoyed by the Algerians.-
- The Khabz, traditional Amazigh (Berber) flatbread, is the base of Algerian cuisine and eaten at all meals.
- Another Algerian dish is Merguez, a spicy lamb sausage, that originate from the Atlas mountains.
- Other common dishes include berber couscous, Karantita, pastilla that is a speciality from Tlemcen and the Chaoui dish chakhchoukha.
- Spices used in Algerian cuisine are dried red chillies of different kinds, caraway, Ras el Hanout, black pepper and cumin, among others. Other spices like nutmeg, coriander, fennel, ginger, mace, and star anise are very popular in Algerian cuisine.
- Algerians also use tagines, handmade in many parts of the cities in Algeria. Frequently Algerian food is cooked in clay recipients, much like Maghrib cuisine. Algerian chefs take a lot of pride in cooking skills and methods and their many secrets lie in the variety of ways they mix special spices.
- There are many different types of Algerian salads, influenced by the French and Turkish, and can include ingredients such as beetroot or anchovies.
- There are also dishes of Spanish origin in Algeria, like the Gaspacho Oranais, an Algerian version of a Manchego dish.
Desserts and Drinks
- Sweets like seasonal fruits are typically served at the end of meals.
- Common pastries include makroudh, nougat and Asida.
- Halwa are cookies eaten during the month of Ramadan.
- Algerians are the second greatest consumers of honey per capita in the world.
- Mint tea is generally drunk in the morning and for ceremonies with pastries.
- Algerians are heavy coffee consumers and Turkish coffee is very popular.
- Fruit juice and soft drinks are very common and are often drunk daily.
- Algeria previously produced a large quantity of wine during the French colonisation but production has decreased since its independence
Food for Celebrations
The overwhelming majority of Algerians, about 99 percent, follow the beliefs of Islam, the country’s official religion (Christians and Jews make up only 1 percent of the population).
The Algerian observance of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic year (most often November or December), is the most celebrated of all holidays. During the month-long observance, Muslims are required to fast (avoid consuming food and drink) between sunrise and sunset, although young, growing children and pregnant women may be allowed to eat a small amount. At the end of each day during Ramadan, sometimes as late as midnight, families join together for a feast. French loaves or wheat bread and a pot of hot mint tea will likely serve as refreshments.
The meal marking the end of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr , is the most important feast. It almost always begins with soup or stew. Lamb or beef is most often served as the main dish, although families living close to the Mediterranean in northern Algeria enjoy a variety of seafood. In most Algerian homes, a bowl of fresh fruit is placed on the table at the end of the meal. Traditionally, each person is responsible for peeling and slicing his or her own fruit. However, on special occasions such as Eid al-Fitr , the host will often serve the fruit already peeled, sliced, and flavoured (most often with cinnamon and various citrus juices).
Other popular holiday celebrations are Labor Day (May 1), and the anniversary of the revolution over French control (November 1). Two local festivals that are celebrated every spring are the cherry moussem (festival) in Tlemcen and the tomato moussem in Adrar.
Algerian Mealtime Customs
Arabs are hospitable and encourage family and friends to share their food. Even an unexpected visitor will be greeted warmly and offered coffee (often flavoured with cardamom), while the females of the household prepare the meal. Cooking continues to be considered a woman’s duty, as it has in the past. Historically, recipes and cooking customs have been passed down through generations by word of mouth when women gather together to prepare meals.
All meals (normally three a day) are leisurely and sociable, although there are varying degrees of structure and etiquette (polite behaviour). Seated at a low table ( tbla or mida ), food is traditionally eaten with the thumb, forefinger, and middle finger of the right hand (the left hand is considered unclean). To use four or five fingers is considered to be a sign of over-eating and should be avoided. The dining atmosphere in a middle class family may be a bit more elegant. A servant or young family member might visit each individual at the table, offering a bowl of perfumed water to diners for washing their hands before the meal is eaten.
The country’s capital, Algiers, and popular coastal towns tend to have a wide variety of restaurants, particularly French, Italian, and Middle Eastern cuisine. Southern Algeria is less populated, and is farther from Algiers and the Mediterranean waters, where seafood and the hustle and bustle of trade are plentiful. Menus usually begin with either a soup or salad, followed by roast meat (usually lamb or beef) or fish as a main course, with fresh fruit commonly completing the meal. In the towns, souks (markets) or street stalls offer take-home products, such as spicy brochettes (kebabs) on French bread for those on the run. With the exception of an occasional fast food burger, school lunches are often such traditional foods as couscous, dried fruit, stews, and sweet fruit drinks.