It has been said that the measure of the Maghreb (the west) is couscous. There is an invisible culinary line somewhere in Libya separating couscous eating North Africans from the rice eating Arab Mashriq (the east).
The culinary difference here is not merely of basic starch. The cooking technique for couscous (steaming) informs the entire cuisine. North African cuisine is sauce driven and there is an overall preference for moist heat cooking methods. Tagine cooking is all about controlling heat and moisture.
The word couscoussier is a French word derived from North African kiskas, which refers only to the steamer insert. The pot itself is called a gdrah and the soup or stew cooked in it, over which the couscous grains or pasta steam, is called marga or tagine. Couscous is also steamed over plain water. There is no special occasion or holiday without couscous.
This ingenious method of cooking allows for two dishes to be cooked over a single source of heat, a very important feature in a region that has historically dealt with cooking wood shortages. Some couscoussiers have two stacking steamer inserts. Couscous grains or pasta are usually steamed two or three times. Steaming grains such as bulghur, quinoa and millet produces a lighter, fluffier and more elegant finished product than boiling does.
North Africans also use couscoussiers to steam vegetables, pastas, rice, fish, poultry and even lamb. Steamed lamb is delicious. The lamb is rubbed with spices, herbs, aromatics, and olive oil. Sometimes it's wrapped in cheese cloth to help the seasonings stay intact. Steaming lamb keeps it very moist and flavorful. We're not talking about boiled meat here.
A Berber kitchen will have a couscoussier or steamer basket, cookware for tagines, a griddle for breads, and any number of gassas. Gassas are large platters for either preparing or serving food. Gassas are used for rolling couscous and kneading bread doughs. Different gassas are used for serving large mounds of couscous, breads and braises.
How else is Berber cuisine sauce driven? Algerians in particular eat a lot of salads for lunch: composed salads, tossed salads, and chopped salads made with fresh or lightly cooked vegetables. The acid in dressings helps draw out water and flavor from the vegetables, creating a delicious sauce of olive oil, lemon juice and fresh vegetables to be dipped and eaten with generous amounts of breads. Chickpea or lentil soups and dips are also common lunch dishes.
If you have a starch and a sauce, you have a North African meal.
Foreign influences in North Africa were integrated into this basic kitchen grammar and cooking philosophy. They were Berberized. The basic grammar, cooking techniques and cookware of North African cuisine is Berber. Please do not refer to North African cuisine as "Arab cuisine" or "Middle Eastern".
Algeria does not have the same dada tradition of Berber female servant cooks as Morocco does. Algerian society tends to be more equal. In fact Algerian Berbers were the first to live in co-op style communal villages. We do not have the same sense of social class as many other cultures or even our neighbors. We tend to view everyone as equals.
This is a vegetable steamer made by Faberware. It can be used to steam couscous.
A casserole pot like this one can be used to make tagines. Or you can use the bottom of the above pot to make tagines.
You can use a saute pan instead of a griddle to cook flat breads.
These days, many North African women use very large aluminum cake pans instead of clay gassas to knead bread. The same gassa (cake pan) is used to bake pastries and cookies.
In contemporary Algerian cookbooks, you will see exactly the same cookware as above.