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By area, Algeria is the largest country in Africa; by population, the tenth-largest. But in New York, Algerian cuisine has secured only a tiny foothold. We’ve sought out garantita, a savory chickpea pudding, in Astoria, and traveled for excellent date-filled maamoul in Bath Beach, deep in southern Brooklyn. But otherwise, finding Algerian grub in the city has been a challenge.

Recently, while strolling through Sunnyside, we spotted the green, white and red colors of the Algerian flag on a mural outside a public school. In New York, murals like these are a common way to illustrate the diversity of a student population. At this school, the national colors of about three dozen countries were on display, each of them charmingly painted by hand.

The Algerian colors, we soon discovered, had been painted by a daughter of Halim and Amina Fekraoui (feh-Krow-ee), owners of the nearby Kasbah Café. The couple and their three school-aged daughters live in the neighborhood, too.

Amina and Halim were both born in Algeria, in the 1970s – she in Algiers, the capital, he in Jijel, a town some 200 miles’ drive to the east, along North Africa’s coast with the Mediterranean Sea. They first met in 2004, at the urging of friends, online. Halim, who had studied political science and worked as a journalist, was teaching Arabic in Virginia. Amina, an architect, was still in Algeria; she got to know his extended family before meeting, and eventually marrying, Halim.

By 2012, when the couple had settled in New York, Amina had set aside architecture – or, at least, the professional practice of architecture – for motherhood. She began preparing Algerian confections for cultural events at school, as well as for community gatherings and for Algerian-American events. Even though she had been cooking since she was young, Amina tells us that she found that the precise measurements demanded by her architectural training “helped [her] with the cookies.”

Another aspect of her professional training – the ability to deal gracefully with VIP clients – also came in handy. Amina began receiving, and accepting, catering requests from Algeria’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations.

Halim, for his part, “was always dreaming” about a restaurant, Amina tells us, but during his early days in Virginia, restaurant work was simply a way to help make ends meet. “I didn’t follow my passion” for food at that point, Halim adds. Instead, he pursued a career as an insurance agent, and then as a currency trader. But he was “happier cooking” – when Halim came home from the office, he and Amina worked together to put dinner on the table.

 In 2015 Halim left his currency-trading position. The couple formally launched a catering business, Hanna Sweets, to prepare confections and other food for the Algerian Mission, for special events and for restaurants. Later Halim became a partner in a Queens pizzeria, too, but that business closed permanently during the Covid-19 pandemic.

To be sure, a pizzeria could never be as close to the couple’s hearts as a restaurant where they could “give the original taste” of Algerian cooking, in Halim’s words, and “keep traditional recipes,” adds Amina. They opened Kasbah Café in the summer of 2021. The catering business continues as well – now under the Kasbah name – but, to enjoy the fruits of their labor, we no longer need to pass a security check at the U.N. It’s much simpler to stroll through the door of the café.

That was certainly convenient when we were hungry for a midmorning shakshuka, eggs poached in a spiced tomato-based sauce. Rounds of house-baked bread helped us wipe the bowl clean.

Since that early visit, Halim and Amina have expanded their menu by adding a collection of plats du jour, one per day, with especially tempting selections on the weekend. Friday – the day for “family gatherings,” Amina tells us – is also the day for couscous with lamb, accompanied by a tomato-based sauce seasoned with onion, sweet paprika and black pepper.

The sauce also includes the couple’s favored ras el hanout. In North Africa, this spice blend is prepared in innumerable variations, many of which are imported, in bulk, to New York. Halim and Amina find most of their seasonings in Astoria, but the blend at Kasbah Café is hand-carried from Algeria, two to three kilos at a time, often by the couple’s friends.

Saturday and Sunday are the occasions for, respectively, chekhchoukha and rechta (resh-tah), Algerian specialties that we haven’t found anywhere else in the city. The first, despite sounding like the egg-based North African dish shakshuka, is a stew of lamb or chicken bolstered by vegetables and, more distinctively, by hand-torn pieces of house-griddled flatbread. Like the couscous, the chekhchoukha is accompanied by that tomato-based sauce.

Not so the rechta, a pasta dish featuring thin noodles that are fashioned for the restaurant by an Algerian neighbor. Kasbah Café’s rechta is invariably made with chicken, Amina explains – ours also included zucchini, carrot and chickpea – and accompanied by chicken broth. We might think of it as a deconstructed chicken noodle soup, with a character sweetened by both cinnamon and pearl onion.

Like the ras al hanout, the soundtrack at Kasbah Café hails directly from North Africa, too. It includes both Algerian traditional music such as raï and chaabi, Halim tells us, as well as the desert blues of the Tuareg collective Tinariwen and the rap-, reggae- and soul-infused “music for a new generation” of artists such as Soolking. The music videos in the Kasbah dining room, coupled with Halim’s commentary, have given us a taste for more Algerian tunes.

And then there are Amina’s confections. Some would be at home anywhere in the States: one day we enjoyed an apricot crumb square, while the fruit was in season, while eyeing (but ultimately resisting) the chocolate chip cookies displayed just below them.

However, the most tempting sweets, even when their appearance is rather modest, have Algerian roots. The ghribia – the name has many transliterations from Arabic, and the recipe, many more – are a uniform and unremarkable tan in color, owing to their principle ingredient, chickpea flour. But once we became acquainted, they were quite fetching – heavy for their size, crumbly and meltingly soft in the mouth.

Freshness of preparation is just as important for the sweets as for the savory dishes. “You can get baklava anywhere,” Halim observes, but “we process raw almonds and raw walnuts here.”

For the date-filled semolina cookies called makroud, that emphasis on freshness is taken to a painstaking extreme. Some shops, Amina explains, prepare their makroud from imported date paste. Kasbah, by contrast, imports whole dates and cleans them one by one, Halim tells us, before reducing the dates to a paste and then filling the cookies. “It’s a long process,” Amina confirms.

Fittingly, on our first visit – we were just walking by, with no time or capacity for a meal – Halim and Amina kindly gifted us four makroud. They were still warm, and as we continued our walk, we gave them little time to cool down.

Dave Cook

Published on October 26, 2023

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