Today, we are headed to the Maghreb for the recipe of homemade merguez, the most popular sausage of North Africa.
Where do merguez sausages come from?
Merguez, in Arabic mirkas (ﻤﺮﻛﺲ), pl. marākis (ﻤﺮﺍﻛﺲ), mirkās (ﻤﺮﻛﺎﺱ), markas (ﻤﺭﻛﺲ) and mirqāz (ﻤﺮﻗﺲ), is a spicy fresh sausage prepared with uncooked lamb, beef or a mixture of both meats, from Berber North African cuisine. The meat, which is heavily seasoned with spices like fennel and garlic, as well as harissa, is then stuffed into a lamb-intestine casing to form thin 4-inch long links.
Merguez is traditionally grilled, whereas dried merguez sausage can be used to add flavor to a Moroccan tagine. Tunisians tend to favor the dried version that they store in earthenware containers filled with olive oil.
The first written record of a merguez recipe dates from the 13th century, where it is mentioned in Andalusian Arabic as mirkās or merkās in an anonymous Hispano-Muslim cookery book. The word may come from the same root as Spanish sausages morcilla or morcon.
What are the different types of merguez and North African sausages?
Nowadays, there are several varieties of merguez available. For example, mirqaz kibda bi’l-liyya is prepared with two parts of mutton liver for one part of fat (liyya) and seasoned with harissa, tabil (Tunisian spice blend), and salt. Mirqaz baqri is a sun-dried veal sausage seasoned with preserved lemon, aniseed, harissa, tabil, salt, and black pepper. Mirqaz dawwara is a sun-dried sausage prepared with veal offal (kidneys, tripe, heart, lung, and liver), seasoned with preserved lemon, harissa, tabil, aniseed, salt, and black pepper, and preserved in olive oil after frying. Mirqaz sayim is a sun-dried version of the sausage that is preserved in olive oil after frying. It is prepared with two parts of mutton meat to one part fat and seasoned with harissa, cinnamon, dried rose petals, salt, and black pepper.
Another popular sausage in North Africa is qadīd or lakhliaa. Qadid is a cured lamb meat that is prepared for the Eid al-kabīr festival (sacrifice feast) in Algeria and Tunisia. Arabs are the ones who introduced qadīd to the Maghreb. It is prepared by rubbing lamb meat with garlic and a lot of salt before being left to dry for a day. The lamb meat is then rubbed with a spice blend made with chili powder, ground caraway and coriander seeds, as well as dried mint, before being sun-dried for some time. In a similar fashion to merguez, qadīd is stored in glass or earthenware containers, submerged with olive oil.
The history of sausages
The word sausage comes from the Latin word salsus, which means “salty” or “salted”, a reference to how the meat is preserved. That word was later turned into the Old Norman French word saussiche, which later gave French words like saucisse (sausage) and saucisson (dried sausage).
The first written records of sausage making date back to ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia who mentioned the process of stuffing meat into intestinal casings about 4,000 years ago.
In 1500 BCE, Babylonians were using fermentation to make sausages.
Later, Egyptian murals depicted blood sausages being prepared from sacrificial cattle. In the tomb of Rameses III (1200 BCE), a painting depicts the manner in which the Egyptians prepared their food, including the butchering of a cow. In another tomb, a shop worker is carrying dried meat indicating that preservation by drying was a common practice of that time in Egypt.
In the 9th century BCE, Homer mentions in the Odyssey details of the slaughter of cows, goats and sheep, as well as the collection of the blood from the animals and the method of slicing and roasting the meat. The prize of a black pudding sausage was awarded to Odysseus as he defeated the beggar Iros in a boxing match.
The Chinese sausage làcháng, which is prepared with goat and lamb meat, was first mentioned in Chinese literature in 589 BC.
Around 500 BCE, Greek dramatist and philosopher Epicharmus wrote a comedy titled The Sausage, and comic playwright Aristophanes’ play The Knights tells the story of a sausage vendor who is elected leader. The Ancient Greeks were indeed highly versed in food preparations that included sausage and other meat products.
