Ultimate Guide to North African Ingredients - Arto der Haroutunian

Arto der Haroutunian was born in Aleppo, Syria in 1940 and grew up in the Levant but came to England with his parents as a child and remained here for most of his life. He studied architecture at Manchester University and established a career designing restaurants, clubs and hotels. In 1970, in partnership with his brother, he opened the first Armenian restaurant in Manchester which eventually became a chain of six with two hotels. 

Given his passion for cooking it was a natural progression that he should then begin to write cookery books as they combined his love of food with his great interest in the history and culture of the region. 

MORE: Browse all Middle Eastern ingredients

It was his belief that the rich culinary tradition of the Middle East is the main source of many of our Western cuisines and his books were intended as an introduction to that tradition. All the many cookbooks written by der Haroutunian had been out of print for many years and second hand copies often fetched hundreds of pounds.

As well as his passion for cooking, Arto der Haroutunian was a painter of international reputation who exhibited all over the world. His other interests included composing music and translating Turkish, Arab, Persian and Armenian authors. He was a true polymath. He died in 1987 at the untimely age of 47. He is survived by his wife and son who still live in Manchester.

North African Cookery, by Arto der Haroutunian (£25) is published by Grub Street

Azem mujafaff (dry bones)

Beef or sheep’s bones with a little meat still clinging to them are washed, rubbed all over with cooking salt and left to rest overnight in a dry place. They are then put out to dry under the sun for 5-6 days. These bones are used in such dishes as tajines and couscous. Make sure the bones are really dry. Will keep for 4-5 weeks.

Baharat (mixed spices)

This is similar to allspice (bahar), but includes cumin, coriander, black pepper and paprika. To prepare mix together 1 tablespoon of each. Store in a small jar and use as required.

Cherbet (syrup)

Traditionally syrup was prepared with honey, but today it is often replaced by a sugar syrup, although in certain regions of Morocco and Libya honey is still predominantly used. The syrup comes in two densities – very thin and runny, and very thick like honey or treacle. 

Syrup used in North Africa is usually flavoured with orange blossom water. This contrasts with the predominant use of rosewater in the Middle East. The amount of flavouring is entirely a matter of personal taste, but generally speaking the further east one travels through the Meghrib, the less scented is the syrup.

Place the water, sugar and lemon juice in a saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring constantly until the sugar dissolves. Lower the heat and simmer for 5-10 minutes for a thin syrup or 20-25 minutes for a thick syrup. A few minutes before the end of the cooking time add the orange blossom water and stir well. Remove from the heat and leave to cool. This syrup will store well and can be re-used.

Harissa (hot sauce)

This is the national spice of Tunisia, although it does appear in both the Algerian and Libyan cuisines. The Tunisian cuisine is highly seasoned and harissa is used in almost every dish – except desserts!

In the countryside children are often fed with a slice of bread spread with a thin layer of harissa diluted with a little olive oil and tomato purée. This is very like the Middle East of my childhood when a slice of bread was rubbed with garlic and a little salt. Only the rich in my town could afford the tomato purée!

You can make your own harissa with the recipe below. However small tins of Tunisian harissa can be purchased from most Indian and Middle Eastern stores. Ask for ‘harissa sauce for couscous’.

  • 225g dried hot chilli peppers
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 3-4 tablespoons water
  • 1 tablespoon coriander
  • 1 teaspoon ground caraway
  • 1 tablespoon salt

Cut the peppers in half and remove seeds and stalks. Place the peppers in a large bowl of water and leave to soak for 30 minutes. Drain and place in a liquidiser with the garlic and water and blend to a purée. Scrape into a bowl and mix the coriander, caraway and salt in thoroughly. Store in a covered jar and use as instructed with relevant dishes.

Hilba (fenugreek paste)

This Libyan paste is made with fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) and coriander. It is popular throughout Egypt and the Arabian peninsula, particularly in the Yemen where it is not only used extensively in all kinds of dishes, but is often used as a spread on bread or as a dip. You should be able to buy fenugreek seeds from Indian grocery stores. Some of the large commercial spice companies also produce them.

  • 2 teaspoons fenugreek seeds
  • 180ml cold water
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 75g fresh coriander leaves, chopped
  • 1 level teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2 small hot chillies, seeded

Place the fenugreek and water in a cup and leave to soak for 24 hours. Drain off the water and transfer the seeds to a liquidiser. Add all the remaining ingredients and blend to a smooth purée. Spoon into a jar, seal and store in the refrigerator. Use as specified in relevant recipes.


A basic ingredient that appears throughout the cuisines. I am well aware that in Britain and Europe we find olives already preserved or stuffed, but I have nevertheless included these simple olive preservation methods more for interest than for every day practical use. There are of course several types of olives, but the main choice is between violet, green and black.

There is the charming story of the old Berber who, realising that his end was nigh, went to his garden and spoke to it. ‘Look after my children after I am dead.’ The garden said, ‘No! Gardens live in the present with those who daily labour with us.’ The old Berber went to his fields and pleaded, ‘Look after my children when I am gone.’ The fields replied, ‘No! We cannot foretell the future. We know not the ways of nature and we need human help.’ Finally the old man went to his olive grove. ‘When I am dead, look after my children.’ ‘Very well,’ whispered the leaves and branches, ‘we will, even if your children never come to look after us. We will always give them our goodness.

Ras-el-hanout (‘Head of the shop’ spice)

A mixture of spices and herbs. This is the spice of the feast of Aid el Kebir, of Mrouziya and many wintery dishes. It is used with most poultry and game dishes. It was also widely used as a medicine against colds etc.

Nowadays, outside Meghribi villages, ras-el-hanout can be bought ready-made in all souk-el-attarines (spice markets) of North Africa. There were well over twenty-five spices and herbs involved in the preparation of this spice, but today only those that are readily available are used.

Here, for your edification, I have listed the more important ones. If you mix approximately 1 tablespoon of each you can achieve a very good substitute.

Reuchta (home-made noodles)

The name reuchta (meaning ‘thread’) is of Persian origin and has passed into the Arabic language. There are two main varieties of this pasta: reuchta jda (very thin noodles) and noissara (1 cm thick, square noodles).

Rghaif (thin pancake dough)

This is a very versatile dough which can be wrapped around savoury or sweet fillings or fried as pancakes and served either sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon or dipped in honey. An Algerian version uses fine semolina instead of the flour, as in M’Hadjeb.

  • 450g flour
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 15g fresh yeast or 8g dried yeast, diluted in 3 tablespoons warm water
  • 300ml tepid water
  • 3 tablespoons oil

Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl and make a well in the middle. Add the diluted yeast and, little by little, the water. Knead briskly until a dough is formed. Transfer to a work top and knead for at least 20 minutes until very pliable and elastic. Coat your hands with a little of the oil and roll the ball of dough between them until well greased. Divide the dough into smaller balls – their size depends on the recipe you are following. Make sure your hands are always oily.

Smen (clarified butter)

Smen is the same as the Middle Eastern samna and similar to ghee which is extensively used in Indian cooking. It is better known as clarified butter. Today throughout North Africa and the Middle East, it is less and less used, except in the countryside where peasants still prepare their own smen. Replace it with unsalted butter.

The recipe below is included for reference.

  • 1kg salted butter

Melt the butter in a pan over a low heat, stirring regularly. With a slotted spoon skim off the residue while boiling. When the butter has melted pour it into a jar through fine muslin. Leave to cool, then cover and store. Smen can be kept for up to a year. It is the best to use when making sweets and desserts since it will be lighter and clearer than commercial butter.

Of course you can always use ghee which is easily available in all Indian and other large grocery stores.


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