Assia Benabbes, author of the blog Gourmandise Assia is our new culinary expert for Algerian cuisine.
Can you tell us more about yourself?
My name is Assia. I am the mother of three children aged 19, 13 and 9. I have been married for 21 years. I was born and raised in Annaba, Algeria. I started my professional career as a manager of a hair salon in Algeria and I then became a state-trained hairdresser. I moved to France 11 years ago, and I started working in early childhood development after graduating in this field. I have been very passionate about cooking since I was a child, whether it was about savory or sweet recipes. I intend to work in this field, which is why I started a culinary program where I’ll be trained as a pastry chef. I toggle between both worlds of cooking and baking. I am generally interested in food so why not combine the two?
Tell us more about your knowledge and experience when it comes to Algerian cuisine.
I do not have any professional experience. However, where I come from, home cooking is sacred. Almost everything is homemade. I grew up in a family where all the women in the house cook, and even men sometimes. Cooking is something we learn from a very young age. Personally, I started when I was 8 years old. When it comes to Algerian cuisine, I have mastered almost all the dishes and their different versions. But there is always more to learn!
What makes Algerian cuisine unique? What differentiates it from other cuisines?
Algerian cuisine is a rich and generous cuisine that varies from one region to another. It is based on quality ingredients of natural origin. It is a 100% homemade and processed foods do not really have their place. It is renowned for its Mediterranean flavors, its spices, its tajines, its Middle-Eastern pastries and its world renowned couscous.
What is your favorite Algerian recipe or the most unusual dish of the country?
My favorite dish which is also unusual is chakhchourha, also called thrid, ftir or naama. This is a fairly elaborate recipe in the sense that it requires a complex technique for laminating the dough. It takes a lot of control and discipline. It comes with a rich meat sauce and vegetables similar to the ones used in couscous.
What other cuisines do you like or influence your cuisine?
I don’t really have a cuisine of reference. I am curious and I like to try various cuisines. I am open to any kind of cuisine provided it is appreciated by my family first and foremost. I also try to discover new recipes through my blog where I share universal recipes.
Which place would you recommend to visit in Algeria?
Algeria is worth a visit in its whole. Each region features a different season. Beside Annaba “la coquette”, my home town and coastal city, I particularly recommend to go for a ride in Bejaia with its beautiful landscapes and beaches alongside the mountains.
Beside your mother or grandmother, is there any chef from Algeria (or beyond) who is a reference for you?
To be honest, in my generation there were not really that many famous chefs and our references were our mothers and grandmothers. Now, things have changed and Algeria is full of young and famous chefs.
What are the main difficulties in Algerian cuisine?
The main difficulty in Algerian cuisine consists of mastering the techniques especially for larger dishes and Middle-Eastern pastries. You must be patient and acquire know-how following numerous attempts. However, this remains an accessible cuisine that can be learned. Patience is key.
What would you suggest if you had to prepare a complete Algerian menu: starter, main course, dessert?
My menu would be:
Starter: chorba frik (green cracked wheat soup)
Main dish: a couscous which is a traditional friendly dish
Dessert: A variety of Middle-Eastern pastries (gazelle horn, baklava, etc) accompanied by a good mint tea!