In the United States, all North African fare tends to get lumped in with Moroccan cuisine. There are similarities found throughout the region — merguez sausage, for instance — but every country delivers its own unique dishes. Algeria, the third largest on the continent, has its own deep culinary history with influences from its native tribes, plus the Romans, the Turks, and the French. Owned by Algerian natives Salima and Mehenni Zebentout, Nomad (78 Second Avenue; 212-253-5410) provides a glimpse into the country’s varied offerings.
Like many North African restaurants, the restaurant is not entirely Algerian. When Mehenni was working on the concept — nearly a decade ago — he had a hard time finding a chef from his homeland. Instead, he decided to focus on North Africa as a whole, especially on regions that influence Algeria. In eastern Algeria, there’s a strong Tunisian influence with lots of spice, like fiery harissa, made from chile de árbol, which arrived on its shores from Mexico sometime in the 1800s. The two countries have a lot of overlap; Both have a love affair with couscous, and both are obsessed with merguez. They’re embattled in an ongoing dispute about the latter — both claim it as their own. Mehenni says it originates in his homeland. “It comes from the Pied-Noir people [a group of European immigrants] that lived there during the French Revolution,” he says.
Nomad offers house-made merguez in a variety of preparations, including a sandwich (one of Mehenni’s favorite after-school snacks as a kid) on homemade bread and as part of the couscous royale ($21). Influenced by Tunisia’s Jewish residents, it combines the sausage with lamb, chicken, and vegetables in a flavorful stock.
Couscous is the national dish of Algeria; it’s been part of the Berber diet since the region was considered the Kingdom of Numidia, before the seventh century. Here, it’s found in traditional Algerian form in the seasonal vegetable couscous ($17). Calabaza, zucchini, okra, turnips, carrots, fava beans, and chickpeas are braised in a stock, then separated. The couscous is steamed on its own, then it’s all mixed together and steamed to marry the flavors. Additional stock and harissa are served on the side.
As with so many other cuisines, Algeria’s bears influences from all over the place. The country has seen migrations from the Berbers, then the Jews of the Middle East, then the Turks, then the French, each leaving its own culinary imprint. “Algeria is basically the classic melting pot of all the cultures,” says Mehenni. “Berbers, Phoenicians, French, Moors, Jews, non-Jews, Muslims.”
Each area’s culinary profile differs greatly. Along the coast, you’ll find Spanish-influenced seafood dishes; Nomad offers a grilled calamari salad ($12) with apples, fennel, greens, tomatoes, red onion, olive oil, and lemon. To the west, the sweet and savory flavors of Morocco are present. Here, the lamb tagine ($21) is an example of that imprint. Shoulder is the most common cut in Algeria, but Mehenni uses lamb shank for presentation. It’s braised with prunes and caramelized onions, then topped with almonds. Couscous comes on the side. Throughout the rest of the country, more savory variations are common, with verdant ingredients like artichokes and green peas.
Chicken pastilla ($19) is another dish influenced from the sweet meats of the Moroccan border. Phyllo (a remnant of the Turkish empire) is stuffed with sweet chicken, almonds, cinnamon, and sautéed onions, then topped with powdered sugar and served with a salad. Scented with rose water, orange blossom, and honey, it’s like eating flowers. Toward the border, it’s consumed regularly (often with pigeon), but in the middle of the country, it’s just a celebratory dish. “It’s not a main dish, like couscous,” says Zebentout. “In my hometown, we don’t make it often, maybe once a year for Ramadan.”
Mehenni, a Berber, hails from the central part of the country, about 1,200 feet above sea level, in the mountains. The food in his region is more traditionally Algerian. Couscous is a staple, just as it is throughout, and beef is found there, veggies are popular, and lamb is a mainstay. Beef boureks ($10) are popular; fragrant ground beef comes wrapped in phyllo in the shape of a cigar. Sweet potato tagine ($16), a special at the restaurant, is another typical dish from the area. Served with millet, it’s flavored with spices like cumin, cinnamon, coriander, caraway, garlic, and paprika. Beef skewers ($22), referred to as brochettes, are the country’s Frenchified answer to kebabs. Here, they are served with scallions and roasted butternut squash. “We had 500 years of Turks; we got baklava from them,” says Zebentout. “We inherited brochette from the French. Algeria, to sum it up, is really a mix of Moroccan, French, Turkish, and Berber all melted into one.”
New York boasts residents from just about every country in the world, and many of them have opened restaurants dedicated to their homeland cuisine. We’re celebrating the resulting diversity of this city’s dining scene by eating around the globe, from A to Z, without leaving the city limits. Every week, we’ll be hunting down a restaurant that represents a different country, from Afghanistan all the way to Zimbabwe and everywhere in between.