Culture

To know Moorish is to know the ancient roots of this modern cuisine and this means taking a journey back to the very beginnings of the North African culinary tradition and culture.

The first inhabitants of the Maghreb – the Arab term for the Countries of North Africa – are thought to have dwelled in the Sahara as hunter-gatherers. Recorded history begins around 1100BC with the ancient Phoenicians, who set up trading and cultural colonies along the coastlines, from where they traded saffron, which was used as a dye in ancient Egypt.

However, Phoenicians would have had little contact with the indigenous population of Berbers who inhabited the inland fertile plains and harsh mountains terrain, where they lived off honey, beans, lentils and wheat.

The Carthaginians were the next to take over the African trading routes and developed some of the ports into considerable cities, exporting grain and grapes, as well as minting their own currency.

None of these empires were to have such an impact on the region and its culinary history as the new force rising in the East – the Arabs and Islam. Not long after the death of the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) in 632AD, the Arabs arrived in the Maghreb and brought about significant changes as they converted the inhabitants to Islam and their own culinary culture. They brought spices from the East, rice from India, the Persian habit of combining meat and fruit in stews, the idea of the scented broth, and the tradition of mezze – a spread of appetizers.

In Algeria, the Berbers, including integrated Jews and Coptic Christians from Egypt, put up some resistance for a short period but by early 700AD, most inhabitants had embraced Islam and North Africa was effectively under Arab rule. With the Arabs taking over new territories towards Spain, so began the significant and lasting cultural and culinary influence of the Moors (the term for people of mixed Berber and Arab descent) on southern Spain, Portugal and Sicily.

By the time of the Ottoman Empire spread across North Africa, the Moorish based cuisine was established, so the sophisticated cooking from the palace kitchens of Istanbul did not alter it, but added to it instead.

Most meals begin with a simple selection of mezze, which may include a bowl of olives, a cooked vegetable salad dressed in olive oil, served with a dip, flat bread and a savoury pastry. The tagines or a roast meat dish may follow, often served with a fresh raw salad. Couscous may come next but may be reserved for a meal on its own if accompanied with a stew or broth. A simple plate of fresh fruit or dessert marks the end of the meal before mint tea is served to refresh the palate and aid digestion.

Recipes

Tagine of chicken and olives with preserved lemons

Serves five

INGREDIENTS

1.5kg whole chicken
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
125g stoned green olives
1.5 preserved lemons cut into strips
50g butter
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cumin (optional)
1 tsp turmeric (optional)
1 tsp cinnamon (or 3 cinnamon sticks)
Pinch of saffron threads
500ml water
3 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped
3 tbsp fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped

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