The North African Kitchen: Regional Recipes And Stories, by Fiona Dunlop, photographs by Simon Wheeler
In looking at this book, it is obvious that there is a fair amount of padding involved in order to get this book close to 200 pages in length. In some books, this may be a problem, but in this book, that padding consists of material that is worthwhile in its own right even if it is not the tasty recipes of North African cooking that a reader would expect . The subtitle of this book gives some indication of these additional materials in that much of them consist of stories about the eight chefs that the author talks to in order to gain their recipes. More will be said about those stories shortly, but it is sufficient to state as far as the worth of the book is concerned that the stories as well as the beautiful photographs of North Africa, its people (including the chefs and their families) and the food discussed in the book add a great deal of value to the reader as well as a large degree of enjoyment. Even if one would want more tasty recipes in this book, the book is a good one and there are at least a few dishes that I would like to try personally, including a couple that involve pigeons .
The contents of this book are divided not by the types of food included among the author’s survey of North African cooking, but rather in a nested hierarchy. First, the author divides North African cooking into Moroccan, Tunisian, and Libyan cooking, each with their own specialties–Moroccan with a great deal of Spanish influence, Tunisian more spicy as well as French-influenced (with the ubiquitous knowledge of a local egg-based pastry that is apparently forced on tourists), and Libyan being more plain and hearty and focused on soups and stews. Within these countries the author divides the first two into different cities, and then in all chapters the cities focused on (for Morocco: Marrekesh and Fez, for Tunisia: Tunis, Carthage, and La Goulette, and for Libya: Tripoli) have one (or for Fez, three) cooks whose signature dishes are shared with the reader. By chef the recipes are provided in an order that begins with soups, salads, and side dishes, and that moves on to tasty entrees and desserts. Again, most readers would probably want more recipes, but this book offers as a suitable substitute for a large quantity of recipes a thoughtful collection of high-quality recipes that ought to be of interest to those readers who want to explore North African cuisine, and includes an appendix on various matters of preparing herb mixtures as well as couscous, which is relatively popular across the whole region.
Beyond the tasty and appetite-inducing foods discussed in the book, the stories themselves add a great deal to the book as a whole. In reading about the Libyan cuisine, one wonders how many of the people in there still live after their ongoing revolution, and the statement made by the author in 2008 that Gaddafi is still solidly in charge rings with a particularly tragic sort of irony in light of the events of the last few years. Likewise, the story about the Tunisian cook of La Goulette itself contains the tragic note of the flight of the vast majority of the Tunisian Jewish population, leaving the cook discussed as having the only kosher restaurant left in the entire country. As for the rest, the cooks discussed are a mixture between the old and the relatively young, poor or working class women employed by much wealthier restaurant owners or wealthy and busy women who hire lower-class women to serve as their workers, which presents an interesting picture of class divides among North African society. Concerning the recipes themselves, one factor that speaks strongly in their favor is that except for seafood, the recipes are clean and in accordance with the biblical food laws, and that makes this book far more practical than most of the cookbooks I happen to read. So raise a glass of mint tea and chow down your tagine with a side of cous cous, and enjoy the dishes spoken of here.
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