My foray into the unfamiliar cultural foods of North Africa has been a delightful one. I discovered that I enjoy trying new foods, and that those who sell them are willing to answer any and all questions I have about their foods and their cultural background. This post is dedicated to the traditional delicacies I was fortunate enough to sample.
My first taste of North African cuisine was from the dessert category. My group members and I purchased six different pastry creations to sample from the two Algerian bakeries mentioned in previous posts on this blog.
The first pastry that I sampled was a very traditional pastry that both bakeries recommended. It is called a makrout au miel, or a makrout with honey. We were able to view the recipe for this dessert and it contains a very simple ingredient list. The outside dough is made into a paste with semolina, oil, and honey, and then it is flavored with vanilla extract, salt and orange flower aroma. The inside filling is made from egg whites, finely chopped almonds, sugar, and margarine – all of which is then flavored with cinnamon and orange flower aroma. This pastry has a coarse mouth feel and the almond taste and smell is very prevalent. This pastry in not sweet tasting, and the use of margarine is easily detectable because of the coating it leaves in the mouth after consumption. The aroma of the orange flower is also very present. This was not my favorite pastry, I don’t particularly like margarine or the coarse texture of semolina in desserts.
The second pastry I sampled was the dziriettes el warda. This dessert has a baked filling in a pastry dough cup. The dough shell that makes the cup is made with flour, margarine and a yellow food coloring. It is then flavored with vanilla extract and orange flower aroma. The inner paste that is baked is made of eggs, finely chopped almonds, sugar, orange zest and vanilla extract. This dessert is then carefully decorated using honey, egg whites, food coloring and edible silver pearls. These silver pearls were commonly used on many of the pastries, and we were reassured that they are edible and made of sugar. In this dessert I was able to taste the orange zest flavoring in the middle of the pastry and the texture was also coarse due to the chopped almonds. I enjoyed this dessert, but it was slightly bland in flavor.
There are several marzipan shaped fruit pastries with filling inside, and we decided to try the orange fruit. The decoration on the outside was exquisite and beautifully done. It was very obvious that a great deal of time went into making this particular pastry. It looked exactly like an orange – even down to the dimples in the orange skin. This pastry was one of my favorites, it had a soft, sweet, and gooey texture inside which contrasted nicely with the sweet crunch of the dried marzipan outer layer. There was definitely more sugar used in the making of this pastry, and the orange flower aroma was also strong.
Another very traditional pastry that we decided to taste was the Cornet, also called a Cone in English. This dessert is designed to look like an ice cream cone, there are even tiny holes punched into the crusty cone like outside layer to simulate the look of an ice cream cone. The interior is filled with a pistachio based, very sticky paste. I enjoyed this pastry, it wasn’t very sweet, but I am fond of pistachios.
The mkhabez pastry is a pink marzipan covered pastry. The pink color is sparkly, and it comes with a small pink bow on the top, which of course is not edible – but very pretty. This pastry has a thick shell of marzipan and very strong orange flower aroma when it is cut into. The inside is flaky and sweet, which contrasts nicely with the crunch of the dried marzipan. I enjoyed this pastry, however the strong orange flower aroma was quite overpowering and it was just a bit too sweet for my taste.
The final pastry that I was able to enjoy is called kalbalouz. This pastry was very crumbly and soaked with honey. It had a coarse texture due to the chopped almonds it contained, and it was very sweet. According to one of the women who bakes these desserts, it is best when enjoyed with a glass of mint tea. I thoroughly enjoyed this pastry – it had just the right amount of sweetness, and I love anything with honey. The combination of the sweet honey, the almond flavor, and the coarse texture put this dessert on the top of my favorites list.
Traditional Algerian pastry creations use simple ingredients in completely different ways. They are very ornately decorated – to the point where you almost feel ashamed to be destroying such a nice piece of art. The common flavor inducing ingredients that are used most often include almonds, orange flower extract and honey. This is very different from the creams and chocolates of the French pastry world.
Having the opportunity to try these traditional North African pastries was very rewarding. I am much more accustomed to the French type of pastry that uses a lot of creams and chocolates, so this was a new adventure in the realm of desserts. I have gained a new perspective on the possibility of different textures and ingredients that can be used to make sweet treats, and I will definitely put this information to good use.
