World on a Plate

Exploring culture. One plate at a time.

Category: Africa

The Baker’s Passport- Tunisia


During the middle of the day it was no longer the sun alone that persecuted from above–the entire sky was like a metal dome grown white with heat. The merciless light pushed down from all directions; the sun was the whole sky.

                                                                     – Peter Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

Thousand-year-old mosques, strolls through a medieval medina, and camelback treks across the Sahara can all be found on many a traveler’s list of desires when in the North African state of Tunisia. These rather romantic travel thoughts also bring up that song, “Midnight at the Oasis/Send your camel to bed/Shadows paintin’ our faces/Traces of romance in our heads/Let’s slip off to a sand dune…” Oh I think you get the idea.

According to the “The Momo Cookbook-A Gastronomic Journey through North Africa written by Chef Mourad Mazouz of London whose little gem of a cookbook provides glimpses into the land of the Maghreb, the region of northwest Africa comprising the coastlands and the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. The collection of recipes bridges the region’s history to the creation of a distinctive cuisine which, over the centuries, has been influenced by Jewish, Arabic, Italian and Spanish culture.

Folklorists have an expression in this region which states that, Tunisians get hungry when they see the color red, the color of appetite and passion. It’s also the color of harissa, a fire-red chili blend made from crushed dried red peppers, garlic, salt and caraway seeds that is central to Tunisian cuisine. Known for its heat and its association with red (passion), another folk tale shares that a man can judge his wife’s love by the amount of spice in his food—if it’s bland then romance is dead.

Given the area’s Mediterranean climate fruit is is often often found on the table at the end of a meal.  The quality and range of fruit is said to be outstanding, bursting with flavor.  Tunisia ice cream, or sabayon made with egg yolks and often served with fresh fruits that have been peeled and artfully arranged as if an artist’s palette, on a large tray with ice.  Here you’ll find watermelon, cherries, grapes, apricots,and strawberries.  Fruit juice drinks made from oranges,or ruby-red pomegranate whose pressed seeds are often mixed with a sugary rose-flavored water as a remedy for the traveler’s tummy and other fruit are available from street vendors and in cafes. Seasonal fruits include the wild peaches of early summer its interior carrying a deep red color and a jacket of  thick beige fuzz and is similarly and called pêche de vignes of the Lyonnais region; small, bite-sized pears and mishmish, very delicate apricots. Or the Barbary Fig (known here in the States as Cactus Fruit or Prickly Pear) first introduced by the Spanish in the 16th century available October through December.

Turkish baklava has been integrated into the baking culture here. Layers of whisper thin pastry interspersed with ground pine nuts, almonds, hazelnuts and pistachios, bathed in golden butter, baked and dipped in a honey syrup in all it’s many shapes, sizes and delights. Sweets in this country are, to an American palate said to be sticky and overly sweet. Pastries are delicate and scented with the fragrance of orange blossom water. Many are filled with dates, nuts and dressed in honey. Zlabiya, is a snake-like pastry with a crispy dark brown shell simply dressed with honey; gazelle horns are delicate, flaky horn shaped pastries with almond paste and sugar. In Kairouan search out the street carts selling the local specialty called makroudh, deep fried semolina pastries stuffed with dates and covered in honey syrup. And for breakfast brik à l’oeuf a thin pastry wrapped around tuna and an egg, fried and served with harissa or if you prefer a sweeter version filled with almond or sesame paste and covered in honey.

Mint tea is the classic and predominant tea choice. The au pignon or the a l’almande, offers up a cup of brew with pine nuts or almonds floating in the cup, this lends a welcoming buttery taste. In cafes you will also see locals drinking Ahwa arbi (Turkish coffee) fragrant with orange blossom or rose water and other espresso-based pick-me ups.  There’s also an aromatic spirit called Boukha made from distilled figs is served straight up at room temperature or chilled and mixed with Coca-Cola. (that’ll certainly keep you going!)

However in through this traveler’s window, I see myself in Sidi Bou Said winding and weaning my way through the steep, narrow alleys, lined with whitewashed, blue-shuttered houses to the restaurant at the top, only to sit under the open sky with the brilliant sunlight warming my face as I linger over a few samsa, sipping mint tea, the smell of jasmine dancing in the air.


