An introduction to Kabylian cuisine : Maghreb and Algeria

14 JANUARY 2017 | PAR SOPHIE RAOBEHARILALA

Berber cultural cuisine

 

The Berber tribe are autochthon people from the north African coast who have lived from Egypt to Morocco for at least five thousand years.
After the Arab invasion of north Africa during the 7th century, « arabisation » has occurred in three stages. Firstly, contact with the invaders, followed by the arrival of the Bedouins during the 11th century. The third phase of arabisation which happened between the 15th and 17th century, has been increased with the arrival of refugees from Andalusia. Berbers were forced to take refuge in the northern highlands of the Atlas during that time.

In the Maghreb before the islamisation, autochthon populations were Berbers. Their mother tongue is the Berber or tamazight. Many non-Berber-speaking ethnic groups have unfortunately forgotten their origins and believe they are Arabs when these had been initially Berber lands. Only a minority still speaks tamazight (40 to 50% in Morocco, but 2% in Tunisia and 10% in Libya). Arabs are first and foremost Semitic people often nomadic, originating from the Arabic Peninsula. Their source language is Arabic. Nowadays we call Arabs equally populations of arabic origins than « arabised » populations, going from the Middle-East to the Maghreb, which speak Arabic language. Arabs have mainly been islamized during the 7th and 8th centuries, but Christian communities or other religions still subsist in the Middle-East.
A great confusion is caused by calling Arabs many people from the Mediterranean region, misleading to think they are a homogenous population which would share the same language, religion, but also the same cuisine.
The same way not all Arabs are Muslims, « arabised » populations from the 7th century have culinary specialties clearly differentiating from the Arabic Peninsula’s cuisine.
Originally, some ingredients coming from America were not known in Arabic cuisine, as well as in Ancient Roman cuisine and European medieval cuisine, such as potato, courgette, tomato, sweetcorn, cocoa, pepper, chili.

 

Eastern Mediterranean cuisine before the 8th century

 

∴ Maghreb cuisine before the Arab colonisation

 

Woman grinding the mill on a rotary mill.

The Maghreb was a rich Roman colony before its islamisation. It encompassed Numidia (a Berber kingdom which became a Roman province, including east Morocco, north of Algeria and north of Tunisia) and Mauretania (Moors territory including the north of Morocco and central Algeria).
Maghreb’s food habits are influenced by Roman cuisine for North Africa is the wheat basket of the Roman Empire. Wheat was farmed up to south Tunisia, thanks to irrigation systems. Cereals, vegetables and legumes were the base of their diet.

 

Gastronomy

 

Autochthon people’s cuisine comes from the amazigh cuisine and has a strong Arab influence from the 8th century. However their long resistance to Arab influence allowed them to keep a strong cultural identity. There are cultural and culinary differences between each Berber villages, creating « Berber cuisines » each adapting to the ingredients of their region.
Berber cuisine is refined, copious and with many spices, the result of Mediterranean, oriental and African influences.
This cuisine is based on high quality ingredients.The national dish is couscous, stewed meat with various vegetables served with common wheat semolina. This meal is usually served in an eating dish for several people in a traditional style. The first couscous recipes go back to the 13th century and come from two recipe books of al-Andalus as well as a recipe book from Alep. It seems the word kuskus is of Berber origins. Couscous remained a typical dish in Maghreb until the 20th century. It wasn’t cooked beyond Syria, Libya and the Roman province of Cyrenaica. Another food specialty is Tajin. Its preparation varies depending on the region. It is based on stewed meat which can be served with vegetables and fruits. An example of recipe can be chicken tajin, sophisticated tajin can be with candied lemon and olives.
An important part of Berber cuisine is salad, various types of salads served in small dishes based on vegetables, braised or stewed.

 

Algerian cuisine

 

Algerian Tell’s crockery – marmite, tagin, brazero and skillet.

Algerian land and sea production makes Algeria’s cuisine very rich. It offers a wide range of dishes depending on the regions and the seasons. This cuisine is based on various ingredients but the main one remains cereal which is an abundant resource in this country.
There isn’t a dish without cereals according to Algerian women, for Algerian cuisine is an art and a family affair. Like in many Mediterranean countries, recipes are transmitted by mothers and are possibly the most closely guarded secret!
Exquisite in many ways, Algerian cuisine benefits from the refinements of Kabylian cuisine and a multitude of foreign influences. Nowadays Algerian cuisine takes after its origins : nomadic with the use of vegetables and grilled meat, agricultural with cereals, aristocratic with dishes such as delicate stuffed preparations, puff pastry and desserts.
Rich, varied, colourful, Algerian cuisine largely uses vegetables such as aubergines and courgettes, fruits, cereals such as wheat and rice, and olive oil.
Vegetables are cooked along with meat in order to get a full meal, or simply with olive oil. Algerian meals usually include a hot dish with bread, followed by vegetables in olive oil.
These dishes are supposed to highlight the main ingredient’s flavour instead of hiding it beneath dressings and spices. Herbs and foreign spices are used with great originality yet in subtle quantities.
In Algeria, there are numerous couscous preparations : without meat, based on milk (mesfousf), and rustic ones based on rancid fat. However a hostess shall never present to her guests a dish without meat.
The region of Biskra is renowned for its typical dish named Charchoukha which is the base of kesra : potato, chickpeas, red meat. Soups and dishes are always served with bread.
Algerian cuisine is excellent for good health, close to recommendations of medical diets which participate to the decrease of cancer risks and cardiovascular diseases

 

Conclusion

 

There are no sources on pre-islamic Arab cuisine. But when comparing recipes of the Roman era and those from Arab recipe books of the 8th century, taste and flavors are still on-going with use of fruits in meat and fish cooking, aromatic herbs and spices.
Arabic gastronomy expanded between the 10th and 13th century, in eastern Mediterranean and Maghreb, at the same time as a rich Islamic civilisation.

Further information

 

∴ Cuisine kabyle, by Samia Messaoudi and Farida Ait Ferroukh.