A World of Curries: North and West Africa

Dave DeWitt A World of Curries Leave a Comment

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By Dave DeWitt


Tunisian Five-Spice

Ras El Hanout


Nigerian Coconut-Curry

Curried Lamb Balls

Moroccan Majoun

Africa has the most varied curries in the world–with the possible exception of India. They range from spice mixtures with aphrodisiac beetles to scaldingly hot chile pepper blends to elegant weekend curry lunches at the club.  The contrasting curries reflect the ethnic diversity of Africa as well as the influence of the seven European countries that colonized the continent: Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Belgium.  In addition, there were strong culinary influences on African curries from unexpected places: the Middle East and the Spice Islands.

On the Edge of the Sahara

North Africa has a curry tradition that goes back two millennia.  The Middle East and Rome were the two main influences on the curries, and it is likely that the first Asian spices were introduced into the region by the Phoenicians, who in the seventh century B.C., traveled from northern Syria to establish colonies in North Africa at Algiers and Carthage.  The Phoenicians invented a dried sausage to sustain them on long sea voyages, and they carried with them spices such as nutmeg, cumin, coriander, and cloves, which formed the basis of Middle Eastern spice blends such as baharat.

During this time, there were no countries as we know them now in North Africa; rather, the region was known as Maghreb and it was inhabited by nomadic Berbers.  It is likely that the Phoenicians–or the Carthaginians that followed them–introduced durum wheat to the region.  The wheat became a favorite of the berbers, who invented couscous, a granular semolina that is now a staple food in North Africa.

The Romans needed wheat to feed their growing empire, and began trade with Carthage around the first century B.C.  It is likely that the Romans also introduced their beloved spices into North Africa, such as black pepper and cinnamon, as part of the trade in wheat and other foodstuffs. 

During the seventh century A.D., North Africa was invaded by Arab armies, which brought additional spices to the region.  However they arrived, spice mixtures became very important in the cuisines of North Africa, and they are some of the most unusual curry combinations I encountered during my globe-circling curry tour–a direct result of the availablity of seasonings in the region.  “The North African housewife can choose from up to 200 different spices and herbs when she stops to replenish her supplies at a spice stall in the souks of the medinas,” observed food historian Harva Hatchen. 

This diversity is reflected in the unique spice mixture ras el hanout, which is prepared with twenty to thirty spices ranging from the familiar to the downright weird, including belladonna berries, iris leaves, and Spanish fly–the reputedly aphrodisiac cantharide beetles.  The name means “top of the shop,” or “shopkeepers’ choice,” and indicates the fact that the mixtures are individually prepared by each spice seller.


If the ras el hanout itself is too tame, then I present the ultimate high of North African curries: el majoun, a sweetmeat of almonds, honey, butter, fruits, spiced with a dangerous dollop of the aphrodisiac ras el hanout and a heavy helping of hallucinogenic hashish.

In 1846, the French poet, novelist, and dedicated hashish devotee, Theophile Gautier, described majoun in his book, Revue des Deux Mondes: “The doctor stood by the side of a buffet on which lay a platter filled with small Japanese saucers.  He spooned a morsel of paste or greenish jam about as large as a thumb from a crystal vase, and placed it next to the silver spoon on each saucer…. ‘This will be deducted from your share in paradise,’ he said as he handed me my portion.”

The effects of the majoun (left) were strange indeed, especially in a culinary sense.  “I had experienced a complete transformation in taste,” wrote Gautier.  “The water I drank seemed the most exquisite wine, the meat, once in my mouth, became strawberries, the strawberries, meat.  I could not have distinguished a peach from a cutlet.”

Incidentally, cannabis was introduced into Europe from North Africa in the form of a curried aromatic cake called dawamesk, which was composed of sinsemilla (seedless) Cannabis flowers, sugar, orange juice, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, pistachios, and pine nuts.  One of the principal importers of dawamesk was the notorious Le Club de Hashischins, a group of hashish-loving Paris intellectuals led by–who else?–Theophile Gautier!  Among the club’s members were Victor Hugo, Honore de Balzac, and Charles Baudelaire.

