Grub Street should be applauded for introducing a new generation of food lovers to Arto Der Haroutunian. It might be a name unfamiliar to any but the most enthusiastic of cookbook collectors, but he is considered as worthy as, say, Elizabeth David in his own sphere. He died suddenly in 1987 at the age of 47 and one wonders what other masterworks he would have penned had time allowed.
Arto was born in Aleppo, Syria, to Armenian parents. His family moved to England in 1952, where his father took up the post of head of the Armenian Apostolic Church. After studying at Manchester University Arto qualified as an architect and began a career designing restaurants and hotels. He opened an Armenian restaurant in 1970 in Manchester with his brother Koko.
It was no surprise that he began to write about the food of the Middle East, producing a dozen books in all, and North African Cookery is among their number. It has its focus on the countries that make up the Maghreb. It’s a word more often used in France, which has a sizable North African population, but it encompasses Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia. They are a group of people composed mostly of Berbers and Arabs.
It’s a delightful cuisine that has evolved down the centuries and incorporates influences from Spain and Turkey and the Jews, who settled all over North Africa after fleeing the Spanish Catholic Inquisition. The cuisine shares much of its culinary heritage with other Arab countries where, as in this region, couscous is a staple food.
No self-respecting North African cookbook would be worth a mention if it didn’t include that ubiquitous small pasta; it’s not a grain as some people assume. Arto offers several preparation methods, along with recipes for ten meat or vegetarian dishes having couscous at their centre, and there is even a fish couscous that can be made with any chunky white fish.
Tagine is another dish that is common to every North African restaurant and cookbook. A tagine is the celebrated stew of the region but it’s also the name for the vessel in which that stew is cooked. Yes, those iconic conical casseroles are beautiful and they cook food very nicely, but they take up a lot of room in small kitchens and, let’s be honest, you will only use it when the boss is over for dinner. Your usual lidded dish for slow cooking will work just fine and you can always transfer the food to a decorative, perhaps Moroccan, plate to bring to the table.
There are more than 30 traditional tagine recipes here that will cater for every taste, but my favourite is a version from Rabat in Morocco and it’s a tagine of the ever popular lamb; this one has green beans used not as garnish to the meat but as part of the main event. It has aromatic flavour from paprika, cumin, ginger and turmeric. Note that ginger in North African cooking is invariably the powdered variety rather than the fresh – don’t think you’re being posh by substituting fresh, the powder gives its own distinct and traditional flavour.
If you have a sweet tooth then you will be well served by North African Cookery. Arto has recipes for a large selection of traditional cookies and small stuffed pastries, but I have been taken with the Farka which could not be easier. It’s that couscous again, but liberally laced with dates and nuts. It’s moulded into a cake shape and decorated with additional fruit and nuts.
North African Cookery is a book to read rather than skim through. No, it isn’t a colourful coffee-table book but you will want to actually make these dishes, and that’s the reason you bought it in the first place. A book of history, culinary anecdote and charm.
North African Cookery
Author: Arto Der Haroutunian
Published by: Grub Street
Paperback: ISBN 978-1-908117-30-4, price: £12.99
Hardback: ISBN 978-1-906502-34-8, price: £18.99
Cookbook review by Chrissie Walker © 2018