Three nations—Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco—constitute the Maghreb, a part of North Africa where Jews have lived for over 2,500 years, since the destruction of the first Temple. Tales are still told of how fleeing priests carried one of the Temple doors to the island of Djerba in Tunisia, where it was used in a synagogue.
The fate of the Jews from then on depended largely on who was in power. For centuries the Jews lived peacefully alongside native Berber tribes (and fought with the Berbers in the 8th century to repel the invading Arab armies). Under the Almoravid dynasty of the 11th century, Jews participated with Berbers in all levels of society. With the rise of the Almohad dynasty in the mid-12th century, Jews were persecuted and forced to wear distinct, oversized blue clothing as well as yellow shawl head coverings. Conditions improved in the 13th century under the Merinid dynasty, and by the end of the 15th century, a new influx of Jews fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese expulsions brought their culture and knowledge to the region. In the 17th century, North Africa saw the influx of Italian Jews seeking the freedom to engage in commerce (in Italy, Pope Innocent XII had prohibited Jews from most trades). By the 1940s and 1950s, with the rise of Arab nationalism and growing anti-Jewish hostility in the aftermath of the establishment of the State of Israel, the million Jews of the Maghreb began an exodus from North Africa, settling in Israel, France, North America, and South America. Today the Jewish population numbers fewer than 6,000, with about 4,000 in Morocco, 1,500 in Tunisia, and fewer than 100 in Algeria.
The dispersion of the Maghreb’s Jews has had the side effect of proliferating their culinary traditions. The hallmark of Tunisian Jewish cooking is elaborate, filling food, such as briks—flaky dough deep fried in olive oil and filled with meats or vegetables. Every event is an occasion for a major celebration distinguished by copious quantities of different dishes, spiced with coriander, caraway seeds, aniseed, cumin, saffron, cinnamon, and harissa (a fiery mixture of spices and olive oil made into a paste).
Dried fruits are a trademark of Moroccan cooking. Prunes stuffed with almonds and spiced with cumin and cinnamon are often cooked with meats for a rich, complex taste. Olives and preserved lemons are added to many recipes for their tart flavors. The famous dish Bestilla is made with chicken in a flaky phyllo dough crust, flavored with sugar, cinnamon, almonds, cilantro, onions, and parsley.
Algerian cooking bears some resemblance to Moroccan cooking, but the French influence is more apparent. The French baguette is present at all meals. Ginger, cumin, cinnamon, and pepper reflect the influence of the spice trade, and mayonnaise—a French contribution—is used in some dishes. Almonds are also prevalent. An Algerian favorite is the Gazelle’s Horn, a crescent-shaped almond paste cookie which can now be found in bakeries throughout the world.
Many foods indigenous to this region are perfect for Passover. Consider spicing up your next seder meal by recreating the traditions of the Maghreb.
Algerian Fish Terrine
Algeria’s French connection and its proximity to the Mediterranean account for the prominence of fish on the menu. This recipe for Khoubizet Mernouz, tweaked for Pesach, is a perfect alternative to gefilte fish; and the egg in the center combines two Passover courses in one!
1 carrot, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 stalk celery, cut into thirds
1 small onion, quartered
10 black peppercorns
2 cups water
2 cups dry white wine
2 pounds of fish fillets, snapper, tilapia, flounder, or sole
2 large onions
2 roasted and peeled red bell peppers, jarred or fresh
1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon
1⁄2 teaspoon nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1⁄3 cup matzo meal
6 large eggs
3 peeled hard boiled eggs
1⁄2 cup chopped Calamata olives
Olive oil (for oiling the pan)
1⁄2 cup mayonnaise
2 Tablespoons ketchup
1 teaspoon prepared horseradish
1 or more teaspoons sweet vermouth or white wine
1. Combine the first 6 ingredients in a large frying pan or 3-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes.
2. Strain the liquid and return the clear broth to the used pan. Bring the liquid to a simmer.
3. Place the fillets in the simmering broth. Cover the pan and poach the fish for 3–5 minutes, until it’s cooked through.
4. Peel the onions and cut into quarters. Pulse a food processor (fitted with the metal blade) on and off 20 times to create a coarse puree. Alternatively, finely chop all vegetables with a sharp knife.
5. Rinse the bell peppers and pat dry. Cut into 8ths and add to the work bowl along with the cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Pulse on and off until the peppers are pureed.
6. Drain the fish and add to the work bowl. Process until a smooth mass is formed.
7. Add the six raw eggs and the matzo meal. Pulse the processor on and off 10 times. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then turn the machine back on until you have a uniform puree.
8. Lightly oil a 5″x9″ loaf pan or any 11⁄2-quart dish that is at least 3 inches deep (to hide the hard boiled eggs). Pour half of the fish mixture into the pan.
9. Using one of the hard boiled eggs as your mold, make three indentations down the center of the fish mixture. Sprinkle 1⁄2 of the chopped olives evenly into these indentations. Place the three hard boiled eggs on top of the olives and then sprinkle the eggs with the remaining chopped olives.
10. Pour the remaining fish mixture into the pan. Lightly press down to fully cover the eggs. Smooth out the top.
11. Place a paper towel in the bottom of a 13″x9″ pan. Set the fish-filled pan in the center and then pour hot water around the (loaf) pan to a depth of at least one inch.
