There has been a sizeable gap on my cooking map in the region of North West Africa. For a while I have been thinking that Morocco would be right around the corner, so have just been plugging other geographic holes – but now that I am coming back this challenge, I figured why not plug it with Algeria. After all, this is the largest country in Africa by land area and is right on the Mediterranean so should have some interesting food.
Much luck neighbouring countries Tunisia, Morocco and Libya, Algeria’s history with food has a long and storied history from Ancient Carthage to the present day via the Romans, Islamic traders and the encroachment of European colonialism. This is the area of the Arab world where couscous is the side dish of choice and comes under the general name of Maghreb, or Barbary as I have seen it more often in me (admittedly white) text books.
There is such a wide choice available here that I was fearing treading on the toes of future foods for Morocco and Tunisia. However, I also wanted to steer clear of anything that had a hint of French influence, because I am going to have to rely on that for other African nations where the choice isn’t as expansive. In the end, I settled on two recipes that were united by an ingredient that I had never used before: orange blossom water. By the end of the afternoon my kitchen smelt like a perfume counter, but at least the food tasted good.
I liked the idea of making a dish recommended by a group of local Algerian expats living in London. Just having that cross over made me really leap for this recipe by the British Algerian Association which was my first foray into cooking with orange blossom water. Man, that stuff is strong. I expected it to have a strong orange smell, but then I had to properly think of the name – like rosewater, this stuff smells like the flowers and it is that floral essence that you are adding to the dish.
This stew boasts tender and well-spiced lamb with a gravy where the prunes have disintegrated just enough to thicken it and to give a fruity taste. Despite all the fruit and the additional sugar, I was surprised that this was not overly sweet. I guess it is the orange blossom water’s floral notes and the earthiness from the turmeric and cinnamon that help to keep it in check. With some couscous on the side, this is something that I definitely would want to make again.
Okay, so I didn’t make the extremely complex looking knots that were demonstrated in the recipe by 196 Flavors, but I still wanted to make something that was a bit beyond simple squares or using a cookie cutter. This is how I ended up with these little bows, and with half of them falling apart after cooking because I made the middle of the knot a bit too narrow. Still though, not bad for a first try.
Both the dough and the syrup contain some of the orange blossom water but, unlike my fears, it really doesn’t reign supreme. Instead it’s a great complement to the honey and sesame. These really are the types of biscuit where you need to wait for the syrup to sink in as they cool down in order to properly enjoy them. When I first tried them fresh I was a bit underwhelmed, but after a few hours they became really good. Also allowed me to find an excuse to buy and use a pasta machine, which made me very happy.
Whilst it does take up a fair bit of time to find recipes and the actually cook them – I sure am glad to be getting back into the swing of this particular list. Next time I am going to be making something from Europe that was inspired by a tone deaf food review that a friend of mine sent me a month ago. Imagine talking about a restaurant’s food as being good enough to have prevented a genocide within many of our living memories.