The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce

The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce

Couscous and Merguez

Couscous and Merguez

Berkeley’s Hasnia brings Algerian cuisine to the forefront.

Asked to list France’s most commonly consumed foods, you’d mention baguettes. Frites. Bouillabaise. But you should also say merguez.

If you’ve spent much time in France, you know how ubiquitous that last word is, and you know the brick-red cumin-cayenne-coriander-harissa-hottened lamb sausage it designates. If you haven’t spent much time in France—or North Africa—you don’t.

Beloved in Algeria, from which it arrived in the hearts and hands of immigrants, merguez is France’s version of the burrito. A hot-weather hybrid with ancient roots, Algerian cuisine is rich and complex but amazingly little-known Stateside.

Hasnia, which opened on Berkeley’s University Avenue in January—and which is the East Bay’s first Algerian restaurant—will surely change all that.

“Other restaurants around here are doing Middle Eastern food and North African food. But until now, none have done Algerian food,” asserted Hasnia’s executive chef Said Ghozali.

Algerian food “uses a lot of the North African styles, but with modern French details, such as sandwiches, and putting French fries inside sandwiches,” explained Algiers-born Ghozali, whose 25 years in the restaurant business include stints at San Francisco fine-dining meccas Aqua, Gary Danko, and Fifth Floor.

At no-frills, humble Hasnia—whose owner, Slimane Djili, also owns the Crepes a Go Go group—Ghozali naturally serves plump, spicy, just-fatty-enough merguez, which is halal, as are all the meats he uses. And Hasnia’s most popular dishes are meaty indeed: a range of burgers, including pepper-stuffed cheeseburgers, as well as kebabs featuring merguez, chicken, and lamb. Grilled to smoky-juicy medium-rare, these kebabs are flavored with ras el hanout, a spice blend containing cinnamon, cardamom, clove, allspice, turmeric, ginger, mace, and much more that is North Africa’s answer to garam masala or herbes de Provence.

And naturally, Ghozali serves couscous. Adorned with your choice of skewered meats or with no meat at all, the latter comprises a fluffy pale mountain of thrice-steamed, separate-not-stuck-together semolina dots, scattered with an abundant blizzard of chickpeas. Arranged around the mountain are wedges of carrot, turnip, and zucchini almost as big as your hand and cooked luxuriantly, eat-with-a-spoonworthily soft. It’s a welcome revelation, if you’ve had it up to here with trendy towers of uncooked kale.

Accompanying each order of couscous is a piping-hot bowl of the buttery, oily, onion- and tomato-flecked broth in which the vegetables were simmered along with cinnamon, turmeric, salt, and black pepper. Algerians call this “white sauce” event though it isn’t white or made with milk. Ladled over the couscous, it creates stewy-soupy layers of the silkiest possible subtlety.

“The couscous we serve here is called ‘celebration couscous’ in Algeria, where it’s made only for special events such as weddings and circumcisions,” Ghozali explained. “The trick is getting the turnip and zucchini just right.”

Sriracha, Cholula, and other hot sauces are on offer at Hasnia, but—defying hipster chic, in which capsicum invades everything from cocktails to cake—they’re totally optional. If you delight in masterful mildness, a daring stance in this overpeppered era, this couscous might make Hasnia your new home-away-from-home.

That, and Hasnia’s sweet, intense mint tea. And its house-made kalbelouz, an almond-crowned couscous cake whose semolina-based batter is left to rest overnight before baking. Saturated with orange-flower water, it’s a magically sticky surprise.

In the United States, foreign cuisines traverse what we could call (because it was made up right here, for this purpose) the Arc of Assimilation: First, they’re totally unknown. Then they gain a bit of visibility, but remain exotic. Then they become first-date familiar, then eat-with-the-in-laws familiar. Then, crossing that final frontier, they become fast-food familiar. Thenceforth, they’re fusion fodder.

Still languishing in totally unknown territory, Algerian cuisine is now where Burmese cuisine was in, say, 1982. From a diner’s perspective, that’s a primo place for a cuisine to be: brought to its present state of perfection over centuries elsewhere, but by the diner him- or herself as-yet untasted. Untested. Its whole array of flavors, textures, and traditions still awaiting exploration, authentically and unbowdlerizedly and obligingly—don’t take this the wrong way—virginal, in a strictly nonsexual sense.

So when your bowl of bulgur soup arrives at Hasnia and, overseen by semi-abstract desert-scene paintings and vintage black-and-white photographs of nomads, you spoon into your mouth for the first time in your life this meaty, minty, cinnamon-spiked sunset-russet Ramadan party favorite—a must during those fast-breaking iftar feasts—you smile the smile of happy discovery.

And when your sumptuously, olive-oilishly soothing white-bean soup, rivaling, like so much else here, the hues of cinnabar and flame, is studded so thickly with hearty legumes and thumb-sized chicken chunks simmered to the point of such tenderness as to virtually advertise supernatural healing powers, you suddenly see beyond its spice-scented swirls of steam countless kindly-eyed grandmothers stirring countless pots.

Millennia of war and brutal invasions inflaming that broad, sea-bordered land of sand—90 percent of Algeria lies in the Sahara Desert, while 90 percent of its population dwell alongside the Mediterranean—have wrought untold miseries but at least one shining treasure as compensation: its multicultural cuisine.

The indigenous Amazigh, better known as Berbers, inhabited what is now Algeria as early as 10,000 BC. Arriving in the ninth century BC, Phoenician traders brought sausages and wheat. The Berbers used the latter to create honey-soaked pastries, soft yeasted breads, and couscous, which Ghozali identifies as one of Algeria’s most defining sine qua non.

Conquering Algeria in the seventh century AD, Islamic Arabs brought saffron, cinnamon, and other spices; later, as the Moors, they brought olives and citrus fruits from Spain; then from the New World came tomatoes and chili peppers. France conquered Algeria in 1830, keeping it as a colony for more than a century, ensuring culinary cross-acculturation in both directions.

Hence Hasnia’s salade Niçoise. Hence its frites (which, granted, are of the reheated frozen kind). Hence the (store-bought, not house-baked) baguettes that agreeably absorb the velvety, garlicky, olive-oily, grilled-vegetable relish called hmiss. Hence the French phrases dotting the otherwise-Arabic Algerian-station TV broadcasts and the dialogues of fellow diners overheard in this compact space.

“Right now I’m serving a peanut-butter dressing on some of my salads,” Ghozali said. “I had a lady in here just now telling me, ‘That’s not Algerian.’ But I say it is, because my mother used to make it for me in Algiers. She learned how to make it from a French woman.”


1160 University Ave., Berkeley
Open Mon.-Sat. 11am-10pm
Sun. 11am-9pm
Entrées $6-$19.
No alcohol.
Accepts credit cards.

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