North African Cuisine

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

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How would one describe Libyan Jewish cooking? Greatly influenced by Italy, it still relies on the basic practices of the Maghreb (North Africa). Couscous, chick‑peas, white beans, lamb, beef, fish, hot chilies, parsley, basil, tomato paste, cuminseed, caraway, turmeric, and nutmeg add flavor to foods that are hearty, simply seasoned and imaginatively combined. The kosher dietary laws are paramount to the cookery.

Couscous, a pasta, is the national food of Libya and of the Jews. It is prepared at home. Arab influence contributed cinnamon and other spices, which are used with meat, especially the use of the cinnamon stick, as being more subtle than the ground cinnamon. Italian influence inspired the use of tomato paste and sauces, which, in turn, came from Central America via the Spanish.

The hot red chilies especially took firm hold in the area and these are used generously although often subdued by lemon juice. Hot and pungent flavors are hallmarks of the cooking.

Libyan cooking is seasonal and depends upon the availability of vegetables and fruits. Jews had an obsession with the freshness of the foods, fish and fowl. Jewish men were the shoppers for the Sabbath and holidays, buying up the necessary quantity and variety of foods in the bazaar. The women stayed home and cooked.

T’fina, dishes prepared for the Sabbath, can be translated as “buried in the coals”—the way they once cooked the food and kept it warm until the families returned from the synagogue to partake of the Saturday noonday meal. Ashkenazis had their cholent and the Jews of Libya (and Tunisia) their t’fina. A grand illustration of this is the Lamb with Kishke and Peas. (Everyone has a word for it—in Morocco it’s scheena and in Baghdad, hameen.)

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