My group members and I also decided to try some traditional breads that were available at the Boucherie Yasmine. The first was an Algerian style crepe. This had a pancake like texture, and the store owner recommended that we eat it with something sweet, like jam. This crepe was moist, doughy and very flat. It also felt oily to the touch as if it had been pan fried. It didn’t have much flavor on its own, but with a jam it tasted slightly better.
We also tried a traditional Moroccan flat bread. This bread was thick, fluffy and dry. It is made with semolina flour, salt, sugar, yeast, water and oil – and it is coated with semolina grains on the outside surface. The texture is spongy and it was very filling. I completely enjoyed this bread, it has a very subtle flavor and I could easily eat the whole flat bread in one sitting!
Our final taste of North African cuisine was at the restaurant Walima where we enjoyed a traditional Moroccan meal. We began the meal with the traditional soup called Harir. It is a tomato based vegetable soup that includes herbs, chick peas, celery, lentils and onion. It was a delectable start to the greatly anticipated meal. We ordered three main dishes: a lamb tangine, a chicken and green olive tangine, and a vegetable couscous. All of these dishes had a yellow colored tinge due to the traditional use of turmeric in Moroccan dishes. The meats were cooked to perfection and falling off the bone, they also came with savory sauces and vegetables. The couscous was tasty and probably my favorite part of the main meal. The dishes were seasoned well, and they were all delicious! After spending quite some time enjoying our meal, we finished with a glass of mint tea. The tea topped off the meal, making it a complete traditional North African meal.
Through this exploration of an unfamiliar culture I have discovered many new foods and I have learned how gracious people can be when you take the time to learn about their background and demonstrate an interest in their traditional practices. I look forward to enjoying more North African cuisine in the future, as well as exploring many new cultures, and of course, many new foods.
Walima is an inviting Moroccan restaurant located on 3550 Rue. Jean-Talon Est in the heart of the North African community of Montreal. The large burgundy colored sign with Halal written in Arabic, and the open door, marks it as a welcoming eatery to all. However, I was feeling slightly anxious as we walked through that open door.
I have never encountered Moroccan food before, and I was afraid my aversion to all things spicy would offend a cook who normally creates traditionally spicy dishes. But I soon discovered that my fears were unnecessary. As we entered the almost empty establishment I noticed the orange colored walls with Islamic style sconces and the TV in the corner playing an English infomercial. As my fellow group members and I sat down at a table near the front the atmosphere was very comfortable. The restaurant feels like you are in an extended home dining room, and the plastic water pitcher that was left on table reminded me of one my Grandmother had some time ago. The restaurant didn’t feel spotlessly clean, but it was well maintained and homey.
The owner/cook/waiter came to the table and we described our unfamiliarity with the Moroccan culture and our search for academic knowledge. He described a similar experience where he was required to discover the culture of Thailand and agreed to answer any and all questions we had.
Of course, my initial worry regarding spicy food was on the top of the list – especially because a fellow group member also has the same dislike of spicy foods. He reassured us that Moroccan food is not normally spicy, but Algerian and Tunisian food is. The other nagging question on all of our minds was – what exactly is that symbol that appears on the restaurant windows and on the menu? He proceeded to get a clay version of this symbol and described its use as a cooking tool in Morocco – it is put in the oven with the food in it to cook the food and then it would keep the food warm for long periods of time. He does not cook with it in the restaurant because that would take too much time – but he does use them to keep food warm.
The menu for the restaurant had two sides to it, a traditional Moroccan cuisine side – and a more French based side. The menu was entirely in French; therefore, we needed a couple of translations. The prices were also very reasonable: our entire meal was $10 Canadian dollars each. We, of course, ordered from the traditional meals side of the menu and started with a tomato based soup called Harir. Our main dishes consisted of a vegetable couscous and two tangine dishes. Tangine dishes are essentially meats cooked in savory sauces. We ordered a chicken with green olives and a lamb dish with peas. The food was delicious and hearty.
The owner was born and raised in Morocco where he learned Arabic as his first language and French as his second. He also spoke English very well because he went to an English college. He described to us that in North Africa, French is as common a language as Arabic due to the fact that the countries in North Africa were French colonies from the 15th century to the 19th century.
