Written by Tara Stevens
With such splendid geography and the influence of traders, travellers, and invaders over many centuries, the region has developed not just one cuisine but several. With Qatar Airways launching flights to Benghazi, Libya, we sample Maghreb cuisine from Morocco to Libya.
For a place to have a great cuisine certain factors must come into play: the bounty of the land and the sea; a diverse history in terms of those who could bring something new to the table; and a well-established palace life where cooks could unleash their creativity. The Maghreb is blessed in having all of these in great abundance, resulting in one of the most resplendent cuisines in the world.
Phoenicians introduced sausage-making, Berbers invented couscous, Romans pressed olive oil, Arabs brought spices, Ottoman Turks baked sweet pastries, and Portuguese and Spanish adventurers returning from the New World brought with them potatoes, tomatoes, and chillies. Inevitably a strong market culture flourished with fresh ingredients brought daily into the towns and cities by farmers and fishermen, while traders sold freshly ground spices and flower waters to create a wealth of richly flavoured sweet and savoury dishes. No wonder it’s a region where people, rich or poor, live by the maxim ‘one must eat well’.
Moroccan cooking is arguably the most sophisticated of the Maghrebi cuisines, thanks largely to the influence of its imperial cities, which filtered into the home. The diffa (banquet) is designed to showcase the abundance and generosity of the court at its most decadent, and along with an array of salads, the feast will probably include b’stilla – a delicate flaky pastry pie filled with pigeon or chicken enriched with eggs and almonds, and dusted with cinnamon and sugar; mechoui – a well spiced lamb cooked whole on a spit and then dipped in bowls of freshly ground cumin and salt and eaten with the fingers; tagines, which could take the form of anything from djej emshmel – slow-cooked chicken infused with olives and preserved lemons – to the lamb, prune, and sesame stew that cookery writer Paula Wolfert describes as looking when served, ‘like a starry night’; and of course the tender, fluffy couscous steamed above it, followed by platters of fresh and dried fruits, and cakes and pastries enriched with almonds and flower waters.
Algerian cuisine has strong Berber and Ottoman Turkish influences and is generally more rustic and hearty than that of its neighbours. Its version of chakchouka, for example, comes from the Chaoui tribe in the Aurès mountains, and comprises shredded rougag (the native flat bread) topped with an earthy lamb and chickpea stew (elsewhere shakshuka features a rich tomato sauce with eggs poached in the top, and is eaten for breakfast). The national dish of couscous studded with raisins, saffron, and fresh mint tends to stand alone, while stews and main dishes are scooped up with semolina kesra, a flat bread baked in an earthenware pan that creates a distinctive pockmarked appearance.
Tunisian food is defined by its heat and piquant sauces. Harissa – a spicy, chilli pepper paste – is used much like tomato ketchup in northern Europe – on everything; kerkennaise blends capers, tomatoes, coriander, garlic, and parsley to serve with fish and seafood, while mloukhia, the local version of salsa verde, is served with tender slices of lamb and beef. Flavour combinations tend to be punchy rather than long-cooked and mellow, which gives Tunisian cuisine a distinctive freshness. Crowd-pleasers like brik – deep-fried savoury pastries – and the country’s famed doigts de fatma – deep-fried spring rolls stuffed with prawns, capers, preserved lemon, ricotta, and harissa – are more reminiscent of Asian cookery than anything else.
By contrast Libyan food enjoys an especially strong Italian influence from the days when it was an Italian colony. If couscous provides the backbone to nourishment elsewhere, pasta is an equally important staple here, ranging from a spicy Bolognese-style sauce over hand-cut spaghetti noodles called megetta to more elaborate pasta squares steamed over chunks of lamb and chickpeas. Tunisians are also big grazers, their version of mezze or tapas being kemia, which might comprise a small bowl of shorba (soup) and a selection of appetisers such as stewed baby octopus, merguez (spiced sausages of lamb or beef), a selection of vegetable salads and mb’atten – sliced potatoes stuffed with meat and herbs and fried.
Like most cuisines, the more layers you peel away the more you discover. And as the region develops, a modern take on its cuisine will no doubt emerge. For now, however, it is the traditional dishes found in the small cafés, restaurants, and street food stands of these ancient markets that excite and endure.
Benghazi is the second biggest city in Libya. Located on a lagoon that opens onto the Mediterranean, it occupies an enviable position surrounded by white sand beaches and pristine water fringed by palm trees. It was originally an ancient Greek settlement associated with the mythical gardens of Hesperides – a sort of paradise tended by nymphs – due to the lushness of the Jebel Akhdar, literally ‘the Green Mountain’ just north of the city. It later became an important Roman city, and although Benghazi is now mainly Muslim, the atmosphere of its heritage continues to permeate the fabric of the place. Central Benghazi is where you will find the best shopping, sights, restaurants, and hotels, along with an eclectic architectural landscape ranging from the former residence of Omar Pasha Mansour El Kikhia (now the Bait-al Medina al-Thaqafi museum), an excellent example of residential Ottoman architecture, to the domed Benghazi Cathedral built in the 1920s during the Italian era. For sheer atmosphere the medieval medina with its Maydan al-Hurriya (Freedom Square) and the covered Souq al-Jareed where you can snack on local street food such as fil fil mashi (stuffed peppers), and the Italian quarter famed for its pasta dishes such as megetta (a thicker, freshly made spaghetti) cooked in tomato sauce, are not to be missed.