The Jewish Palate: The Jews of Algeria

Chef Dennis Wasko explores the troubled history of Algerian Jews and the rich cuisine that has been created as a result.

Jews have lived in Algeria for 2,000 years and perhaps longer. Some scholars believe that there may have been Jewish settlement in the area as long as 2,600 years ago. Whichever date holds true, the fact that there was a Jewish presence in Algeria before the rise of Islam cannot be denied.
As with the rest of North Africa, once Islam swept through the region, Jews lived under uncertain conditions, at times they were tolerated as long as they accepted their second class citizenship and paid the jizya tax. At other times they were ruthlessly persecuted and forced to flee. The Jewish population was bolstered during the 14th century, during a period of tolerance, when Spanish Jews fleeing the Reconquista in Spain fled to the “safety” of North Africa. The Jews brought their culture and recipes with them. Many great scholars came to Algeria with the Spanish refugees including the Ribash and Rashbatz. Many other scholars settled throughout the Maghreb, migrating from region to region depending on the changing political winds.
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When the French occupied and colonized Algeria in 1830, most Jews clung to their traditional ways and were not considered French citizens or were required to serve in the French army. In 1845 the French government appointed prominent French Jews to be Chief Rabbis throughout Algeria. Their job was to shift the loyalty of the Algerian Jews to France. In 1865 French citizenship was offered to any Algerian Jew or Muslim who requested it. Few Algerians accepted the offer as it was perceived to be a sort of apostasy. By 1870, French citizenship was extended to all Jews at the urging of prominent French Jews who wanted to “modernize” their Algerian brethren. Within a generation, French replaced Ladino and Arabic in Jewish neighborhoods, and Jews embraced many aspects of French culture.
In 1934, there were about 120,000 Jews living in Algeria. The Muslim population, incited by Nazi propaganda and events in Germany, began to attack the Jews. Riots broke out and 25 Jews were killed, with many more injured. When France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Algerian Jews fell under the rule of the Vichy government. Jews suffered socially and economically under the collaborative Axis state, but they did not surrender. They fought back. Algerian Jews bravely organized themselves and joined the French Resistance. They were key players in neutralizing the defenses of Algiers when the Allies landed in Algeria. They maintained their loyalty to France and fought against the Nazi collaborators in Vichy. The Jewish population continued to grow, reaching 140,000 by 1955.
France granted Algeria independence in 1962. Immediately, the Islamic Algerian government began to harass the Jewish population. Jews were denied their economic rights, Jewish businesses were seized, and synagogues were converted into mosques. As a result of the rekindled Anti-Semitism, about 130,000 Jews immigrated to France. About 25,700 Algerian Jews have immigrated to the State of Israel since its foundation in 1948. In 1994 the “Armed Islamic Group” vowed to eliminate the remaining Jews from Algeria. They have not yet been successful. In 2004 it was estimated that about 100 Jews still remain in Algeria, most of who live in Algiers. Jews are allowed to practice their religion freely, but there is no resident Rabbi. This is another example of a once proud Jewish population that has been legislated out of existence by Islamic hatred. The cuisine of the Algerian Jews is very typically North African with a remnant of Spanish influence. Its flavor profile is very similar to that of Morocco with zesty flavors and fragrant spices. Like Morocco, couscous is the national dish of Algeria. Fiery pastes made from hot chilies are added to many dishes and are present on the table. Many rich stews, like tagines, containing dried fruits are very typical Algerian fare. French influence is evident in the great variety of breads.
The following recipe for Chorba, thick soup, is not exclusively Jewish in origin, but is a great example of a typically Algerian dish that was adopted into Jewish tradition in one form or another. This soup is vegetarian and as such easily conforms to Jewish dietary laws. This dish is hearty and flavorful. Serve as a first course, or as light meal.
Chorba Hara Bi Keskou (Spicy Couscous Soup)
Serves 6
-4 tablespoons olive oil
-1 medium onion, diced
-3 cloves garlic, chopped
-1 teaspoon harissa or favorite hot sauce to taste
-1 tablespoon paprika
-1 teaspoon ground coriander
-1 teaspoon ground cumin
-1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes with liquid
-1 ½ cups cooked dried chick peas or 1 15-ounce can chick peas, drained
-6 cups water
-Kosher salt and pepper to taste
-2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
-½ cup dry couscous, instant or regular
-4 tablespoons chopped cilantro, leaves only
1. Heat the oil in a medium soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook until lightly golden brown, about 10 minutes.
2. Add the harissa, paprika, spices, tomatoes, chick peas, and water. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil.
3. Add the diced potatoes, lower the heat, cover, and simmer gently for 15 minutes. 4. After 15 minutes, add the couscous and allow to simmer uncovered for 10 minutes, or until the couscous is tender.
5. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper and add the cilantro.
6. Serve in deep bowls with crusty bread. The soup can be made up to 2 days before serving, and can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator.