We often think of the world in terms of continents, so Europe and Africa can seem like very different places. But the temperate, sunny lands surrounding the Mediterranean – north, east, and south – have a tremendous amount in common, especially when it comes to food.
Olives thrive all across the warm, dry Mediterranean climate. Olive oil has been the primary cooking fat in nearly all the lands that border the Mediterranean since at least Roman times, including Tunisia, Greece, and Italy.
Northern Africa was the “breadbasket” of the Roman empire, providing grain for the “bread and circuses” of the capital. Wheat and barley are the main grains across North Africa. As throughout Europe, breads are a staple across North Africa, including flatbreads like aish baladi in Egypt and taller breads like Khobz el dar in Algeria. In Libya, a steamed bread dish called bazin is a national favorite. Hard semolina wheat – the stuff Italians use to make pasta – is used across North Africa to make couscous. Wheat is also used in sweets throughout the region, like ghoriba cookies or sfenj donuts.
The vegetables in a good French ratatouille, like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and zucchini, are all common across North Africa. Tomatoes star in a stew called shakshuka, eaten across the region. Dried chili peppers are the basis of harissa, a spicy sauce that’s especially popular in Tunisia. And just as the Spanish love their marinated carrots, in Egypt, street vendors sell beautiful, pyramidal stacks of purple and orange carrots.
Just as in Greece, Italy, and southern Spain, lemons are ubiquitous across North Africa. They’re squeezed over fish, used to tart up dishes like tagines in Morocco and Algeria, and preserved with salt for a sour-salty condiment. Other common fruits include figs and apricots, which are often sun dried.
Just as Italy has its basil and Greece has its oregano, Morocco has its mint and Egypt has its hibiscus. Both are commonly steeped to make teas. Chermoula, an herby relish typically made with cilantro, parsley, spices, and a bit of lemon or vinegar, is served alongside fish from Morocco to Libya.