2017 Food Trends: The Flavors of Africa Part 2, North Africa
By Piet E. Jones
Our journey across African cuisine continues. Next we find ourselves north of the Sahara and along the upper eastern coast. Here the cuisine is a convergence of African with Middle Eastern and Asian influences. One spice, cardamom, is used across Africa but comes into play with heavy prominence here where its earthy flavor adds to the fragrant mix of the cooking. In the United States cardamom tends to be most frequently used in desserts, but maybe it’s time to take some of it up to the main line of your kitchen.
For Americans, Morocco is home to one of the more familiar, yet underutilized cooking techniques, the tagine. Basically an earthenware dish with a tall, conical top, the tagine is generally filled with slow-cooked meats, like lamb, beef, or chicken, and then seasoned with fragrant spices like saffron, turmeric, cardamom, and cumin alongside fruits, such as apricot or lemon, to add brightness. Root vegetables like yams and sweet potatoes can add sweetness while nuts like pistachio can bring a little texture to the party.
Served atop couscous or long-grained rice, the tagine can be a visually exciting dish at the table. Taking note of the trend toward shared dishes, the tagine is the perfect dish for two, four or more people—in fact you could even build a section of your menu around this technique. Traditional combinations are a good place to start, like lamb and butternut squash, slow braised with cinnamon and coriander, or saffron chicken thighs, dialed up with a bit of dried chili with ginger and honey. Maybe lamb meatballs flavored with lemon and olives or even a fragrant fish chermoula—tilapia or other white fish marinated in garlic, olive oil, cumin, and paprika with fresh cilantro and lemon that’s seared and simmered before being served over saffron basmati rice.
Many of these dishes are flavored with ras el hanout, a traditionally Moroccan blend of about a dozen spices including cumin, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, coriander, cayenne, allspice, fennel, cloves and more. Mix with ground beef or ground lamb then fill into a casing and you have a pretty good start to creating your own sausage merguez, although there’s nothing wrong with skipping the casing and calling it a meatball merguez.
Rice and couscous are often flavored with saffron, but there is no need to stay that limited. The res el hanout works as an excellent combination of spices here and, lest the entire dish becomes too one note, can benefit from currants, apricots, cashews, thin slices of lemon, or pine nuts to round the dish out.
One classic French dish that has made its way back onto menus in the past few years is boeuf tartare. Lean beef chopped fine, topped with beautifully thin slices of onion with an egg yolk (chicken or quail) nestled inside the rings then sprinkled with coarse sel gris and fresh cracked pepper. Simple and decadently delicious. Also a little difficult to put your own personal stamp on. That is, unless you take inspiration from an Ethiopian dish called kitfo.
Kitfo is basically lean beef ground with mitmita, a dry mix of spices, including chili peppers (cayenne can work), cardamom, cloves and salt. Rolled into balls, the spiced meat is then rolled in niter kibbeh, an Ethiopian spiced butter infused with bishop seeds (similar to thyme), cardamom, black cumin, and koseret (a bit like oregano). Using kitfo as a jumping off point, it’s not that hard to create a memorable tartare that compliments your menu.
Another trend that Ethiopian cuisine can help you deal with is gluten-free diners. Injera is a staple flat bread of Ethiopian cooking and, being made with teff flour, is naturally gluten-free. Teff flour is dark with a nutty earthy flavor that can actually be used for much more than just flatbreads. Whole loaves and even desserts can be made with this ingredient—consider the possibility of a truly gluten-free brownie making an appearance on your menu.
Beef. Pork. Chicken. Lamb. They’ve kinda been done to death. Maybe it’s time to consider… goat. Yes, goat can be a difficult meat to work with. Lean, it can be tough if cooked improperly. Kenyans get around that with an overnight marinade. With heavy influences from Asia, the marinades are familiar to Western palates. Often yogurt based, they can be a fragrant curry or garlic and thyme with dark soy sauce and ginger.
The next day, they bring the diced meat in the marinade to a boil and simmer for at least an hour, adding a little extra stock to ensure there is enough moisture for the entire time. After the boil, drain the liquid and reserve the meat - if your marinade is all stock or water, not yogurt, you can simply keep reducing the liquid instead of draining it. Sauté onions, diced tomatoes, and peppers until soft, stir in tomato paste, reduce then return the meat to the pan.
Goat may be too exotic for some of your guests. Entrees can be a big gamble for some and people may tend to go with the more familiar. As an appetizer or a small plate people tend toward the more adventurous if, for nothing else, to say they tried it.
For our last stop, we’ll travel south and to the islands of Madagascar and Zanzibar for some tastes from the sea…