Oran is an ancient city full of curious vestiges and has a promising future. Its seafront promenade is reminiscent of Havana’s Malecón, its central streets are slightly chaotic and have a strong taste of a nostalgic past. In contrast to the modernity in which Oran invests to promote its development as a city, constructions such as the Sheraton hotel always leave me perplexed and fascinated by this fusion between the permanent past and the future of science fiction.
Located in the northwest of Algeria on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, it is constantly covered by a thick fog that gives it a magical touch. And on the clearest days, when the fog lifts, you can see Spain across the sea. A country that was conquered in 1509 and with which it shares 300 years of almost continuous history. Even today Alicante and Oran share a bond of brotherhood between cities.
The story goes that it was actually in Oran that the paella was invented.
I was so lucky that while snooping around a small market in the centre I met a very nice butcher who, when I asked him for directions on where to eat a good paella, very casually left his business behind and, amidst unintelligible conversations in Algerian French, drove us to the Idaa restaurant, his recommendation
The attitude of the Oranés is best described by Albert Camus (who, as a matter of literary curiosity, was born in Algeria) in the introduction to The Plague:
“Our population, frank, friendly and active, has always provoked in the traveller a reasonable appreciation”
Outside the restaurant, I was struck by huge pieces of lamb hanging from the grill, exposed to the open air on the entrance terrace. I was inspired by the atmosphere of the uniquely local diners, venturing to give a profile you could say they were local workers on their lunch hour. The menu had a good and at the same time demure selection of fresh meat and fish. The pairing we chose was water because as a good non-tourist place in Algeria there is no alcohol on the menu.
One of the things that is most appreciated gastronomically in Oran is the French influence reflected in its breads, there are many varieties, fresh and always baked to perfection. As Chef Zadi explains, in Algerian cuisine you can appreciate its entire history, a Berber cuisine full of Andalusian, Ottoman, French and even Italian influences. In Oran’s kitchen you can find particularly Spanish dishes reminiscent of cocas, fideuás and even gazpachos. In Algeria they have their own Wahrani definition which means “Oran Style”(Zadi)
As a starter, we were offered a kind of esqueixada made from roasted peppers and to accompany a pita bread covered with freshly heated seeds. A good start to whet the appetite in a light way. We also shared a kind of baked seafood casserole covered with a very light and subtle béchamel sauce. First we had some lamb ribs, the kind you could see at the entrance. It was very nice to discover the secret of its texture: juicy and soft inside as crispy and roasted outside. The secret is that they are first steamed and then roasted.
It was very interesting to discover an Arabian paella, with touches of spices like coriander that a typical Valencian paella would not have. A paella with all the usual ingredients, chicken, prawns, lamb and clams, rice with saffron, but with a twist. It is said that paella derives from the Baqya or Baiya (a typical dish of Maghreb gastronomy, whose name means leftovers or remains of food, a dish based on rice and seafood).
This is a controversial topic, but considering the types of preparations in the area and the Spanish domination of so many centuries, it is not unreasonable to think that the origin of the paella was in the nostalgic city of Oran.
To round off the meal, we drank mint tea, a typical Berber drink that also works as an excellent digestive. One thing I loved is that, unlike in Morocco, they don’t put sugar into the brew. I left Oran with the desire to return to Algeria, I think it is a place with many interesting facets to discover.