I was a little apprehensive about cooking food from Algeria, since it’s my first African country and I’m really not familiar with African food at all. However, I was eager to learn about it!
Algeria is located in North Africa and is the largest country on the continent. It was thought to first be home (along with neighboring countries) to the Berber people, an ethnic group that still exists today. They used to trade with their neighbors, particularly the Carthaginians, who had set up small settlements along the North African coast. However, relations began to sour as some Berber people were enslaved or conscripted into the Carthaginian army. They revolted and gained control of much of Carthage’s North African territory.
When the Romans and later the Muslim Arabs came to Algeria, although they took control of the majority of the country, they were not able to seize the mountain areas from the Berbers. They sound like resilient people, which is probably why they have managed to survive despite all they have gone through.
France invaded Algeria in 1830 and made the country an integral part of their empire, which lasted until 1962 when Algeria won the Algerian war.
Today, Algeria has the highest Human Development Index of all continental African countries and one of the largest economies on the continent.
What Do People Eat in Algeria?
Although Algeria is in Africa, European countries like France, Italy, and Spain are just across the water. As a result, the cuisine is kind of a mix between Mediterranean and African. Dishes vary from region to region, but they are usually centered around grains, meat, fish, vegetables, and fresh herbs.
Meat is found in almost every dish. Mutton and lamb are the most popular, followed by poultry and beef. Since the majority of Algerians are Muslims, pork isn’t common. Fish and seafood also feature in Algerian dishes, though not as heavily.
Merguez sausage is a type of sausage produced in Algeria (as well as some neighboring countries). It’s made with lamb or beef and heavily spiced with cumin and chili or harissa, which gives it a red hue. Other seasonings may be included too, such as sumac, fennel, and garlic.
Semolina seems particularly popular; Algerians make both bread and pastries from it, as well as their national dish, couscous.
What I Made
- Kesra (Semolina Flatbread)
- Algerian Shakshuka
- Mahjouba (Tomato Stuffed Flatbreads)
- Bourek (Algerian Spring Rolls)
- Algerian Couscous and Vegetables
- Chorba Beida (Chicken Soup)
- Mazagran (The Original Iced Coffee)
- Frites Omelette (French Fry Omelette)
- Makrout (Fried Semolina Dipped in Honey)
Scroll down to read about other popular Algerian dishes I didn’t make!
Kesra (Semolina Flatbread)
This is a simple flatbread enjoyed with many Algerian main dishes, made of semolina, salt, oil, and water. I made this twice because although I wanted two loaves — one to go with the shakshuka and one for the chorba beida — I was a little skeptical and wanted a chance to fix any mistakes I might make the first time around. I’m glad I did. The only substitution I made was to replace the medium semolina with fine (the recipe called for some of both, so I was substituting about half the semolina). This may be why I had to add a lot more water than the recipe called for.
I didn’t really knead the first loaf since there weren’t kneading instructions. Although the dough was probably at least an inch thick, the recipe called for only a few minutes of cooking on each side in a skillet. I went over this, probably approaching 10 minutes total cook time, because I was sure there was no way it could possibly be cooked in such a short period of time. This loaf turned out dense and weird and I’m not 100% convinced it was fully cooked on the inside.
I went looking at other recipes. I had chosen this particular one because I liked the look of the thicker kesra, but most other recipes show a much thinner bread, more like a traditional flatbread. Then, later I made the mhabej, which uses a nearly identical dough, and the recipe required kneading. I noticed the texture of the dough changed so that it was much more pliable.
So, round two of making kesra: I kneaded the dough for a few minutes, and instead of the 6-inch round the recipe I was following called for, I made it about 12 inches, so that it just fit in my cast iron skillet. The resulting flatbread was probably around 1/4-1/2 an inch thick. I cooked it for a little longer than my thicker version, until there was some browning happening. I didn’t take it off the heat until the bread seemed in danger of turning into a cracker. It was still dense on the inside, while crisp on the outside. I thought the taste was good, but the texture was just… odd. This probably isn’t something that is supposed to be eaten by itself; I think you’re meant to soak it in soup or something. I did find it more enjoyable when dipped in my chorba beida.
Shakshuka is popular in North African countries. In its most basic form, it consists of peppers, tomatoes, and onions with eggs.
