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Spotlight on Sausage: Merguez

T his enticing lamb sausage comes from North Africa where it was the sausage of choice among the Bedouin and the larger population of that region. Because of the Islamic prohibition on eating pork, there is not much sausage in the culinary history of the Middle East. But if lamb merguez was their only sausage contribution to international cuisine, it would be enough.

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To make merguez, lamb shoulder is ground, spiced, mixed with a little fat, and stuffed into sheep casings. This forms a small sausage, usually about 4 inches long and less than an inch in diameter. Lamb merguez is commonly available as a fresh sausage, though there are sun–dried versions in North Africa. While there are several types of merguez in Tunisia and Morocco, the common denominator flavoring agent is harissa. Harissa is a Tunisian chili sauce, made differently from family to family, but always containing a cocktail of potent hot peppers. Harissa can be made of Serrano peppers, bird’s eye chili peppers, garlic paste, coriander, caraway, red peppers, lemon juice, cumin, sumac, fennel, and can sometimes have a smoky flavor. Harissa is a standard ingredient in North African cooking, and prepared harissa is readily available in specialty or Middle Eastern stores in the United States. All this harissa gives lamb merguez its characteristic red color as well as a dose of heat. Merguez is sometimes made with beef or veal, but the most prevalent type is made from lamb, which makes sense when you consider that the sheep population is many times the cattle population in North Africa.

Cooking
Merguez sausage may be small in size, but its influence is felt worldwide. When the French colonized North Africa, they took to this spicy sausage and incorporated it into French cuisine. Merguez is also popular in Israel, throughout the Middle East, and northern Europe. Usually eaten grilled, as an accompaniment to couscous, or in tagines, the merguez sausage has become street food in France, served much like hotdogs are in the United States. The French did put a signature twist on the merguez sandwich. They serve grilled merguez on a fresh baguette that has been smeared with a healthy dose of Dijon mustard or mayonnaise, and then right on top, a serving of French fries. The combination of spicy sausage and salty fries makes for an exciting sandwich, and is so popular that the French consider this sausage their own.

If you make it at home, merguez can be a loose sausage without a casing. Loose merguez can be served as a burger, or as Middle Eastern meatball, a kefta. The sausage meat can also be removed from its casing and incorpored into ground beef to make spicy burgers with a hint of lamb flavor. Stews and bean dishes can also benefit from the spicy kick of merguez sausage.