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Layers of heritage: our guide to North Africa for foodies

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The cuisines of North Africa tell a story as richly layered as the dishes. Centuries of history can be unpicked in recipes handed down through generations, telling the stories of the country, its people and even individual families. Thanks to its geographical location, the North African region is a melting pot of influences, with travellers from Europe and the Middle East bringing recipes, ingredients and techniques over the centuries. Like a richly spiced tagine, the food in each country has taken on layers of historical meaning and cultural variations and can be an entry point to discovering more about each destination.

In addition, eating and drinking in North African countries is about far more than just fuel. It’s a communal experience, whether sharing a pot of mint tea or a traditional dish with a local family. It’s an opportunity to swap stories, to literally and figuratively break bread, and to discover a country’s culture and customs. Take a journey with TravelLocal as we explore the history of food in North Africa and the different cuisines you can expect to enjoy in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, as well as the experiences that will help you get closer to the people and their food.

Journey through the culinary heritage of North African cuisine

North Africa shares a climate and sea with its neighbours across the Mediterranean, allowing it to nurture the fruits and vegetables commonly found in the cuisines of Italy and Greece. But its desert border brings the heat that adds more exotic ingredients, including date palms and chickpeas. While its location determines the ingredients it produces, its geographical proximity to other nations has also influenced the cuisines over millennia. The ancient nomadic Berber tribes who travelled across the region created couscous and combined this with legumes such as lentils and fava beans.

Over time, this diet took on influences from other cultures. The Phoenicians, Romans, and those from across the Levant – modern-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria – brought their own cuisines as waves of conquests washed over the various countries. Later on, the Ottoman Empire, French and British left their mark, creating a colourful patchwork of styles and customs. Throw in the Spice Route and it’s easy to see how North Africa came to enjoy such vibrant and flavoursome cuisines.

Spices and herbs for sale at a traditional market in Morocco

Morocco

Travelling around Morocco, you’ll often be captured by a fragrant aroma drifting out of a roadside restaurant or tempting you deeper into the maze of the souks. While we’re familiar with the ambrosial tagine and mint tea, you’ll discover an enticing abundance of dishes, from couscous m’hassel, with saffron, raisins, almonds and cinnamon, to loubia, a white bean stew with tomatoes, garlic, paprika and ginger, and the sweet stickiness of plump dates and honey-steeped pastries.

The evening food market in Marrakech’s central square, Djemaa El Fna, is a feast for all the senses, where storytellers, snake charmers and culinary wizards create a theatre of aroma, flavour and colour. Smoky street food stalls serve up delicate pigeon pastilla, merguez sausages, and sheep’s head for the more adventurous. The French influence is clear in the garlic snails, while spiced coffee will keep you warm as the temperature dips. For a less intense experience, a tour of Fez’s narrow streets and labyrinthine souks allows you to explore its medieval architecture while dipping into local cafes for mint tea, chicken with preserved lemon and olives, tagines rich in apricots and prunes, and sticky, flaky pastries.

Away from the souks, the rugged hills and valleys of the Atlas Mountains offer a chance to uncover the fertile landscapes that produce so much of the country’s food. Trek through the mountains, past orchards, palmeries, and nomadic herders, and learn the art of making and pouring mint tea with a Berber family in the Dades Valley. If visiting in February, the local Almond Blossom Festival in the small Berber town of Tafraoute is a chance to enjoy local dishes. Further north, the fields and Berber farms of the Rif Mountains give way to the ‘blue pearl’ of Chefchaouen, where the town’s dishes tell of its Berber, Jewish and Spanish history which has had such an impact on its cuisines.

While many head to the coast for a spot of watersports, the old, fortified town of Essaouira is also a relaxing spot to indulge in m’semen – a typical street food of layered flatbread – grilled fish, and freshly squeezed orange juice. This trading port has welcomed its share of culinary migration throughout the ages and can trace a tapestry of history with Berber, Portuguese, French, Roman and even Phoenician heritage still evident today. Uncover this history and sample the local seafood with a cooking experience, then build up an appetite again with a spot of windsurfing.

Preparation of tagines in Morocco

Tunisia

Though sharing many similarities with Morocco, Tunisia ramps things up a notch with a love of spice. The sweeter notes of Morocco’s palate take a step back, to be replaced by the red chilli heat of the Tunisians’ favoured harissa paste. Whether dipping chunks of bread into lablabi, a tomato and chickpea stew, or enjoying a grilled salad starter of slata mechouia, those with a tolerance for spice will find their taste buds pleasantly challenged.

