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Sunday, 14 July 2013

Ramadan in Algeria - The traditions, customs and food

Algerian Baklawa

"Food is the most prominent of my early childhood memories of Ramadan. The fragrance of fresh coriander leaves being chopped for my mother's hearty 'chorba frik', prepared in a shorba clay pot that is purposely bought for Ramadan... the aroma of orange blossom water from the 'Andalusian Prune Tajine'... and the smoky flavors of grilled peppers ... all whisper Ramadan to my memory."         

                                                                           - Kaouther M., author of Simply Algerian

I have had the pleasure of picking Kaouther's brain and had an ever so interesting chat with her about Ramadan in Algeria, its Algerian traditions and specific foods. I have come to learn that while there are ample similarities between Algerian Ramadan traditions with those in other Arab countries, I must say, there were lots of traditions over there that are completely new to me, and very specific to the Algerian culture. It was really a pleasure getting to know Ramadan in Algeria and exploring its cuisine and traditions which I have found very interesting and thought you might too. 
Read on and explore The traditions, culture and food of Ramadan in Algeria.

Almond Paste Fruits
Sidna Ramadan
The Algerian people wait for Ramadan with a great deal of anticipation. Ramadan is set apart from all the other months to the extent that over there it is given the "honourable title of 'Sidna Ramdan'". Sidna meaning our owner or master. Kaouther explains: 

"Beyond its philosophy and spiritual side, Ramadan, unlike the rest of the year is a month that has unique ritual precision. Common, daily routines like eating and socializing go topsy- turvy and take place between sunset and dawn. People feel a sense of a common experience, since they all abstain from earthy pleasures and break their fast at the exact same time. Another part of the excitement is that common food, often associated with Ramadan, find its way to our plates." 

Such enthusiasm and excitement is also very evident in the amount of prep that takes place prior to the start of the holy month. Preparations start a while ahead, beginning with a complete house clean up, where the house is rearranged and spotlessly dusted, as well as equipped with new utensils and kitchen items including the traditional soup clay pots known as Teen Barma  طين برمة  , and at times purchasing new sets of flatware and cutleries to be ready for Ramadan entertaining. The preparations also include stocking up on local dates, dried fruits, assorted nuts, honey, grains and other ingredients for Ramadan cooking. It is all in a way resembling a new start, which goes in line with the common belief that during Ramadan one has a chance to wipe out the old and start anew.

Shorba Frik in traditional clay pot

Precise Rituals
One of the examples of Algerian specific Ramadan culture is the precise rituals related to the sahriya night gatherings (elsewhere known as sohoor gatherings), where although copper trays are no longer widely used as in the past "Ramadan gatherings can not be conceived without this big copper siniya (tray) full of Ramadan delicacies" explained Kaouther and carried on explaining the precise food types displayed on this tray: 

Typical Algerian Ramadan Siniya for Sahriya gatherings
"A typical Ramadan siniya should include: assorted trays of your choice of traditional Ramadan sweets such as: Baklawa, Ktayef , Mhancha, Samsa, Zlabiya, Qualb Elouz...etc. The siniya also includes a tray of Deglat Nour (Algerian dates), which are either served natural or stuffed with almond paste. In addition to Halwat Tourk, Rice Pudding (usually made from home-made rice powder), Mhalbi محلبى, Algerian buns like chrik or lamouna and Jawziya (which is an Algerian nougat from the city of Constantine, stuffed with nuts and flavored with natural honey). And finally assorted nuts which are to be served with green tea." 

If that is not precision then I don't know what is! But that is not all! More details of precise service are explained in how beverages are to be served. Kaouther explains: 

"In addition to these various delicacies, drinks must also be served the traditional way. Mint green tea is served in a copper tea pot called berrad or bakradj. orange blossom splusher known as Mrach مرش must accompany the coffee thermos for those who like to flavor their Turkish coffee with orange blossom water, and a silver napkin holder must carry beautifully folded napkins for guests to wipe their fingers after eating all those honey- soaked pastries." 

Algerian tradition serves Coffee in a thermos alongside an orange blossom splusher
for those who wish to flavour their Turkish coffee with orange blossom water

Very Algerian
Another very Algerian specific Ramadan Tradition that I learnt from Kaouther is the circumcision of infants being traditionally done on the 27th of Ramadan. Where it is a fairly large event, during which the boy wears a traditional costume especially made for this event, and where it is celebrated with an abundance of Ramadan sweets and other varieties of food. Huge attention to details, assortments of food and the company of extended family all to ensure a special and memorable event.  This is very interesting because the 27th of Ramadan is The Night of Destiny for Muslims, which is believed to be the night where Prophet Muhammad's soul was summoned to the highest universe and the whole Quran was revealed to him. 

The 27th of Ramadan is also a day when Algerians prepare a special dish, what they refer to as Algerian Pasta, which is traditionally only served on the 27th and the 15th of the holy month. 

One of the nicest Ramadan traditions I learnt from Kaouther is that of always serving Tajine Barkook on the first day of Ramadan to symbolize wishing everyone a sweet and happy month, as this is a sweet and savoury Tajine (see the explanation below).

Sahriya table
So what does Algerian Cuisine Serve in Ramadan?

Algerian Bourek
"Some of the hallmarks that crown the Algerian Ramadan table are : Chorba frik, a soup made with lamb, tomato, fresh herbs and thickened with frik grains (green wheat that's roasted and ground with a smoky flavor), giving the soup its distinct mouth- watering taste.