Crisp Almond & Sesame Pastries

About 2 Dozen

2/3 cup sugar

1 1/4 cup water

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tsp orange-flower water

1 1/2 cups blanched almonds, lightly toasted and ground

1 1/2 teaspoon finely grated orange zest

1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

4 oz filo pastry

olive oil, for brushing

lightly toasted sesame seeds for sprinkling


Place the water and 1/2 cup sugar into a saucepan and gently heat, stirring until dissolved. Add lemon juice and bring to boil. The consistency will be syrupy. Remove from the heat and add the orange-flower water.  Allow to cool.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a mixing bowl, stir together the ground almonds, orange zest, cinnamon and remaining sugar. Mix together until well blended.

Brush one sheet of filo with olive oil, keep the other sheets covered with a damp cloth. Cut the oiled sheet into 3 lengthwise strips. Place a small spoonful of filling at the bottom of each strip.

Fold the sides over the filling then roll the pastry up along the length. Brush inside the end of the pastry with oil and seal it to the roll. Brush with oil and put on a baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining pastry and filling. Bake the pastries for 15-20 minutes until crisp and golden.

Lower the pastries a few at a time into the warm syrup, leave for about 3 minutes so the syrup infuses the pastries. Remove on to a plate and sprinkle generously with sesame seeds. Let come to room temperature before serving.

The Baker’s Passport – Senegal


The southern area of Senegal , known to many for it’s stunning beaches usually speckled with sun bathers from France and for its primary crop rice which is grown in this region called Casamance.  African desserts in countries south of the Sahara Desert are not common.  What is found are mixes of cut fruit  such as mango, papaya, bananas and pineapple or simply just fresh fruit, either way this "course" is called "after chop."

Some of these central dishes to this part of Africa are Tiébou Dienn  {pronounced: cheb-oo jenn}(rice and fish) and chicken au yassa (chicken with lemon, pimento and onions) and maffe (chicken or mutton in peanut sauce).   Drinks include home-roasted coffee with pimento and and mint tea, with the first tea steeped along with sugar and is very bitter.  This first pour is thought to be bad for a woman’s health so they do not partake; the second time around water is added to the same leaves and boiled again.  Unlike their Northern neighbors in Morocco who serve only three services of tea–the third being considered the perfect pour. The Senegalese just keep serving it up with more sugar as the enjoy it sweet.

Marcus Samelusson, the Ethiopian-born Swedish chef at Aquavit, has infused his passion for African cuisine into his recent cookbook, Soul of a New Cuisine.  One of the peoples of Senegal, the Fulani  people are known for their love milk. Whether this recipe originates there are more likely from the inspiration that Chef Samelusson found while traveling through the country. Here, in the following recipe he uses rice to create a very luxurious pudding; the creamy flavor is clean and bright from the lime zest, vanilla and small pieces of fresh mango.

Soulofanew_2 Lime-Scented Poppy-Seed Rice Pudding with Mango
From Soul of a New Cuisine by Marcus Samuelson

2 1/2 quarts whole milk

2 cups short-grain rice (14 ounces)

One 14-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk

1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped

2 tablespoons poppy seeds

1 1/4 cups sugar

1/2 cup heavy cream

Finely grated zest of 1 lime

6 ripe mangoes—peeled and cut into 1-inch dice

In a medium enameled cast-iron casserole, combine the milk with the rice, coconut milk, vanilla bean and seeds and the poppy seeds and bring to a simmer over moderately high heat, stirring. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring often, until the rice is tender, about 1 hour and 20 minutes.

Stir the sugar, heavy cream and lime zest into the rice and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the rice pudding is sweet and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Let cool to room temperature, then cover tightly and refrigerate until chilled, about 2 hours. Spoon the rice pudding into small bowls and top with the mango.

MAKE AHEAD The rice pudding can be refrigerated overnight. Serve chilled or at room temperature. Serves 12

photo: J.C. Durka

Ghanaian Cooking


Really, I don’t know what to say. I can’t begin to explain this at all.  But I’ve been conditioned to look for signals, to have a heightened awareness for repeated references. And for whatever reason, in the last 48 hours, I am hearing about Ghana all over the place.  Certainly there’s no rational reason whatsoever.

