It was dark in Algiers by 6 p.m., and even though the days were dazzlingly sunny, the evenings chilled quickly in the Mediterranean dampness.
With unbroken repetition, my dinners all week began with a bowl of chorba or h’rira, thick, nourishing vegetable- and legume-filled soups. (The chorba was often thickened with frik, green wheat). The best that I sampled was at Restaurant Djmenina, a forty year old bastion of traditional Algerian cooking.
The restaurant filled the night I dined there, despite the double al-Queda bombing that killed dozens just a few days before; and everyone, it seemed, was having the h’rira.
Though the ceilings of the hundred year old palace that houses Djmenina are high and ornate, the walls covered with decorative antique tiles, and many of the dishes elaborate, their lentil h’rira is downright homey. Flavored with lamb and laced with plenty of fresh herbs and sharp spices, I couldn’t resist refilling my large terracotta bowl three times from the tureen on the table.
By then I was warmed – though also nearly full.
But after the soup comes a sweet tagine of lamb and prunes, or a thick sea bream (like the ones above in the image), chosen earlier from a tray of the day’s catch and prepared in the oven, or the house specialty “Couscous de l’Emir” with lamb, meatballs, and caramelized onions, or…
But first – always first – is soup. And after a week of winter Algiers nights, I understood why.