Thursday, 20 March 2014

The joys of food shopping in Algeria Part 1

Kayble Souk, Tizi Ouzou, Algeria

Many moons ago, in another lifetime, I used to go to get ‘the messages’ for my Mum.  In the rural Ireland in which I grew up, this meant walking the mile or so ‘down the road’ (as opposed to ‘back the road’ which was the opposite direction, something that totally confused my husband the first time he heard the term… ‘but we never went there, so how come we’re going ‘back’ there!’) to Mrs. O’Leary’s shop and giving her the list of shopping my Mum had written, usually on the back of an old envelope (recycling long before we had to be told to do so).  Mrs. O’Leary always knew which flour my Mum liked, what she meant when she wrote ‘marg’ and any other of her abbreviations, and you could buy a ‘vanilla sandwich’ which was a chunk of vanilla ice cream sliced off a block with two wafers placed on either end, and, of course, she would always ask after my Mum and we would always leave the shop with the directions to ‘tell her I was asking for her’.

My own children’s experience of shopping in England was totally different…. coming with me to the supermarket, and walking down aisle after aisle of goods amid bright lights and special offers.  More often than not the scrumptious smell of fresh bread wafting up my nostrils from the air vents above the entrance door had an almost hypnotic effect on me, and I found myself walking dreamily along the aisles looking for things on my list but often getting distracted by products that caught my eye which I wanted without even knowing I wanted them.  I never really liked food shopping unless I was looking for something unusual, but it was a necessary evil, and, at least, it tired out the children a little.  One customer at the cashier’s check-out summed up what I often thought and felt:  ‘You spend ages walking around taking goods off the shelves and putting them in the trolley, then you put them all into plastic bags, load up your car, at home you empty the car, then you empty the bags, and put the goods back on more shelves… only to repeat the whole process again a week later.’

Shopping in Algeria brought me right back to my childhood, but nostalgia is easier to think about than to put into practice. We think we’d like to go back to a life that was simpler, but in reality, it is more difficult and we are just too used to having more choices, as mind-boggling as these choices can be at times, not to mention the time saver foods that help in rustling up a quick meal in no time.  Whenever we went shopping, my husband would often get into conversation with the shopkeeper which gave me the perfect opportunity to have a good snoop among the dusty shelves of the shop and see all the goods that Algeria had to offer…. which in 2003 wasn’t an awful lot.  I soon discovered that there was only one kind of flour no matter how many different kinds of packages it came in, and that was white plain flour, and the Algerian Bimo biscuit may come in different coloured packages, but inside each packet the biscuit was exactly the same.  This was a favourite among children who ate the biscuits soaked and mashed up in hot milk.  There were different makes of Macaroni, but not much else in the way of pasta unless you knew what to do with Bird’s Tooth pasta and your family loved couscous (which mine don’t).  There were tins and tins with pictures of tomatoes on them, but they all mounted to the same thing…. tomato puree.  You can’t find tinned tomatoes here for love nor money….. but why would you, when you can buy soft ones in the market that are the ideal ingredient with which to cook.  And you could not buy chicken in the butcher – he sold meat, both beef and lamb, but if you wanted chicken you had to buy it from the man who sold chicken and eggs… and also home-made bags of richta and couscous.  And as for chocolate and sweets, well the Algerian main brand of the former is Ambassador which comes either in milk or dark chocolate, both of which taste like cooking chocolate, and the main sweets were toffees called caprices which kept little mouths quiet for a minute.  But there were tons and tons of chewing gum, a firm favourite here among male and female, old and young alike….and you could never be too young, much to my horror.

People in Algeria still rely on the corner shop for their basic food needs and there’s a shop on almost every corner.  Here you can depend on being able to buy an egg or 30, a kilo of sugar or flour, pre-packaged or ‘loose’, different kinds of tinned and jarred foods, dried pulses, sweets, bread, milk, cooking oil, baking products and different kinds of soft cheeses and cold meats. You can buy some things here in Algeria not just by the weight but also by the local currency, the Algerian Dinar, so instead of buying 500gms of something you could buy 300 dinars worth.  Most women will send a child out to the shop to buy goods rather than go out themselves, and more often than not if the change is only a few dinars they receive it in sweets.  Many is the time I haven’t had any change or the children are passing the shop and go to buy without having any money on them, and we settle up with the shopkeeper later.  My husband and sons on their way back from the mosque at Fajir time often take croissants which are left outside the shop before it opens and then they pay for them later… a very common practice here.  These shops are open until after the last prayer, which during the summer is quite late, and are also open on the two Festival Eid days when little kids go to spend their Eid money.

You could also pick out a live chicken, have it killed and plucked for you, which gave a whole new meaning to ‘fresh produce’.  The vegetable markets sell all the vegetables I was used to in England with the notable exceptions of Broccoli and mushrooms, but it took some getting used to the fact that sometimes you couldn’t find a particular vegetable because it wasn’t in season.  ‘What do you mean…. there were no onions????’  I exclaimed once when my husband came back from the market empty handed.  I didn’t even know there WAS an onion season… for something so basic and essential to most dishes, I thought it was something available all year round…like potatoes.  But then there was the time when the price of the humble potato went up so high that it became a hot topic on Facebook, and I have to admit that when I found a forgotten potato at the back of the cupboard it made me so happy I just had to share it
(no…..not the actual potoato!) on Facebook.  See?  THIS is what Algeria does to you!  And I really cannot make head nor tail of the pricing…how can something that is grown in Algeria such as the ‘Karmous Ensara’ or Christian fig be more expensive than bananas that have to be imported from Panama?
Karmous Ensara, Christian fig


  1. This reminds me so much of Ireland, I'd forgotten we used to call shopping 'the messages' !! and we also used to say ' down the road' lol!! I remember i visited a friend and I heard her say to her kids 'just dry up will you!!' I was literally transported back to my sitting room in Ireland, listening to my dad shout that!!

  2. I know! I stopped saying a lot these kind of sayings when I moved to England because nobody understood them. I think if I told my kids to 'dry up' they would just go get a tea towel and dry up the dishes!