When you think of the Mediterranean, what comes to mind? Perhaps sipping an espresso at a cafe tucked along the French riviera? Cruising in a sailboat between rocky Greek islands? How about soaking up the sun on the beaches of Tunisia?
We often think of the world in terms of continents, so Europe and Africa can seem like very different places. But the temperate, sunny lands surrounding the Mediterranean—north, east, and south—have a tremendous amount in common, especially when it comes to food.
Olives thrive all across the warm, dry Mediterranean climate. Olive oil has been the primary cooking fat in nearly all the lands that border the Mediterranean since at least Roman times, from Spain to Greece to Tunisia.
Northern Africa was the “breadbasket” of the Roman empire, providing the grain for the famous bread and circuses of the capital. Wheat and barley are the main grains across North Africa today. As throughout Europe, breads are a staple across North Africa, including flatbreads like aish baladi in Egypt and taller breads like khobz el dar in Algeria. In Libya, a steamed bread dish called bazin is a national favorite. Hard semolina wheat—the stuff Italians use to make pasta —is used across North Africa to make couscous. Wheat is also used in sweets throughout the region, like ghoriba cookies or sfenj donuts.
The vegetables in a good French ratatouille, like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and zucchini, are all common across North Africa. Tomatoes star in a stew called shakshuka, eaten across the region. Dried chile peppers are the basis of harissa, a spicy sauce that’s especially popular in Tunisia. And just as the Spanish love their marinated carrots, in Egypt, street vendors sell beautiful, pyramidal stacks of purple and orange carrots.
Just as in Greece, Italy, and southern Spain, lemons are ubiquitous across North Africa. They’re squeezed over fish, used to tart up dishes like tagines in Morocco and Algeria, and preserved with salt to make a sour-salty condiment. Other common fruits in the region include figs and apricots, which are often sun dried.
Just as Italy has its basil and Greece has its oregano, Morocco has its mint and Egypt has its hibiscus. Both are commonly steeped to make teas. Chermoula, an herby relish typically made with cilantro, parsley, spices, and a bit of lemon or vinegar, is served alongside fish from Morocco to Libya.
Fish & Meats
The bounty of the sea makes for plenty of fish across north Africa, including favorites like sardines. They’re often grilled, just like you’d find in Lisbon. Lamb is the most common meat, often made into spicy merguez sausage or kebabs.