Welcome to the We Are Food Blog!
Although I started this blog as a study specifically of Libyan food culture (see About) I quickly realized that I could not accurately document my observations without looking at Libya within the broader context of the Maghreb region. The late Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba was once asked whether Libya was part of the Maghreb. He replied, “ask them if they eat couscous, if so then they are Maghrebis without a doubt”!
The countries of the Maghreb located in North Africa, are divided by modern borders into the states of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Historically, this entire region was united as one nation under the name of Libya, and the earliest record of this was by the Greek geographer Hecataeus dating back to 500 BC. Generally, couscous distinguishes the cuisine of the Maghreb from the Orient, and it is believed that this culinary border actually occurs near Sirte, splitting Libya in half, between couscous eaters from Tripolitania westwards and rice eaters from Cyrenaica all the way to the Persian Gulf! In reality rice is also featured in western Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria, although it still remains uncommon in Morocco. In Eastern Libya couscous and other western dishes are popular although not historically a part of their local diet.
The Maghreb is united by couscous, but there are regional differences in cooking styles that defy modern post-colonial borders. The kitchen of Morocco spills into Algeria – the food of Libya into Tunisia and Algeria. The flavor profiles are broadly defined as: Moroccan (green), Algerian (grey), Tunisian (red) and Libyan (yellow). The sweet and sour Moroccan palate is in stark contrast to the spicy and pungent Tunisian taste. These are not concrete borders though, but an approximation based on local dialects and customs. In reality, cooking styles meld, morph and overlap, and some dishes are identical throughout the region. The southern region (not colored) have a nomadic desert diet, and is generally not considered a part of the North African cuisine.
Sharing a common Amazigh (Berber) ancestry, leaving a heritage of couscous and other staples, many historical external influences have shaped the culinary tradition. Arabization and the spread of Islam; Andulsian and Ottoman, French and Italian; all of these have left a strong mark. Although Mauritania is legally a part of the Arab Maghreb Union, they do not have Amazigh roots and their dialect (Hassaniya) is different from the Maghrebi dialect, having a different culture in general. For this reason I have chosen to exclude Mauritania from the scope of this blog – for the time being.
The varying geography and topography is reflected in the diversity of the produce. Seafood from the Mediteranean and Atlantic; lamb from the semi-arid grazing areas; camel from the Sahara; all form the main sources of protein. Coastal olive oil and Argan oil from the Atlas mountains are essential. Figs and almonds from the Jebel Nafusa mountains, and dates from the Jufra oases are just examples of how the produce changes with the land.
So please join me as my journey expands westwards into Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
Viva la Maghreb!