Bourek, a crispy pastry, probably of Turkish origin, filled with meat or other stuffing, then folded and fried. It’s the favorite appetizer and served daily with chorba frik or harira (another Algerian soup)

Tajine Lahlou, or Tajin Barkouk, a sweet Tajine composed of dry or fresh fruits (prunes, apricot, raisins, apples, pears , quinces…etc.), which are cooked with meat, spices and orange blossom water . it’s often served as s sweet touch after a row of savory dishes.

Mesfouf with butter milk is traditionally served for SohoorMesfouf is a sweet variety of couscous, steamed with raisins, and flavored with pure butter and icing sugar and can be decorated with nuts or dates, cinnamon... according to regional differences and personal taste."

Find Kaouther's Bourek Recipe - or better put: 

A Typical Algerian Ramadan Iftar Menu
Dates and milk 

Chorba frik (Green Wheat Soup)
Bourek (filo pastry delicacy)
Hmiss (Algerian salad of grilled peppers)

Traditional Tajines 
Tajine Ezitoun (olives Tajine), Chtitha (Chicken Tajine), 
stuffed vegetables, or kefta... 
served with Kesra Matlou or Khoubz Edar (Algerian breads)*  

* Rice is not a staple food in Algerian cuisine and Tajines are most likely served with Algerian breads.

Algerian Bread

Breaking Fast, Cooking at Home, Choice of Food and other traditions...

Following the prophet's tradition of breaking the fast, in Algeria it is done with milk and dates, then once Maghreb (sunset) prayer is over, the array of delectable food is served, where the family gathers and eats together. After Tarawih (evening) prayer, families gather and enjoy green mint tea along with traditional delicacies, usually very rich in honey and nuts such as baklawa, ktayefs (in Algeria these are similar to Knafeh not the same as the other Middle Eastern Qatayef - the name is due to the use of Kataifi pastry in the making of this dessert). Other desserts that are usually had at this time include mhancha, zlabiya, makroud, kalb elouz, halwet tourk, halkoum, just to name a  few. 
Dates & cups ready to be filled with milk

As I have noticed to be the case with most people, the most popular choice of food during Ramadan is usually traditional food. That does not necessarily mean that people won't include other food choices for variety and simply to satisfy cravings after a long day of fasting. However, in all of my explorations with many cultures and people, it remains that the most had and cooked food during Ramadan is usually traditional and classic cuisine. This is also the case in Algeria. While people do opt for varieties and would offer a plate or two of other cuisines (nothing too exotic though), most people would choose their traditional dishes more often. Kaouther seems to agree and elaborates: 

" My family carries a special attachment to our ancestor's cuisine during the holy month. We like to savor our various Tajines and typical pastries. I carry a special attachment to Ramadan specialties like the ones cited above. With that said, I also prepare some international dishes and pastries which is also appreciated by my family."

Chicken Tajine

Ramadan is probably the month where home-cooked meals are most appreciated. While these days people would go and break their fast at hotel Buffets and in restaurants, the most popular choice is still home-cooked food. In Ramadan Iftar invitations are very popular, and being invited to homes remains the most popular choice, followed by hotels and then restaurants.

"As I currently live in Malaysia, we also often invite and get invited by Arab friends, which is an excellent way of learning about other people's food, knowing that North African cuisine is quite distinct from other Middle-Eastern ones. For a break from homemade cooking, we do eat out at times , an experience I have no intention to repeat this coming Ramadan, because Malaysia, being a Muslim country, restaurants get extremely crowded during Maghreb time and the order takes a long time to arrive." says Kaouther.

Finally I had asked Kaouther whether these traditions, dishes, rituals - and all that we have discussed - are still alive today and practiced by the younger generations and she very enthusiastically replied:

"Yes, these rituals are very much alive. "

Algerian Katayef

I always find it interesting how food is an extension of culture very reflective of people, their traditions and lifestyles. It is always interesting to know how others live and how they view things. If you have not gone to a place, its food usually offers you a very good introduction, especially when explained. Kaouther had done a great job at that. Just one chat with the lady and I had learnt so much about Algerian food, their traditions and I really can't wait to visit Algeria and experience it all first hand. Despite this discussion being Ramadan Specific - because this Ramadan I am focusing on The Food & Traditions of Ramadan in Various Cultures - I found it very interesting to learn more about the delicious Cuisine of Algeria, and to get to know about their traditions and how precise and serious they are about service rituals. Immensely interesting and... 

Simply Algerian
If you wish to learn more about Algerian cuisine, and learn some excellent Algerian recipes, make sure to visit Kaouther's blog Simply Algerian

Kaouther is an Algerian currently living in Malaysia. She has a degree in English literature, and had been teaching languages for several years in several international institutions. Besides the full time job of motherhood, she teaches English, Arabic and French. She describes herself as: 

"I’m a food enthusiast who truly believes in the simple joys of life. A warm cup of coffee, a good book and a laugh with a friend mean the world to me. I am a wife and a mother of three little cuties. Some of my passions include ethnic home decor, reading, travelling, and shedding light on my country 's culinary heritage through my blog."

All information and images are provided by Kaouther and are her property. They are published on this blog with her permission. Please do not copy or use them without her permission.


Food For Thought
Be Good, try sharing instead of grabbing...

I hope you too enjoyed getting to know more about Algerian cuisine and traditions a little more closely. I would love to hear your thoughts, and if you would like to shed more light on Algerian Traditions. So do leave a comment before you go and help me keep the conversation alive.

Come Back tomorrow for 
Ramadan in Ottoman Times :)

The world is beautiful, all its people are beautiful, all cultures equally important, and all the same in the end - all out there for us to explore...
Ramadan Kareem