Algerian Jewry has a rich history. Before the French took control of the country in 1847, Jews spoke Judeo-Arabic and read Arabic literature, all the while maintaining their own Jewish traditions. Algerian Jews constituted one of the most sophisticated Jewish communities in North Africa.
Anti-Semitic unrest began after the establishment of Israel in 1948, but it was the Algerian fight for independence from France in the 1950s that ultimately led to the disintegration of this once vibrant Jewish community. Arab nationalists regarded all non-Arabic Algerians as secretly aligned with the French, and because the Jews had integrated the French language and culture into their own traditions, they were perceived as a threat. According to Martin Gilbert (Jewish History Atlas), from 1956 to 1962 Jews were slowly forced to abandon their shops and professions, synagogues and Jewish-owned shops were burned, and Jews were deprived of their economic rights. By 1965, all Jewish commerce ceased and the Algerian Supreme Court declared that Jews were no longer under the protection of the law.
Of the 140,000 Jews who once resided in Algeria, most fled to Israel, France, and the United States. Today, fewer than 100 live in the country, mostly in Algiers and Oran.
But their Sephardic culinary traditions, combining Arab, French, and Sephardic Jewish influences, live on.
Algerian chefs incorporate vegetables in cooked dishes (rather than fruits and nuts, as is the Moroccan custom), and they prefer mild seasonings (unlike the hot sauces of Tunisia).
Jewish cuisine is often tied to holidays. On Rosh Hashanah, for example, symbolic foods such as carrots (symbolizing prosperity), onions (the thwarting of enemy intentions), squash (the extolling of our merits), peas (new life), and beans (increasing our merits) are mixed into stews served over delicate Pate brisee, a rich, unsweetened pastry similar to pie crust. As for the most popular New Year’s dessert, cigars, the lemon-scented almond filling is also encased in fine pastry, then deep-fried and soaked in honey syrup.
Just as we do, Algerian Jews dip apples in honey, wishing for a sweet and fruitful year. In addition, to enhance the symbolism, they add a very thick (almost 1⁄2-inch) layer of sesame seeds over the bowl of honey. Each guest dips a wedge of apple through the sesame seeds into the honey in the hope that as many seeds as possible adhere to the apple. Each sesame seed represents a monetary coin—a French franc in the old days, a dinar in Algeria today, or any international monetary symbol. The more seeds, it is said, the more prosperous you will be in the coming year.
This year, may your apples be sesame-seed white and the sweetness of honey linger in your lives.
Algerian Chicken with Quince
According to Clemence Barkate, an Algerian now living in France, the traditional Rosh Hashanah dish served in her home city of Constantine was chicken with eggplant, honey, and quince (a hard and crisp fruit resembling something between an apple and a Bartlett pear and has a perfume-like fragrance when cooked). The last two ingredients are symbolic of the sweetness of the coming year and the new fruit of the season. I created this recipe based on her recollections.
1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
11⁄2 cup water
4–5 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided use
1 4-inch onion
3⁄4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
20 grindings of black pepper
1 chicken, cut into 8ths
3⁄4 cup dry white wine
1⁄2 cup water
11⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 Tablespoon honey, or to taste
2 8-inch Japanese eggplants
Additional salt and pepper
1. Cut the quinces in quarters and remove the hard core and seeds. Peel each quarter, then cut crosswise into about five 1⁄2-inch slices per quarter. Place the cut pieces in a bowl of lemon juice and water. Set aside.
2. Cut the onion in half lengthwise, then cut each half into 1⁄2-inch dice.
3. Heat a 12-inch sauté pan for 15 seconds over moderately high heat. Add 2 Tablespoons of olive oil and heat for another 10 seconds. Add the onions and stir to coat with the oil. Cover the pan for 3 minutes to let the onions caramelize, then remove the lid and stir the onions. Cook for about another 3 minutes, until the onions are golden. Remove the onions from the pan and set aside.
4. Combine the flour, salt, and pepper in a gallon-size plastic bag. Rinse off the chicken pieces and remove large pieces of fat. Shake off any excess water. Place 2 or 3 pieces of chicken in the bag at a time. Shake the chicken well enough to thoroughly coat with the seasoned flour.