The most famous North African curries, served from Morocco to Egypt, are called tajines, and they are named after the earthenware tajine pot in which they are cooked (at left).  Just about any meat–chicken, pigeons, mutton, beef, goat, and even camel–can made into a tajine with the exception of pork.  The meat is usually cubed, and, according to Harva Hatchen:  “The cooking liquid is the secret of a tajine’s tastiness.  This is usually a combination of water and butter or oil (characteristically, olive oil) and seasonings to suit what’s being cooked.”


Curry Heat in West Africa


Over in West Africa, particularly the former British colony of Nigeria, the curries are distinguished by an extra infusion of hot chiles.  As Ellen Wilson, author of A West African Cookbook, has observed: “Learning to eat West African food means learning to enjoy [chile] pepper.”  She added: “West African dishes can be searing or simply warm, but it is noticeable that the [chile] pepper never conceals the other ingredients; in fact, it seems to enhance them.”  Notice the red chile powders in this market in Nigeria, at left.



Another distinguishing characteristic of Nigerian curries is that they are served with an inordinate number of accompaniments.  In addition to the usual chutneys and raisins and shredded coconuts, the Nigerians offer as many as twenty-five condiments, including chopped dates, diced cucumber, diced citrus fruits, ground dried shrimp, diced mangoes and papayas, peanuts, grapes, fried onions, chopped fresh red chiles, and bananas.

“Nigerians and old African hands,” noted Harva Hatchen, “spoon out a portion of everything so their plates become a mound of curry and rice completely hidden by a patchwork of color and tastes.”  In some parts of West Africa, where the British traditions are still apparent, the larger hotels serve a weekend curry lunch.  The tradition came from colonial officers who had been assigned to Africa after their stints in India.

Tunisian Five Spice Powder

A simple blend of curry spices from North Africa, this powder is called qalat daqqa in Arabic, and contains the malagueta pepper, also known as the “grains of paradise.”  The malagueta pepper is available from mail order spice companies, such as The Spice House, and this mixture is used to flavor lamb and vegetable dishes.

1 tablespoon cloves
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 1/2 teaspoons malagueta pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Grind together the cloves, black peppercorns, and malagueta pepper in a spice mill.  Add the nutmeg and cinnamon and blend well.  Store in an airtight jar.
Yield: About 1/4 cup
Heat Scale: Mild

Ras El Hanout

This blend is used to spice up tagines (stews), rice, and couscous.  It is the only curry powder I know of that utilizes dried flowers.  A true Moroccan recipe would also include those shiny green cantharide beetles known as Spanish Fly.  Some other hard-to-find spices, such as nigella, orris root, and even the dangerous belladonna berries would also be added, but this recipe is my drug-free approximation. Paula Wolfert, in her book Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, states that “it is incorrect to think of ras el hanout as curry powder by another name” because it lacks sufficient amounts (or any, in some cases) of cumin, coriander, fenugreek, and mustard.  However, most versions of ras el hanout contain other major curry spices, such as turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, and chiles, so let’s compromise and say that the mixture is a variation on curry powders.

2 tablespoons crushed black peppercorns
1 tablespoons powdered cardamom
1 tablespoon powdered mace
1 tablespoon powdered ginger
1 teaspoon hot red chile powder
1 teaspoon fennel seed, crushed
1 teaspoon powdered nutmeg
1 teaspoon powdered allspice
1 teaspoon powdered cinnamon
1 teaspoon crushed malagueta pepper
2 teaspoons powdered galangal
4 whole cloves, crushed
1 tablespoon turmeric
2 tablespoons crushed dried lavender
2 tablespoons crushed dried rose buds

Place all ingredients in a food mill or spice grinder and process to a fine powder.
Yield: About 3/4 cup
Heat Scale: Medium


This fiery chile curry is found in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco.  It is commonly added to vegetable and meat tagines, or stews, and is also served as a table condiment, much like the Indonesian and Malaysian sambals.  Ready-made harissa is available in specialty markets and by mail order, but this recipe is easy to make and will keep for at least six weeks in the refrigerator.  Place the harissa in a jar and cover it with a thin film of olive oil.

