France colonized large swaths of the world, and that world has come to inhabit its culture, most comfortably in an unexpected place: the kitchen. The cuisine of the Maghreb, which refers to Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, is now as ensconced in France as spaghetti and pizza are in the United States.
France’s foray into North Africa began in 1830, but it was the need for labor during the postwar years that led to a wave of North African immigration to France. Naturally, these workers brought their culinary traditions with them. What arguably anchored the flavors of the Maghreb in France, however, was the exodus of the “pieds noirs,” or French residents of Algeria, to France in the early 1960s, when the North African colonies became independent. They may have left their sun-baked lives behind, but they brought with them recipes laced with orange flower water, dried fruits, cilantro, mint, cumin, ginger and other exotic ingredients.
The result of these migrations can be seen on the streets of any city or large town in France. In Paris, each arrondissement boasts a handful of North African restaurants serving ethnic specialties such as couscous royal, tagines, pastilla and chorba. Maghreb pastry shops are also sprinkled throughout every neighborhood, their windows piled high with colorful sugar-dusted, nutty sweets, typically enjoyed with mint tea.
And if what you observe on French streets is any indication, Maghreb fast food has it all over McDonald’s and Burger King. Adolescents, young adults and others in a hurry can typically be seen clutching a kebab (in its fast-food incarnation, pita bread filled with thinly sliced meat—traditionally lamb though now more often turkey—spicy yogurt, lettuce, tomatoes and lip-burning harissa). Perhaps this is because kebab shops with names like Omar, Star of Algeria or Le Sultan are handy and central, while McDonald’s restaurants are often in outlying areas. Or perhaps it is because North African fast food is not only delicious, it corresponds to French notions of a balanced and flavorful meal.
Less obvious to visitors but just as common is the North African influence on French home cooking, where tagines are often prepared for guests, and preserved lemons may garnish roasted or braised meats. Monique Martin, a farmer and cook in a small town in Normandy, prepares couscous as though she’d been born to the task, carefully rolling butter into the grain, steaming it and repeating the process until she has a mound of fluffy couscous. She serves it in the traditional manner—with meat, vegetables and broth spiked with harissa—although she includes pork, forbidden in the traditional North African/Muslim diet. Where did she learn to make couscous? Not from a Maghrébin neighbor, of which she has several, but from a French cooking magazine. She doesn’t remember which one; all she knows is she read it, tried it and the dish is now part of her repertoire.
One of the first starred chefs to add a North African accent to his menu was Jean-Marie Amat, who in the early 1980s presided over the Saint-James in Bordeaux and is now preparing to open an eponymous restaurant across the Garonne, in the historic Château du Prince Noir. “Today, everyone uses spices from that part of the world,” he says. “But in the early ’80s, they were considered rather vulgar; there was nothing chic about them. What I discovered was that in fact, Moroccan food was not spicy in the sense of hot but rather intensely flavorful. And there are many parallels between French and Moroccan cuisines: Both are rich, varied and regional, and both have long histories.” Amat explains that he never cooked Moroccan dishes per se but rather used them to inspire his own creations, such as his pastilla au pigeon, which became a classic. “It was neither Moroccan nor French; it transmitted the idea of Moroccan cuisine without being ethnic cooking.”
In Paris, three-star chef Alain Passard of Arpège (84 rue de Varenne, Tel. 33/1-45-51-47-33) was one of the first to use huile d’argan in his dishes. This highly nutritious oil is made from the nut of the argan tree, which grows only in southern Morocco in an area that has been declared a protected biosphere by UNESCO. It is one of the more unusual food-processing stories around: Goats climb the trees and eat the fruit but do not digest the nuts, which Berber women traditionally sort from the dried dung. The nuts are then washed and pressed to make the oil.
Passard, whose restaurant has raised preparing vegetables to an art form, dribbles it on his jardinière arlequin, a refined interpretation of a couscous de légumes. Notes from the Maghreb also show up in a dish combining three “bubbles”—caviar, couscous and Champagne—and in his soufflé au chocolat à l’huile d’argan, which takes on the oil’s distinctive praline taste.
In Rouen, the menu at the chic bistro Restaurant 37 (37 rue St Etienne des Tonneliers, Tel. 33/2-35-70-56-65) occasionally features chef Gilles Tournadre’s refined take on tagines as well as his rendition of the traditional orange and date salad. Tournadre also recently concocted a pastilla au chocolat, a sort of ganache stuffed with dried apricots, raisins and almonds. “The food of the Maghreb is the food of the sun,” says the chef, who also cooks for his two-star restaurant, Gil. “It includes all the spices we don’t have in France, from cumin to cinnamon, and it’s lighter, more easily digestible, more aromatic and contemporary than most other cuisines.”
All of which points to the fact that French cuisine and the French culinary sensibility, rigid in its rigor and technique, is anything but in its acceptance of ingredients and influences. While the blending of cultures may sometimes be fractious in France, such is not the case at the table. There, harmony reigns, and both cuisines—and cultures—are the beneficiaries.