12. Bake in a preheated 325˚F oven for approximately 30 minutes, until the loaf is firm. Remove from the water bath, cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
13. To make the sauce, whisk the mayonnaise in a bowl until smooth. Mix in the ketchup and horseradish, stirring well. Add vermouth or white wine by teaspoon until the sauce flows but before it becomes thin and watery.
14. To serve, remove the loaf from the pan and cut into 1⁄4–1⁄2 inch slices. Drizzle a Tablespoon or more of the sauce on a plate and then place the slice on top of the sauce.
Yield: 16 half-inch slices.
* The poaching liquid in this recipe, called a court bouillon, may be substituted for fish stock in any dish.
* Placing a pan in another pan of water in the oven is called a Bain Marie—a classic French cooking technique equivalent to using a double boiler.
Moroccan Meatball Tagine with Quinoa “Couscous”
Couscous—a fine, semolina wheat pasta—is not kosher for Passover. A good substitute is quinoa, which is not a grain but a member of the “goose foot” family that includes beets and spinach. While quinoa is not indigenous to the old world, it nevertheless resembles the Moroccan national dish in size and shape.
11⁄2 pounds ground beef
1⁄2 medium onion, grated
2 Tablespoons chopped parsley
1⁄2 cup matzo meal
1⁄2 cup tomato sauce
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided use
4 large onions, thinly sliced
1 quart water
1⁄2 cup dark raisins
12 soft pitted prunes
1⁄2 cup slivered almonds
2 pounds of pumpkin, Butternut or Hubbard squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1⁄2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1. Place the meat in a 2-quart mixing bowl. Add the onion, parsley, egg, matzo meal, tomato sauce, salt, pepper, and 1 Tablespoon of the olive oil. Mix well and set aside.
2. Heat a large Dutch oven (a 4- to 6-quart pan with two small handles that can be used either on the stove or in the oven). Add the remaining 2 Tablespoons of olive oil. Sauté the onions until they’re golden brown.
3. Add the water to the onions and bring to a boil.
4. Shape the meat into walnut-sized balls and drop into the simmering liquid. Cook the meatballs until firm. Do not stir until the meatballs are set.
5. If the raisins and prunes are not soft and moist, combine them in a small glass dish and cover with water. Microwave on high for 2 minutes and let sit while the meatballs cook.
6. When the meatballs are firm, transfer them with the onions to a 13″ x 9″ casserole.
7. Add the fruits (drained) along with the almonds and pumpkin. Cover with foil, dull side out.
8. Bake in a preheated 350˚F oven for 40 minutes. Sprinkle on the sugar and cinnamon and continue baking, uncovered, until the squash is tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed (about another 20 minutes). Serve with quinoa.
11⁄2 cups water or chicken broth
1 cup quinoa
1. Rinse the quinoa in a bowl of cold water. Pour into a fine strainer and then run cold water through it again (to remove any bitter residue).
2. Bring the water or broth to a boil and add the quinoa. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer for approximately 15 minutes, until the quinoa is al dente and you can see the ring of germ (a thin, squiggly line around each grain). Drain thoroughly. Place in the middle of a large serving platter with the meat and vegetables around it, or serve from a bowl for all to take.
* When substituting matzo meal for bread crumbs in a recipe, you can avoid a “too tough” result by using approximately 3⁄4 the amount of matzo meal (matzo meal tends to absorb a great deal more moisture than bread crumbs).
According to food author Claudia Roden, Guizadas are a specialty of the Livornese Jewish community in Tunisia. Italian Jews once traded goods with their brethren in Tunisia through Livorno, a major Italian commercial port. Many Jewish Livornese settled in Tunisia to finance the ransom of Jewish hostages taken by pirates who patrolled the rich trade routes.
No flour is used in this confection, so Tunisian Guizadas make an ideal Passover dessert.
11⁄4 cup shelled pistachio nuts
1⁄2 cup extra fine sugar or 1⁄3 cup wildflower honey
1 Tablespoon imported orange-blossom water
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1⁄8 teaspoon almond extract
Chop the pistachios into very small pieces, either by pulsing a processor on and off 50 times or rocking a large chef’s knife back and forth over the nuts.
1. Preheat the oven to 350˚F.
2. Add the remaining ingredients and stir well to thoroughly combine.
3. Line mini muffin pans with paper liners. Drop 1 Tablespoon of nut mixture into each cup. You will have about 18–20 cups.
4. Bake for 15–20 minutes until the Guizada tops are slightly golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
5. Remove the Guizada from the oven and immediately turn the filled papers on their sides (to prevent gummy bottoms that have sweated from the steam). Cool at room temperature for about 20 minutes, then store in an airtight container. To enhance the flavors of orange blossom and almond in the cookie, serve at room temperature the next day. Cookies may be kept for a week or frozen until needed. Makes 18–24 Guizadas.
* When using a food processor to chop nuts, always pulse the machine. Otherwise the nuts circulate on the bottom of the bowl, creating nut butter.
* Try to make recipes containing fruit or strong flavoring a day in advance of eating. The flavors will ripen and you’ll love the result!
Tina D. Wasserman, a member of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, teaches at her own cooking school, writes a kosher cooking newsletter on the Internet, and serves as a culinary scholar-in-residence throughout the U.S.