In Algeria, shakshuka is usually served as an appetizer or for lunch or dinner, but I had it for breakfast. Because this is a dish that is likely to come up again, and I will probably make it again if it fits into my ‘dish budget’, I wanted to make this version as Algerian as possible, so I can see how different countries make this dish their own. I followed the Algerian shakshuka recipe from My Excellent Degustations.
This wasn’t the best shakshuka I’ve ever had, though it was good. I usually like it to be spicier and I think there was enough of the pepper mixture for at least another 2 eggs. I did also put the eggs in whole as opposed to beating them first like in the recipe (it says you can do either).
Mahjouba (Algerian Crêpes)
Also called Mhadjeb or Mhajeb, these are thin semolina flatbreads filled with a mixture of tomato, peppers, and onions. I guess the flatbread is thin like a crêpe, and maybe that’s why they are also known as Algerian crêpes.
The recipe I used is from My Cooking Journey. I was skeptical about the ketchup in the filling, but these did turn out pretty good. I’d probably skip the ketchup if I were to make them again, but I’m sure this would appeal to the typical American palate of wanting everything sweet (even plain white bread is usually sweet here).
Bourek (Algerian Spring Rolls)
Bourek are an Algerian version of spring rolls, and they can include a wide variety of fillings. I used the recipe for chicken bourek from My Excellent Degustations, which also includes onion, garlic, potato, mozzarella, olives, tomato, cilantro, and cumin.
I’d never made spring rolls before, and so when I saw ‘spring roll skins’ at the supermarket, that’s what I bought. It turns out there are ones made of wheat, which is what I was probably supposed to use, and ones made of rice paper, which is what I got. I mean, there was a picture on the packet of fried spring rolls and everything, but when I fried my spring rolls, they did not look like that. I thought maybe they needed to cook longer, because the recipe didn’t include detailed frying instructions and I was kind of winging it. But even after leaving a few in longer, they didn’t seem to be browning, so I gave up on that.
In the end, they were crispy and tasted really good, so it didn’t really matter. I’m sure I will make these again, only next time I will try to use the right kind of spring roll skin!
Algerian Couscous and Vegetables
Couscous is Algeria’s national dish. It’s usually served with other meals, and it’s common to make a vegetable couscous like this, with cooked vegetables served over the couscous.
I used the recipe from Food.com but I omitted the yellow squash. Additionally, I wasn’t sure about the whole cloves so I used a dash of ground cloves instead. I figured I could add more if needed. I also reduced the cinnamon by a lot, using the same logic. While I’d like to be as authentic as possible, I also need to be able to eat what I make!
When I added the spices at the beginning of this dish, the kitchen literally smelled of incense, and I was worried. Incense isn’t something I associate with food. But I proceeded since I knew I hadn’t actually put anything inedible in the skillet. And in the end, this did taste okay, but it’s not something I would choose to eat again. I just don’t think I am a big fan of this particular combination of spices.
Chorba Beida (Chicken Soup)
This is simple chicken soup, with an egg yolk and lemon juice mixed in at the end which is what turns it opaque. It is traditionally served during Ramadan.
I used the recipe from Lonely Planet as a guide, though I altered a few things after reading other recipes. I used bone-in chicken thighs instead of a whole chicken, and chicken stock instead of water. Toward the end, I added a chicken breast and shredded it with the chicken thighs. Before serving, I returned the meat to the soup. I halved the cinnamon as I was worried it might be weird with a whole teaspoon. I used parsley instead of cilantro, because I had more of it sitting around. From what I have seen, it’s also a common herb to use here. Finally, I added celery and carrot to include more vegetables, since the original only had onion.
I did also make an unintentional substitution, because I was having trouble finding vermicelli at the supermarket. First, there’s Italian vermicelli, which is similar to spaghetti, and a variety of thin Asian rice noodles, which are also often referred to as vermicelli. I couldn’t find Italian vermicelli, and got the Asian, but I wasn’t sure it was right. So I looked at many, many chorba beida recipes, looking closely at the photos, and it seems like what I should have picked up was labeled ‘fideo pasta’ at my supermarket. It’s basically like short pieces of thin spaghetti. So in the end, I just broke up some spaghetti and used that.
I really liked this soup, and it was very easy. You could taste the cinnamon, but it wasn’t overpowering, and I’m glad I didn’t add the full amount called for. I served it with my second attempt at the kesra.
