The area that lies above the Sahara Desert known as North Africa is culturally, socially and economically totally distinct from the rest of the continent. There are really two distinct regions of North Africa which include the western portion of the continent which will include; Libya and Egypt and the eastern which includes; Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Although there are many similarities in the two regions the cuisine is in each is very unique.
African cuisine has very basic ingredients that are similar to Middle Eastern foods; grains like rice and wheat are used. Wheat is dominantly used in breads and semolina which is used to make couscous. The common meats used are chicken and lamb with some fish depending on where they are lies relative to the coast. A wide variety of vegetables are used including; eggplant, carrots, peppers, tomatoes, cucumber, zucchini and of course chick peas. The tajine is the most known method of cooking in this region. These pottery stewing crocks allow for a long slow cooking process that keeps the moisture in the mix and allows for deep rich flavoured tajines or stews.
In the northeastern part of Africa the flavorings are kept pretty simple. Garlic, mint and parsley are used the most often along with cumin unlike the northwestern areas there are no elaborate spice mixes or blends. In the Moroccan and Tunisian region however a wide variety of spices is used some of them incredibly complex and elaborate. Ras el Hanout which means ‘the top of the shop’ is a spice blend created by the shop owner and can be comprised of a number of ingredients. The best Ras el Hanouts include: cinnamon, cumin, coriander, ginger, cardamom, clove, and turmeric. From this basic Hanout a shopkeeper will add additional spices and chilies and sometimes rosebuds, orris root (from the Iris flower) and Grains of Paradise (a type of pepper from the ginger family). Tajines are richly flavoured with aromatics like saffron, ginger and cinnamon in the Tunisian and Moroccan kitchen or blends of the Ras el Hanout. Much of the food prepared in this area is vegetarian, meats are used for special occasions and celebrations and the favoured dish is couscous.
A typical North African meal will start with vegetable and fresh salad type dishes followed by a bastila which is a pastry wrapped pie (similar to phylo) that encompasses pigeon (or chicken) saffron, sugar, cinnamon and ground almonds . After the Bastila a savory tajine usually follows, redolent with slow cooked vegetables, meats and spices the tajines often include a dried fruit such as apricots to sweeten the broth. Flat bread is used to soak up the tajine juices and is also used in place of cutlery. Following these dishes a huge communal serving of couscous with vegetables and drizzled with broth arrives to be scooped up with the bread. For desert sweets and pastries full of honey and pistachios, dates, cinnamon cookies and much more are served with a lovely mint tea to complete the meal.