7 New Mexican dried red chiles, seeds and stems removed
5 small hot red chiles, such as piquins, seeds and stems removed
5 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground caraway seeds
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspon ground coriander
1 teaspoon crushed dried mint leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
Water if necessary

Soak the chiles in water until they are soft, at least 1/2 hour.  Place them in a blender or food processor with the rest of the ingredients and puree to a thick paste, adding water if necessary to adjust the consistency.
Yield: About 1 1/2 cups
Heat Scale: Hot

Nigerian Coconut-Curry Soup

Coconuts play a large role in many African curries, as they do in this soup from West Africa.  This curried coconut soup can be turned into a complete meal by the addition of cooked chicken or pumpkin, or both.

1 quart coconut cream thinned with milk, recipe here
1 tablespoon Malawi Curry Powder, recipe here
1 cup chicken stock
2 teaspoons cornstarch
Saffron threads for garnish

Combine the coconut milk, curry powder, and chicken stock in a pan and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.

Mix the cornstarch with a little water to form a paste and slowly stir the paste into the soup until it thickens.  Continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.

Remove from the heat, top with a dollop of yogurt, and sprinkle with saffron threads.
Yield:  4 to 6 servings
Heat Scale: Medium

Curried Lamb Balls
(Harira Kefta Tajine)

In this tajine, the lamb (hariria) is ground, combined with curry spices, made into balls (keftas), and then poached.  These keftas are then added to a reduced vegetable sauce.  In this way, the meatballs are curried but the sauce is not! Serve this dish with couscous and some harissa (see recipe, above) on the side to heat it up.

2 pounds ground lamb
1 onion, chopped fine
4 mint leaves, minced
1/2 teaspoon fresh marjoram, minced
1 teaspoon minced parsley
2 teaspoons Ras el Hanout (see recipe, above)
1 teaspoon Tunisian Five Spices Powder (see recipe, above)
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon hot red chile powder, such as cayenne
1 quart water
1/2 cup olive oil
2 pounds fresh tomatoes, chopped
2 onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 fresh pimiento pepper (or substitute bell), seeds and stem removed, chopped
1 cup water

Combine the lamb with the onion, mint, marjoram, parsley, Ras el Hanout, Tunisian Five Spices Powder, allspice, salt, and chile powder, and mix well.  Form into balls about 1 1/2 inches in diameter.

Bring the quart of water to a boil and poach the keftas for 15 minutes, turning them constantly. Drain them on paper towels and refrigerate until ready to use.

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan, add the remaining ingredients (except the water), and saute for ten minutes.  Add the water and allow the mixture to simmer, covered, for 1 hour. 

Check the mixture and stir it occasionally.

Add the keftas to the mixture and cook, uncovered, for 20 minutes.  The sauce should be very thick and should be served over the keftas.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Heat Scale: Medium

Moroccan Majoun

Majoun translates as “love potion” in Arabic, and is a psychoactive combination of kif (“peace, tranquility”), the North African word for various cannabis incarnations including flower tops and a blonde hashish, plus fruits, nuts, curry spices, and honey. Majoun is a staple among the Morrocans and Rastafarian communities around the world.  Use as a spread over crackers or cookies, or fashion it into small mounds and refrigerate until hardened.  A little goes a long way to relax you.

1/4 ounce marijuana flower tops, deseeded (available from medical marijuana facilities)
1 cup minced dates
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup ground walnuts
1/4 cup ground almonds
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon anise seed
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup orange flower water, or substitute any flower-flavored water
2 teaspoons ghee, recipe here
Sesame seeds for garnish

In a dry skillet, toast the marijuana over very low heat until it begins to release a pleasant aroma.

Add the dates, raisins, nuts, spices, honey, and water to the skillet and cook over low heat until the ingredients are thoroughly blended, stirring gently during the process.

Remove the contents of the skillet to a bowl and with a pestle, mash the mixture until it is thoroughly blended. You can also use a food processor or blender on “pulse” to accomplish this.

Finally, add the ghee and blend it in well so all the ingredients are coated.  Let the majoun cool for two hours.  If making majoun candy, refrigerate the paste until semi-soft, roll into candies, and press the sesame seeds onto them.  The paste or the candies will keep in the refrigerator for months if covered.
Yield: 50 servings

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