While the preference for heat over sweetness may set Tunisia apart from Morocco, its colourful souks piled high with spices offer a similarly immersive experience. Stroll through the Houmt souk on Djerba Island past spices, ouzaf fish, and industries that tell the story of its many cultural influences. Be sure to stop for brik à l’œuf in the medina souk of Tunis, its runny egg encased in a deliciously crispy pastry parcel. The old Medina in Kairouan even has an entire bazaar – the Makroud Bazaar, dedicated to makroudh – where you can watch the pastry chefs produce these moreish, sticky date-filled semolina pastries soaked in honey.

You’ll also notice a fondness for olive oil. Its origins can be traced back over 2,500 years to the Phoenicians and the founding of Carthage, and more than a third of the country is given over to olive groves. A tour of a grove and mill provides fascinating insight into the production of the fragrant oil, as well as a chance to discover the ancient history that underlies this popular export.

Another reminder of the country’s Phoenician and Roman past is its wine. While production was halted with the 8th-century Arab conquest, it was reintroduced by the French in 1881 and continues to this day. Sipping a glass of rosé after a day exploring the Roman ruins of Carthage or the amphitheatre in El Djem adds context and depth to the rich history of the country.

As you travel around Tunisia, you’ll continue unpicking these layers of history until you reach the Berbers, who can trace their history back thousands of years. Spend a night in a Berber tented camp to share hearty dishes around the campfire, or visit the village of Toujane where you’ll be welcomed with a cup of coffee. Visit the villages of the mountains of Dahar, including Tamezret and Matmata with its famed troglodyte houses, and share a meal with a family for a glimpse into a lifestyle that’s remained unchanged for centuries.

Close-up of brik seller in Tunisia

Egypt

Egypt may call to mind ancient wonders, but its historic and cultural wealth can also be traced through its food. From the traditional dishes of the Nubian and Bedouin tribes to freshly-caught seafood in Alexandria, its cuisine charts the geography and history of its people. Sandwiched between Africa and the Middle East, it’s a colourful fusion of cultures to unpick as you feast on ta’amiyya – Egyptian falafel made with fava beans – or lamb kebabs and kofta. While its coastal location delivers the fresh seafood found in many parts of Tunisia and Morocco, you’ll also be able to sample delicacies caught in the Red Sea, Lake Nasser and the Nile. And it also shares a sweet tooth with its neighbours, with every meal topped off with dessert, including the popular basbousa – a decadently syrupy, sweet semolina cake.

As with Tunisia and Morocco, you’ll find many of the best foodie experiences are to be had as you explore the streets and souks. Its national dish, koshari, is a street food of lentils, macaroni and rice topped with a spicy tomato sauce, chickpeas and fried onions that you’ll see being made as you stroll. The equally popular ful medames is a staple, though endlessly versatile dish of fava beans, stewed slowly with olive oil, cumin and other spices then scooped up with bread. While you’ll discover these dishes throughout a journey around Egypt, a street food tour of Cairo is an opportunity to explore its foodie offerings with an expert and get away from the main spots to those loved by locals. Venturing past piles of spices and intriguing ingredients in the Khan El Khalili Bazaar will pique your appetite for the flavoursome experiences to come.

While Cairo might be the spot for street food, seafood fans should head to Alexandria, where locally-caught fresh fish and shellfish are the order of the day. Not only does Alexandria have a thriving fishing industry, its rich history as a trading port has seen it play host to waves of traders and invaders, including Romans, Ottomans, Persians, Greeks, Italians, French and Lebanese. This cultural mélange gives rise to recipes and dishes that reflect its layered history, with North African tagines sitting alongside spiced versions of moussaka, grilled fish and sayadieh, a variation on Spanish paella.

As with any trip to North Africa, no visit is complete without meeting the country’s tribal groups. Discover local life and food on a visit to a Nubian village as part of a cruise on the Nile, and explore how the fertile lands of the Nile valley have influenced their diet. Spending time with a Bedouin group in the Sinai Desert grants insight into how integral food is to their lifestyle – you’ll discover that hospitality is at the heart of their culture. As a nomadic people, their survival is dependent on being welcomed by – and welcoming of – other groups for meals and shelter, and they continue this tradition today.

Spices for sale at a market in a Nubian village, Egypt

Make it happen

Our local experts have the passion and know-how to create a trip to North Africa that includes a feast of foodie experiences, whether that’s street food tours, meals with local families, or cooking lessons. Get in touch today.

  1. Morocco
  2. Tunisia
  3. Egypt

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