After he married his wife in Morocco 9 years ago they immigrated to Montreal. He said that they chose to leave Morocco because the life there was difficult, it was hard to find work or even an apartment. And they chose Montreal because of the French language. His wife and he were both much more comfortable with French and this was the determining factor for choosing Montreal as their home. He said that the fact there was a North African community in place also helped to make the transition to this city easier.
We also asked him, why he chose Montreal over France when the language is the same. He said that it is much harder to immigrate into France and that they liked the “easy way of life” here in Montreal. He said that he enjoys living in this city and in the community. His family attends the Dar Al-Arkam Mosque just down the street on the corner of 17th and this is also a plus for his restaurant location.
As we were enjoying our traditional meal, the owner left the restaurant and returned with lunch for his family. They ate sandwiches together in the restaurant – he has a daughter who was very cute, and glued to the TV in the corner after the channel was turned to French cartoons. We asked him if they normally ate traditional foods at their home – and he replied that they only ate traditional foods like couscous once a week because it takes so long to prepare them.
After we finished our meal the owner came out with a beautiful silver teapot and poured us some mint tea into ornate glasses. The tea is infused with mint and sugar and poured from a high height to make bubbles at the top of the tea. The tea was a fantastic ending to a delicious meal.
Les Tresors Sucres is a welcoming, small patisserie owned by an Algerian couple who make traditional Algerian pastries, as well as French desserts. It is located at 3640 Rue. Jean-Talon Est in Montreal’s North African neighborhood. As we entered the store the owner promptly began a congenial conversation with us and was more than happy to describe the various ornately decorated goodies that were on display.
He said that they work too much at the bakery to produce such intricately decorated pastries; they are open from 8am to 10pm, and they also take special orders of specific pastries for large events, such as weddings. However, he said that the work is very enjoyable and they make sure all of the pastries are held to the highest standards. He even pointed out a sign on the wall that describes their principles of using only all natural ingredients that are free from chemicals.
When we asked what common ingredients are used in these traditional pastries he stressed the use of simple ingredients: butter, flour and sugar. This is similar to what the first Algerian pastry shop we visited, La Delicieuse, also described. He said that almonds and almond based pastes are often used, and because they only use the best ingredients; the almonds are shipped in from California. All of the dyes used to decorate the desserts come directly from Algeria. The owner emphasized the point that the dyes are natural, handmade and chemical free.
Another main ingredient that the owner said is commonly used in Algerian pastries is an aroma. The typical aroma used is that of the orange flower. This aroma is bought in France, because according to the owner, “they have the best trees.” It comes in a fairly large bottle and it is very concentrated. Water must be added to it for dilution purposes before it can be used. He even brought a bottle out of the back of the pastry shop to let us see it and smell it. It was so concentrated that the smell was almost astringent.
The owner spoke English very well, making it fairly easy to converse with him and ask specific questions. He moved to Montreal with his wife in 1993, and he enjoys the multicultural feel of the city. He described riding the subway and being able to observe the diversity of life in this city while hearing unfamiliar languages. His first language is Arabic, his second is French and English is his third. When asked if he feels any tension with other cultural groups, he said “no – we are all human and that is all that there is,” cultural ethnicity isn’t a barrier in his opinion – but a blessing.
This pastry shop was very similar to the first one in that it was small, with only a couple of chairs for a seating area. It was also fairly clean and included Arabic decorations. The price for one of the pastries was the same as well; each traditional dessert costs $1.50 Canadian dollars. The French pastries in both shops were slightly pricier due to their more expensive ingredients. Overall the little shop was very inviting, and I could easily have enjoyed a pastry while sitting in one of their chairs and reading one of the various newspapers strewn on a side table – unfortunately, I would be unable to read the papers – they are all in French. However, I would thoroughly enjoy my pastry!
Boucherie in French translates to ‘butchery’ in English; however the feeling of this little shop is more like that of a convenience store with North African goods. As we walked into the Yasmine Butchery with the neon Halal sign in the window I felt a little out place, especially with a camera hanging from my wrist.
When my friends and I made it to the meat counter after looking through the short aisles of food packages covered in Arabic writing the man behind the counter asked us if we needed any help finding something. After we explained our scholarly purpose he was very gracious and willingly took us around the little store to explain what the different traditional products were and how they are normally used. He was born in Algeria and spoke only a little English, and therefore, when we asked questions his answer was always, “Let me show you.” This willingness on his part to help us understand his culture – and that specific phrase – allowed us to understand a lot of the goods being sold in his store.
