North African Cuisine

The Jews of North Africa ate spicy, aromatic foods, usually with couscous.

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Excerpted and reprinted with permission from Sephardic Cooking, published by Donald I. Fine, Inc.


The Moroccan cuisine is considered the most inventive, flavorful and perhaps ingenious of the cooking styles of the Maghreb; at least the French say this about their former colony. Frequently, it is included in the world’s 10 greatest cuisines, which is an indication of its reputation in culinary circles. Jewish cooking is an amalgam of traditional local dishes married to Sephardic ideas brought to Morocco at the time of the Inquisition and, importantly, guided by kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws). From these various influences, a universal Jewish style emerged and was polished over the centuries.

The hallmark of Moroccan cooking is the use of aromatic spices such as cinnamon, coriander, ginger, saffron, turmeric, and paprika for color. Dried fruits—figs, apricots, prunes, raisins—are included in meat dishes and complement the spices that emphasize the sweet fruits. Almonds, walnuts, and olives, the produce of a rich agriculture, are lavishly incorporated in many dishes. To top if off there is the famous harissa, a chili‑hot condiment, available for a sharp contrasting impact.

Salads in their numbers, both fresh and cooked, are some of the most popular concoctions in a semidesert atmosphere. From the Jewish point of view they are pareve and can be served with both dairy and meat dishes. Couscous is the single preparation most closely identified with Morocco and other Maghreb countries.

The Sabbath and its admonishment to pray and rest has also produced an assortment of scheena, those all‑inclusive one‑dish meals that are prepared late on Friday, cooked all night over smoldering coals, and are ready for dining after synagogue at noontime on the Sabbath. They are generally meat, potatoes, chick‑peas and seasonings, very slowly baked and melting in flavor and aroma.


Pointed toward Spain but politically ruled by the whims of sultans, the town of Tangier lived a life of its own, distinct from both Spain and Morocco but dependent on both. The Jewish community, religious and poor, nevertheless developed a variety of dishes: some to celebrate the Sabbath, some for daily use, and many based on the inevitable couscous.

Fish was the principal food, the logical outcome of living in a port town with such quantity and variety of fish from the Mediterranean. The seasonings were mostly garlic, onion, tomato, herbs and the occasional cayenne pepper to stimulate the taste buds. No dramatic culinary styles were uncovered, but the sweet couscous of the Tangerines is unique. Homestyle cooking, leaning toward Spanish taste, is the key to the cooking of Tangier.

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Copeland Marks has written numerous cookbooks, including The Great Book of Couscous and The Exotic Kitchens of Peru.