Due to a mashup of culture, history, geography, religion and politics, what we might have called North African food – or even Arab food or, by most associations, Middle Eastern food – has come to be known as “Mediterranean food.”
In the same politicized way that, in modern America, “Persian food” sounds less dangerous than Iranian food, the southern shore of that Middle Sea has staked a claim on “Mediterranean” ahead of Spain, France, Italy, Croatia, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Israel, all of which have foods worth noting and, most of all, worth eating. As a result, when you’re in the world of so-called Mediterranean food, you are probably dealing with North African food. And you are probably in for a treat.
Go back far enough along this shore and there were great empires fighting it out, including Egypt of the Pharaohs and Rome of the Caesars, with ancient Carthage of Hannibal and his elephants tossed in for good measure. But when Arab conquerors swept westward as far as the Atlantic Ocean in the 11th century, they brought their own culture, religion and cuisine to bear.
Most of all, they brought a level and variety of spicing that might be the world’s most exotic. They were the global experts on this topic, of course, the people behind the spice trade and the ancient spice routes, after all.
All these centuries later, the foods of countries like Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia (all French colonies at one point or another) are wonderlands of spice. By that, we do not mean hot, though there’s often a thick pepper sauce or paste called harissa handy if you want a bit more kick. It’s as though all the spices we know from each spice-tingly world cuisine, from Mexican to Indian, got together and created a new definition of flavor. There are tacos in Texas with less cumin than most of the dishes on the streets of Marrakech.
Still, for American taste buds, the strangest thing about North African cuisine is encountering “sweet spices” we associate with dessert in a savory appetizer or entrée. By that, we primarily mean cinnamon, nutmeg and its sibling, mace, right alongside the “savory” spices we know from Indian cuisine. One Moroccan chicken stew-in-pastry called bastilla features not only a cinnamon layer but a sprinkle of powdered sugar. For some, the taste confusion is pleasant. For others, not so much.
History is packed with ironies here. If you feel at home with Moroccan or Algerian spicing, you probably are familiar with Spanish or Sicilian cooking, the latter the primary menu of “Italian restaurants” in America beginning in the early 1900s. Virtually all the Spanish dishes we revere, starting with paella, are prepared and spiced along a more subtle version of North African taste.
For its part, Sicily is a hotbed of all things North African, with locals assuring you they are closer to Africa than to Rome. From chickpeas to couscous to citrus to that telltale blend of savory-sweet spices, flavors couldn’t be farther from Tuscany or Venice if they’d landed In Sicily from the moon. Why? How? For hundreds of years, both Spain and Sicily were occupied by Arabs.
Call them Moors, Saracens or later Ottoman Turks. If the evidence woven into recipes from North Africa is any indication, just don’t call them late for dinner.
The key to making foods “taste North African” is in the spices. And that means cumin and unexpected sprinkles like cinnamon and even nutmeg, against a background zapped by a squeeze of citrus, usually lemon. The beauty of lemon is that the juice used here in the sauce gets bolstered by both lemon zest and lemon pepper in these delicious Moroccan meatballs.
1 pound ground beef or lamb
½ cup seasoned breadcrumbs
½ cup minced onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon lemon pepper
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Salt and black pepper
1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper, optional
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup Fischer & Wieser’s Salsa a la Charra
1 cup chicken broth
Juice of ½ lemon
¼ cup briny olives, such as kalamata
¼ cup slices dried dates or figs, or both
Basmati rice or couscous
In a bowl, combine the ground meat (a combination of beef and lamb is good too) with the breadcrumbs, onion, garlic and parsley. Season the mixture with lemon zest, lemon pepper, cumin, paprika, cinnamon, salt and black pepper. Add the crushed red pepper if using. Form the mixture into meatballs and cook in the olive oil until cooked through. Discard all leftover fat. To the meatballs in the pan, add the salsa, broth and lemon juice. Stir in the olives and dates or figs. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes so flavors can meld. Serve hot atop basmati rice or couscous, with triangles of warm pita and a garnish of additional parsley. Serves 4.