In the oldest known Roman cookbook, written in 228 AD, we learn that sausage was a favorite dish during the annual pagan festival Lupercalia, held on February 15th in honor of the pastoral god Lupercus. The celebration included sexual initiation rites, during which it was even suggested that sausage served as more than just food. The early Catholic Church banned the Lupercalia festival and made eating sausage a sin. The Roman people operated a sausage black market during the reigns of several Christian Emperors, until the protest was too strong and officials were forced to lift the ban. Much later, in the 10th century AD, during the Byzantine Empire, Leo VI the Wise banned the production of blood sausages following cases of food poisoning.
Toward the end of the Middle Ages, the salting of meat became more popular as it supplied the men of many ships. Salt meat, and in particular sausages, were an important part of the diet for the crews who traveled through the Indian Ocean, and across the Atlantic to discover a new world.
It was during the reign of Charles I of England (in the 17th century) that sausages were divided into links for the first time.
Much later, during the Second World War, sausages picked up the nickname of bangers because they tended to explode with a bang as they were fried!
Sausage making in Europe and the Mediterranean region
From the north to the south of Europe and the Mediterranean region, every country has its own sausage making traditions. In the southern regions such as the south of France, Greece, Italy or North Africa, you will find more dried sausages like salamis as the climate lends itself to drying the meat.
In the northern regions, people tend to make more fresh or smoked sausages, as it is more cold and damp.
Historically, sausages were also poor man’s meat. Indeed, as fresh meat was more expensive, richer people would use fresh meat for large roasts or other dishes, whereas poorer people would preserve the leftover meats.
Casings and fillings
Traditionally, sausage casings have been made of the cleaned intestines, or stomachs in the case of Scottish haggis and other puddings. Nowadays, you can also find artificial casings made with collagen, cellulose, or even plastic, instead of natural casings, especially for industrially manufactured sausages.
Some forms of sausage, such as sliced sausage, homemade sausages (e.g. ćevapi from the Balkans), or luncheon or deli meat are now prepared without a casing.
The meat used for sausages can be any meat. However, pork, beef, veal and lamb are the most used, with a meat-to-fat ratio that can also vary.
Although traditional sausages have been made mostly with meat and spices, now more and more sausages include fillers (including starch or breadcrumbs), or other ingredients such as apple or leek.
I prepared these merguez with my stand mixer and the food grinder attachment but you can also make them with an actual meat grinder if you have one. Also, I used collagen casings as it was difficult to find lamb intestine casings.
I grilled the merguez and ate some of them in sandwiches. I also made a delicious couscous, but feel free to use those merguez in other traditional dishes such as shakshuka or a Morrocan tagine. Although my Tunisian mother used to make couscous almost every Friday night when I was a kid, she almost never used merguez, as my parents never trusted the butcher enough and thought there was too much scrap meat in the merguez, which might be true… and for those who think like my parents, I now tell you that you have no excuse as you too can make your own homemade merguez!
- 1½ lb beef (fairly lean, boneless)
- 1 lb lamb (boneless)
- 1 tablespoon fine salt
- ½ tablespoon paprika
- 3 tablespoons harissa
- ½ teaspoon chili powder
- ½ teaspoon ground pepper
- 1 tablespoon ground fennel seeds
- ½ tablespoon ground cumin
- ½ tablespoon ground coriander
- ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 4 cloves garlic , crushed
Wash the casings and soak in water for 1 hour.
Make a knot at one end of each casing.
Grind the beef and lamb with the ¼ inch hole meat grinder plate.
Mix the spices in a large bowl.
Stir in the minced meat and mix well.
Attach the funnel to the meat grinder.
Slide a casing around the funnel.
Grind the meat again and stuff the sausage into the casings.
Form sausages about 4 inches long.
Artificial casings (collagen, for example) can also be used instead of sheep casings. In this case, it will not be necessary to soak them in water before use.