• A key trading region for hundreds of years, Algeria had many influences on its rich culinary offerings. (Le Souk)
Algerian food may not have the profile of some of its neighbours – but it’s worth seeking out.
By
Freya Herring

30 May 2017 - 1:51 PM  UPDATED 30 May 2017 - 1:51 PM

Algerian food is a melting pot of ideas, cultures and trade. The North African country, with Morocco to its west and the Mediterranean to its north, fuses the gastronomy from these rich culinary places, and has forged its own voice: olives from the Med, couscous and spices from Africa (applied lightly, not acutely), oily fish from its long coastline and saffron from across the sands of the Sahara.

It’s a country with a complex history. Today, poverty is common. “Growing up in Algiers, we were a large family with many mouths to feed,” says chef Pierre Khodja, who was born there.  “Dishes that could go a long way were favoured – couscous {get Pierre's Royal Couscous recipe here], rechta (pronounced rish-ta) and sauce-based dishes with vegetables and chickpeas are what I mostly remember.”

Khodja moved to Marseille in France as a child, and it’s the French-Algerian food of this time of his life that has informed the menu at his new restaurant, Camus, in Melbourne’s Northcote.

“My mother made sure we still ate the food of our home, but a few French influences snuck in. I remember eating a lot of merguez and frites as I got older, lots of bread and olive oil. We would still eat meat seasoned with all the spices from home though – cinnamon, cardamom and chilli.” Today at the restaurant the traditions continue. “We offer a slow cooked goat dish, served with caramelised onions, apricot and pomegranate,” he says, “We marinate the meat with a perfect blend of cinnamon, paprika, cumin and garlic, then slow cook it for 12 hours. The flavours remind me so much of home.”

Over in Adelaide, co-owner of Algerian restaurant Le Souk, Azou Bouilouta, describes the bounty of produce on your doorstep in Algeria. “My family was part of an extended tribe that lived in the mountains of eastern Algeria, near the coast. We had orchards, as far as the eye could see, olives (of course) almonds and the most amazing figs. Everyone helped in their cultivation; all seasons were expressed in food,” he says. Families would band together to create meals: “I used to help with gathering herbs, flowers and wild garlic. All kids helped in the making of olive oil (our region was famous for its rich flavour) and tending the vegetable garden. My grandmother used to take me to the local clay pit to carry clay back to the house, for the making and firing of family sized tajines.”

The cuisine, like the country itself, fuses numerous cultures. “Algerian cooking is diverse. Along the Mediterranean, Algeria was a key agricultural and trade region for the Phoenicians, Romans, Turks, Arabs, Spaniards, Jews and French,” says Bouilouta, “So many people came and shared their food, religion and culture. This is reflected in the way Algerian cooking has evolved, underpinned by its unique, indigenous couscous, simple methods of preparation, love of sharing and insistence on hospitality.”

Like Khodja, Bouilouta believes cooking couscous in the traditional couscousier pot – which boasts an upper steamer where the couscous is cooked by the steam from the stew or soup below – is essential to authenticity. “We have a secret method for our couscous [at Le Souk], twice steamed in the couscousier, it is unlike anything you have eaten before, light and fragrant,” he says, “When it is cooked traditionally, you know you have experienced a little bit of Algeria.”

And the trend for Algerian food seems to be picking up – in celebration of French-Algerian artist Kader Attia’s self-titled exhibition, in Sydney the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia’s café is providing an Algerian menu – think lamb kefta and veggie tagines – until Sunday July 30. Although not Algerian himself, MCA Café and Fresh Catering’s executive chef Keith Higginson is passionate about the cuisine. “I lived with an Algerian family in London for a year,” he says, “I love the delicate use of spice you find with Algerian food. It doesn’t overpower, but it complements the other ingredients.”

“Algerians wake up thinking of food,” says Bouilouta, “Food is life and life is for sharing.” Khodja wholeheartedly agrees, “In my hometown, people are more concerned about cooking and eating than buying houses and cars!” he says, “Algerian food is also very representative of its country. To eat Algerian food is to gain an insight into a beautiful and largely unknown culture. Algerian food represents the nation’s history and its people.”

North African eats
Slow-roasted lamb (mechoui)

This North African dish found in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria tends to vary in each country, but generally involves a whole lamb or sheep being spit-roasted or roasted underground for a festive occasion. Traditionally, the entire beast is consumed, including the organs, with parts such as the liver, kidney and eyes reserved for the guests of honour. While traditionally the entire animal is roasted, for convenience, we’ve used a lamb shoulder, oven-roasted with signature North African spices. You can cook this using a spit-roast, if you prefer.

Semolina pancakes with honey butter and honeycomb (baghrir)

These ancient Berber pancakes are a popular snack and breakfast food in Algeria and also Morocco. They are commonly served with a honey butter mixture.

Royal couscous

Couscous royal is a North African dish made of semolina and is traditionally served with various meats and vegetables. Chef Pierre Khodja was born in Algeria and grew up in Marseille. He is renowned for his Mediterranean and North African food. Find him at Camus in Melbourne.