Mazagran (The Original Iced Coffee)
This isn’t the most interesting ‘dish’, but I like the history behind it so I decided to include it.
According to Wikipedia, the name is thought to originate from a fortress named Mazagran in Algiers, which was under siege during the 1840 war. French Foreign Legion soldiers used water in their coffee (it sounds like the ‘coffee’ here is really ‘coffee syrup’) since they couldn’t access milk or brandy, and they drank it cold to counter the hot weather. The resulting drink is often described as ‘the original iced coffee’.
This is, essentially, a plain iced coffee. I made it using my cold brew concentrate and added ice and cold water. I didn’t add any sugar to mine, but that’s definitely an option. Although this drink originated in Algeria, it is now far more popular in Portugal, where lemon juice is usually added. I will most likely make that version once I reach Portugal in a few years!
Frites Omelette (French Fry Omelet)
This is pretty much what it sounds like — an omelet with french fries in it. To make this, I followed the recipe from Katie Loves Cooking.
All you do is cook the french fries, put them in a skillet with some oil, and pour an egg, tomato, onion, and cilantro mixture over the top. Once it sets up a bit you’re supposed to add cheese and grill/broil, then add harissa and grill again, but I didn’t want to turn the broiler on so I just covered the pan to get the cheese melting and I feel that worked just fine. I do think it might have been better if the harissa were mixed in with the eggs, since it’s kind of hard to spread harissa on top of a melty cheese/egg mixture, but the end result was delicious all the same. I think this would be an awesome way to use up leftover french fries if you ever happen to have that problem.
Makrout (Fried Semolina Dipped in Honey)
Makrout (also known as makroudh or makroud) are little semolina cookies/pastries filled with dates or nuts. An almond filling seems to be popular in Algeria, so that is the version I made. And I had problems.
First, you make a dough with semolina, butter, oil, orange blossom water, and enough water for it to come together. Medium semolina is ideal, but I only had fine. I had to add a lot more water than the recipe called for in order to make a dough, but after my kesra experience, I think it’s due to using fine semolina which probably soaks up more.
You make the filling out of ground almonds and sugar and form it into a long rope, which you lay along the rolled-out semolina dough and then fold and roll to enclose.
The makrout are deep fried, usually, though you can also bake them. To finish, they are dipped in a mixture of honey and orange blossom water.
The recipe I used didn’t say to add any liquid to the almond mixture, aside from a drop of almond extract. There was absolutely no way it was going to form a rope. This is something I probably should have noticed when choosing the recipe. I found another recipe that added egg white, so I did that and it seemed to work. However, I realized pretty quickly there was going to be more almond mixture than I needed for the amount of semolina dough I had.
Once I was ready to fry, I found that the recipe did not give an oil temperature. I’m finding this to be a common theme in some of these recipes from lesser-known sites. Maybe someone who deep fries all the time would know what temperature to use, but I don’t so I had to look it up. None of the makrout recipes I came across included a temperature, so I went with some generic pastry recipe on a reliable website that used 375°F. I think this was too high, and 350°F would have been better. They were supposed to take 5 minutes to cook but if I’d left mine that long, they would have burned. Still, they weren’t raw in the middle, so at least they were evenly cooked. I just think they are perhaps a little darker than they should be.
These tasted good, but not so good that I’m likely to make them again outside of this challenge. If they come up again for another country, I’ll be sure to try a different recipe.
Other Popular Algerian Dishes
- Chakhchoukha – made from torn or rolled pieces of cooked semolina dough or flatbread, served in a tomato-based sauce seasoned with spices such as cumin, paprika, and harissa.
- Tajine zitoune – a traditional stew containing chicken and olives. It is named after the tajine pot, an earthenware pot in which it’s cooked.
- Chorba frik – a traditional soup made with lamb or beef, vegetables, and frik. Frik is a type of wheat that is harvested when green, then roasted and rubbed in order to remove the outer husk.
- Garantita – a street food made from chickpea flour, oil, spices, and water, formed into a cake or tart. It is covered with beaten egg and baked until golden brown.
My favorite dish from Algeria is probably the bourek, but I also really liked the chorba beida and frites omelet. I can’t say I expected to like Algerian food so much, so this week was a pleasant surprise.
Next week, I will be making food from Andorra.