5. Heat the pan used for sautéing the onions. If the pan appears dry, add 1 Tablespoon of the remaining olive oil and heat for 10 seconds.
6. Place the coated chicken pieces skin side down in the hot oil and cook until the skin is crisp and brown (about 3–5 minutes). Turn the chicken over and cook another 3 minutes.
7. Combine the wine and water and add to the hot pan, being careful not to burn yourself with the gusts of steam that will come from the pan.
8. Return the onions to the pan. Add the cinnamon and honey, and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover.
9. Remove the quince slices from the lemon water and pat dry. Heat a 10-inch sauté pan for 15 seconds, add 1 tablespoon of olive oil, then heat for another 10 seconds. Add the quince slices and stir. Reduce the heat, cover, and cook for about 10 minutes, until the quince slices are lightly golden and softening.
10. Transfer the quince slices to the pan with the chicken pieces. Try to evenly distribute the slices around the chicken. Cover and continue cooking while you prepare the eggplant.
11. Slice the eggplant in half lengthwise, then cut each half crosswise into 1⁄2-inch slices. Add the eggplant to the same pan used for the quince. If the pan is very dry, add 1 Tablespoon of olive oil and lightly sauté for 5 minutes, softening the eggplant slightly.
12. Add the eggplant slices to the chicken and place the onion-wine sauce on top. Cover the pan and cook for another 15 minutes, until the eggplant is soft but not disintegrating and the chicken is tender.
13. Serve either with couscous (traditional) or rice. Serves 4.
* Quince tastes quite tart when eaten raw, but becomes mild and lightly floral-scented when cooked.
Algerian Vegetable Mélange in Pastry Shells
This simple, but elegant holiday dish is served at the Aferiat home. Yolande Aferiat, from Oran, taught her daughter-in-law Kathy how to make it, and Kathy, who now lives in Dallas, described it to me. Kathy’s use of peas rather than fava beans is a sign of the Americanization of Yolande’s traditional dish.
6 carrots, peeled and cut diagonally into 1⁄2-inch chunks
1 bay leaf
10 medium pitted green olives
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, cut into
1 large clove of garlic, finely minced
8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
1 Tablespoon flour
3⁄4 cup chicken or mushroom stock
1 cup frozen green peas
Salt, if needed
Freshly ground black pepper
Frozen puff pastry shells
Minced parsley for garnish
1. Place the carrot slices in a 1-quart saucepan and cover with salted water. Add the bay leaf and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for approximately 10 more minutes, until the carrots are tender but still firm. Set aside.
2. Rinse and drain the olives. In a small covered saucepan, boil them in water for 3 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water. Cut crosswise into 1⁄4-inch slices. Set aside.
3. Heat a 10-inch sauté pan over high heat for 15 seconds. Add the olive oil and heat for another 10 seconds.
4. Mix in the diced onions and sauté until they’re soft and medium golden brown.
5. Stir in the garlic and mushrooms.
6. When the mushrooms are soft and lightly golden, add the flour. Stir for about 1 minute, until the flour is totally incorporated.
7. Add the chicken stock, stirring constantly so that the flour dissolves and the mixture begins to thicken.
8. Add and combine the cooked carrots, sliced olives, and frozen peas. Cover the pan and simmer the vegetables until the peas are just cooked—about 4 minutes. Check for seasonings and add as needed.
9. Bake the pastry shells, following the package instructions.
10. When ready to serve, remove the center “lid” of dough and place the vegetable mélange in the cavity of the pastry. Garnish with minced parsley, if desired. Serve at once. Serves 4–6.
* Avoid using yellow-green bay leaves in your dishes: they’re old, and may add a bitter taste. Instead, seek out freshly dried, bright green, firm, and only slightly brittle bay leaves for their earthy-sweet, subtle flavor. You’ll be very glad you did.
Tina D. Wasserman, a member of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, teaches at her own cooking school, writes a kosher cooking e-newsletter, serves as culinary scholar-in-residence, and is author of the forthcoming Entrée to Judaism (URJ Press).