As we took a tour of this store he described many of the foods available that were commonly purchased. The main spices used by North African countries include paprika, red chili pepper, cumin, black pepper, ginger and turmeric (normally turmeric is used in Moroccan cuisine).
Another staple in the store was couscous. There were several large bags of many different brands and our tour guide assured us that – yes, in North African cuisine a lot of couscous is consumed. He even had double boiler pots for sale that are commonly used to cook the couscous. The other main grain that he has a large supply of is semolina, which is commonly used to make a particular Moroccan flat bread. There was also an olive bar located in the store with fresh olives and several different dressings. He said that these olives are prepared just like they are in Algeria and that olives are a common component of North African food. The store was fairly organized and clean, some items were dusty, but they were packaged items like canned goods. All of the food had either French and/or Arabic writing on it and he said that almost all of the items are shipped from three main countries in North Africa: Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.
As customers wandered into this little butchery the store owner continued to explain to us the food choices that are available, while another worker helped the customers. This willingness to spend valuable time with students who are not regular customers showed us the gracious hospitality of this community, and their willingness to tell their cultural story. The traditional Arabic customers may have given us a strange look or two, but the owner didn’t mind. One woman wearing the traditional Muslim head scarf spoke with us for a few minutes and was very friendly while she was waiting to buy some meat. This is a Halal butchery, which means that the meat is edible for individuals who follow the Islamic faith.
The store owner showed us a variety of foods that have an equivalent in North American grocery stores, but are shipped from Algeria and other North African countries. There was a soda similar to Sprite – but it is called Hamoud and it is covered with Arabic writing, canned vegetables, cookies, pasta, dried fruit, etc…
He also showed us a traditional sheet pastry that is commonly used for falafels and other savory dishes. The name of the pastry sheet is Naima.
After exploring the store with our expert tour guide we decided to try two traditional breads. One bread was a semolina based flat bread that is common in Morroco and the other was an Algerian crepe that is usually eaten with a sweet jelly. The crepe bread had more of a pancake texture to it than the flat bread. After paying and leaving the store, I didn’t even realize that I had left our box of pastry desserts on the butcher’s counter from our visit to the Algerian bakery described in the previous post. As we were looking around in a store next to the Boucherie Yasmine the store owner ran in to give us our box of pastries. And only a few minutes after that the woman who we had been chatting with in the store also let us know that we left our small white box of cakes next door. The kindness of the members of this community was enlightening and gratefully accepted. The consideration of the individuals we met was by far the best part of the exploration experience thus far.
La Delicieuse Patisserie, or in English – the delicious bakery – was the first stop on our path of discovery in exploring the North African neighborhood and it’s traditions. While being initially lured in by the sight of the delicious pastry confections, we stayed for quite a while due to the charming personalities of the individuals who worked there.
Inside the bakery there is an open doorway that connects it to a restaurant that serves hot food. We were initially greeted by a young man who was working the hot food counter and spoke only a small amount of English. He was enthusiastic and let us know that all of the food and traditional pastries were of Algerian origin. He proceeded to lead us over to the pastry side of the shop and introduced us to the two women who created the pastries. Both women spoke very little English, but this language barrier didn’t stop them from trying their best to answer all of our questions.
We spoke with one woman for a few minutes who was kind enough to show us a pastry cookbook in order to describe what common ingredients are used in Algerian pastries – unfortunately it was only in French and Arabic. She wore a traditional scarf and knew slightly more English than the young man and the other woman who we spoke to, however our conversation was cut short, with apologies on her part, because she needed to continue baking. We spoke with the other woman for quite some time despite the difficult language barrier. She was very friendly and patient and emphasized the use of very simple ingredients in their traditional pastries – flour, butter, sugar, almonds, and some flavorings or extracts. She mentioned that they get a variety of customers; not just North Africans looking for a traditional pastry, so they also produce French pastries “because we like them and they also taste good.” The French style pastries also include different ingredients than the traditional Algerian desserts, such as chocolate and cream – as a result, their customers have a variety of options.