First it was an Eat Feed episode entitled "Kitchens" that I heard a bit about the cultural history of this regional cooking. If you don’t have a subscription to this podcast I’m not sure you can call yourself a foodie. Fran Osseo-Asare, founder of the African Culinary Network shared her 30 plus cooking experiences in this country.

Of course I wasn’t paying much attention to the finite details but Ms. Osseo-Asare is the editor of Betumi Blog. {BAY-to-me} I ran across her blog as I was conducting on a random search on World Cup Soccer (I’m trying to develop a deeper appreciation of something the world is in love with but we Americans are casual about).  It’s a young blog but it promises much in the understanding of this type of cuisine. Really how much do YOU know about fufu?

And the third reference was hearing Anthony Bourdain talking about his new book ‘Nasty Bits’ up on NPR.  In this interview he talks about Nambia and Ghana where he drank palm wine and explored the cuisine which he says,  "The food in Ghana is terrific in particular. It’s spicy, a lot of stews, very colorful, hearty stuff."

So I’ll admit it.  I know nothing about this type of world food. But what I do know is that in the next few years we’ll see a growing interest in the food of this continent. Particularly since superstar chef Marcus Samuelsson is applying his skill and time to with a new cookbook, The Soul of a Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa (due out in Sept.’06). I know I’m looking forward to the class he’s teaching at this year’s Gourmet Institute, Africa on My Mind.

So here’s a peek into what comprises this regional food of West Africa:

"Soups are the primary component in Ghanaian cuisine and are eaten with fufu (either pounded plaintain and cassava or yam), kokonte (cassava meal cooked into a paste), banku (fermented corn dough), boiled yam, rice, bread, plantain, or cassava. The most common soups are light soup, palmnut soup, and groundnut (peanut) soup. Other Ghanaian favorites include gari foto (eggs, onions, dried shrimp, tomatoes and gari), agushie (squash seed sauce, tomatoes and onions), omo tuo (mashed rice balls with groundnut soup), jollof rice, red-red (fried plantain and bean sauce), kenkey (boiled fermented corn dough) and fish, kelewele (deep fried and heavily spiced plantain) and shito (hot pepper sauce)."                From GhanaCoUK

After all any food that offers chile peppers and plantains as a foundation is worth checking out. 

Recipe:  Traditional Dark Chile Sambal

Previous Posts: Grains of Paradise

Image: Hand-Woven Asante Ceremonial Cloth, Hohoe, Volta, Ghana


Harissa is a red chili paste originating with the Berber people in Tunisia. The harissa sauce (pronounced huh-REE-suh) is made from hot chiles, garlic, cumin, coriander, caraway and olive oil. Harissa is served with cous cous and is also used in soups and stews. Commercially-produced <a href="harissa in tubesand jars can be easily purchased in Middle Eastern grocery stores.

It can be served as a dip for cooked meat or stirred into casseroles and soups to give a fiery kick. Stir a little harissa into natural yogurt to make a tasty marinade for chicken and pork dishes. Harissa can also be added to couscous to give a spicy flavor. Mix a little harissa with some mayonnaise or stock and serve it as an accompaniment to thick vegetable or fish soup.

Tunisians mix it liberally with almost every dish, while Algerians and Moroccans prefer to serve it on the side, adding it according to individual taste. The kick of your harissa will depend upon the variety of dried chile peppers used to make the harissa. If you are ambitious and want to make it yourself for a mild harissa choose a New Mexico red or guajillo; for medium, pasilla or a chipotle; and use cayenne or habanero for a fiery flavored harissa.

Clifford Wright the writer and scholar of Mediterranean food writes about “harisa” in A Mediterranean Feast:

Harisa comes from the Arabic word for “to break into pieces,” which is done by pounding hot peppers in a mortar, although today a food processor can be used. This famous hot chili paste is also found in the cooking of Algeria, Libya, and even in western Sicily, where cuscusu is made. In Tunisia it would be prepared fresh in a spice shop.

Harissa is worth having in the kitchen as it elevates the ordinary to something special and unique. At about $3.00 a tube it’s money well spent.

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