Algerian cuisine tickles the taste buds of the American palette
Algerian cuisine boasts an exquisite fusion of Berber, Arab, European, North African, and Mediterranean flavours.
Halim Fekraoui is determined to showcase the wide variety of foods and culinary influences within Algerian cuisine. With his cafe and restaurant, Kasbah Café, located in New York, he is on a mission to tantalise the taste buds of food enthusiasts.
“I get people here who don’t even know where Algeria is or even heard of a country called Algeria,” says Fekraoui, who co-runs Kasbah Café with his wife Amina Fekraoui since 2021.
Teal pillows, chairs, and arabesque tiles adorn the interior of the Kasbah Café. The colour is associated with Algeria and the Mediterranean coast — the Fekraouis hail from the port town of Jijel. They prepare traditional Algerian dishes from scratch, ranging from chicken tajine to berkoukes and mhadjeb.
"The hardest part is that when people in San Francisco hear we are an Algerian place, they say 'Oh, Middle Eastern? Oh, Moroccan?' I have to educate people about my cuisine. We’re getting there but still working on it"
In New York and the Bay Area, home to two concentrations of the Algerian diaspora in the US, Algerian chefs like Fekraoui hope serving their native cuisine will boost Algeria’s profile to the level of other Arab and Mediterranean cuisines like Palestinian, Moroccan, and Egyptian, which are well-represented in the US.
“It is about educating that we are here,” says Samia Behaya, owner and chef of Simple Cafe & Restaurant, a French Algerian restaurant in Brooklyn, New York.
Algerians in America
Algerian Americans in the US feel that Algeria is overshadowed by its neighbours in the Maghreb region.
“People here don’t know much about Algeria and it’s frustrating because people know Morocco and Tunisia, even though Algeria is the biggest in North Africa,” says Mohcen Haouara, a resident of New York City, originally from the Algerian city of Batna.
Algeria is the largest African country by landmass but its diaspora in the US is small. Fewer than 50,000 Algerians are estimated to live in the US, out of 3.7 million Arab Americans, according to the Arab American Institute.
But Algerians have been in the US just as long as other Arabs. The first Algerian arrived in the country in 1892, in the first wave of Arab immigration from Greater Syria in the 1880s, according to the US. Department of State and the Algerian Embassy.
Although most Algerians in the US today immigrated between the 1970s to 1990s, Algerian restaurants only opened up in the country in the last two decades.
“Algeria was colonised, the colonisers left, and then we had a civil war, so there’s a lot that Algeria’s been dealing with, and growing up, older generations didn’t want to talk about it,” says Hasnia Bekkadja, an Algerian-American residing in New York City.
“Today, we’re starting to talk about our culture and put it more on the map. Through representation, we start to talk about culture.”
East meets West
For some Algerian chefs in the US, putting Algerian cuisine on the map hasn’t been an easy journey.
“The hardest part is that when people in San Francisco hear we are an Algerian place, they say 'Oh, Middle Eastern? Oh, Moroccan?' I have to educate people about my cuisine. We’re getting there but still working on it,” says Wafa Bahloul, co-owner and chef of Kayma Algerian Eatery in San Francisco.
Kayma, which means tent in Arabic, is the first and only Algerian restaurant in the Bay Area.
“I feel proud but it’s a big responsibility because I’m the picture of my country and culture, I have to give each dish, like every part of our culture, in the right way,” Bahloul says.
Since starting operations in 2020, Bahloul balances keeping her dishes authentic with adapting to local consumer trends, for example, by serving couscous in fast-casual bowls.
“People don’t want to risk their money to buy things they don’t know,” Bahloul says. “So I do tastings and let people try free samples and explain the Algerian names of dishes in English.”
Simple in New York features both Western and North African dishes on the menu, like brioche French toast and crepe baghrir, a semolina pancake with mint, orange blossom, and dates, which helps to draw in diners unfamiliar with Algerian food without sacrificing authenticity.
“The concept is interesting because it is a fusion of French and Algerian. You can go to (Simple) to get that sense of culture or balance between Western and North African traditions,” Bekkadja says.
Catering to the community
At the Kasbah Cafe, a playlist of songs from Algerian bands like Babylone and Cheikh Sidi Bémol is on constant shuffle. The restaurant attracts New Yorkers and members of the Algerian diaspora looking for an authentic Algerian experience.
“Whenever I miss home, I go there,” says Haouara, who moved to New York City in 2012 and visits Kasbah Cafe regularly. “I was blown away, they really want to keep it as authentic as possible.”
Fekraoui believes Kasbah Café doesn’t need to Americanise dishes to succeed. Maintaining authenticity is an expression of pride in Algeria’s culinary traditions.
“Some people advised me not to rely on Algerian cuisine because people don’t know it, and people avoid things they don’t know,” he says. “On the other hand, a lot of people want an adventure to discover things, and this is me. The food we cook is not commercialised, it’s traditional.”
Rotating daily specials include chakhchoukha, originating from the Chaoui Berber people, and rechta, a speciality in the northern cities of Constantine and Algiers, both comprising semolina dough, chicken broth, chickpeas, turnip, zucchini, and Ras el Hanout.
“The food is like my mom’s food,” says Bekkadja about Kasbah Café. “They cook it with anas, affection, like they love what they do. When I want to be around an Algerian family, they are that family to me. And on top of that, having their food gives me that ‘home away from home’ connection.”
A celebration of Algerian cultural diversity
The Kasbah Café sells Algerian, North African, and Arabic pastries baked in-house, such as baklava, dziriyat, makrout, griwesh, as well as baguette, croissant, and mille-feuille, which reflects the range of Eastern and European influence in Algerian cuisine and history.
“The French occupied the country for 132 years,” says Fekraoui. “Food, art, colours, and music are human heritage, it is a universal heritage, and everybody participates in it.”
Kolleen M. Guy, associate professor of history at Duke Kunshan University, says national cuisine is one tool to understand the complex legacy of colonialisation.
“We can decolonise a country, but decolonising a diet is a much longer process and I’m not even sure it’s possible,” Guy says.
Today, Algerian Amerian chefs embrace their cuisine’s diverse influences. “Each dish has a story and we have to tell the story,” Bahloul says.
After all, national cuisine can be a gateway to learning about the layers of a people’s history and identity.
“We should be loud and proud about our culture and sharing our stories and experiences,” says Bekkadja.
“Now the question is: how do we bring more people to come and try the food, learn the history, and learn the culture? Let’s take more people to these restaurants to bring more traffic and experiences."
Khadijah Khogeer is a multimedia journalist and student at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. I have experience across digital and print platforms in writing, editing, photography, video and audio
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