Inside the bakery section the decorations were sparse, but still nice, and the shop was kept fairly clean. There was only a single table with two chairs, their main customer base probably takes their pastries home to enjoy; just like we did. There was an Arabic writing plaque above the cash register and what we were told was a traditional Algerian decoration: a bronze plaque, which has religious meaning.
As my group members and I were admiring the carefully decorated pastries, the young man from the hot food counter came in carrying a traditional Algerian food – a spicy vegetable soup served with a baguette and a lime. All of the workers at this shop emphasized the fact that all of their food is made exactly like it is in Algeria – they don’t change it all, and they can easily find the ingredients they need – because they are all simple ingredients. Another food item that was prevalent on the hot food side was what they called ‘monchous’ – this was essentially a flaky pastry stuffed with savory ingredients like tomatoes, chicken, and beef.
Another traditional food item they were selling was Algerian pizza from the town of Onan. This pizza had a thick crust with a layer of tomato sauce, black olives, and herbs – the waiter recommended this one because it was not spicy, and Olivia and I tend to avoid spicy foods.
The food prices in the hot food section and in the bakery were very reasonable. An individual could easily eat a meal here for $6 or $7 and then wander into the bakery for a dessert pastry that costs only $1.50 Canadian dollars.
Exploring the traditional Algerian foods served here was a great experience because the individuals who worked at this Patisserie were extremely friendly and went out of their way to help us understand a little bit more about their culture and food.
This Patisserie is located at 3445 boul. Jean-Talon E in Montreal.
As an American student visiting Montreal I have discovered a diversity of culture and food that envelopes the French language. I am familiar with several of the cultures represented here in Montreal; French, Canadian, Italian, and of course American. However, I know very little about North African food and culture, so my group members and I decided to explore this unfamiliar territory. My fellow explorers, Becky & Olivia, also knew very little – if anything – about this particular culture.
The North African neighborhood is located on Rue. Jean-Talon and stretches for 15 blocks between Saint Michel and Pie IX, it begins very close to the Saint Michel Metro station. A Metro station that we had been cautioned against traveling to at night. This caused some minor feelings of apprehension on my part in exploring this particular neighborhood, and I became slightly more nervous at the sight of Arabian men congregating in front of stores, restaurants and coffee shops where they chatted in Arabic. This nervousness stemmed mainly from experiencing an unfamiliar cultural tradition where the men converse in front of their places of business while waiting for local customers.
As my friends and I moved slowly down the street I began to notice the obvious way that most of the shops and restaurants in the area were catering to the North African Muslim population. There was a smattering of shops that were not North African, for example there was a Vietnamese Pho restaurant and a karate studio. However, the majority of the businesses in the area were obviously North African and their customer base is the Muslim population. There were several Halal butcheries, traditional pastry shops – and even hair salons – that had Arabic writing in the windows. We discovered an Islamic mosque at the corner of 17th street, and even internet cafes advertising to the Muslim community.
Everyone we passed while walking down the fairly empty streets in the middle of the afternoon was either an Arabic male, or a woman wearing the traditional Muslim head scarf. And they were either buying food from one of the many halal butcheries or enjoying a cup of coffee at one of the cafes. My initial fears dissipated quickly and I began to feel comfortable in this haven for a small sector of the Montreal Muslim population. As we entered our first North African establishment I was pleasantly surprised at the kindness and generosity that the individuals who worked there bestowed upon three ‘out of place’ and culturally uninformed students from California.
This neighborhood, called Petite Maghreb in French, was formed in the late 1990’s when the Dar Al-Arkam mosque opened on the corner of 17th street and Rue. Jean-Talon. The proximity of the mosque and all of the shops catering to Muslim patrons was no coincidence and the area began to grow quickly. North Africa refers to the the area in Africa between the Atlas Mountains and the Mediterannean Sea, where the French language is commonly spoken, along with Arabic.The familiarity with the French language of Montreal, and the establishment of this community has led to a constant population increase in the area. There are currently 10 North African restaurants, 6 Halal butcheries, and 9 grocery stores or markets catering to the North African community members. This neighborhood is presently working to try and get official recognition by Montreal as Petite Maghreb. I hope that the community is able to establish their official status as little North Africa so that everyone can find their way to delicious food and congenial people – just the way I did.