The bold flavours and deeply rich textures of tiny Tunisia’s cuisine have earned it a special place of honour among the world’s significant cuisines.
You could be forgiven for overlooking tiny Tunisia as a food destination. Wedged as it is between Algeria and Libya on the coast of North Africa along the Mediterranean Sea, it would be easy to assume it has very little to offer in the way of food that is different from its neighbours, and you would be wrong.
Merguez sausages, tajin which is a pie and not a stew of the Moroccan kind, a harissa spicier than most others found in the Arab world, an abundance of egg-based dishes and dishes using offal in deliciously hearty ways are some examples of what makes Tunisian cuisine stand apart from others in the Arab or Berber traditions.
The Mediterranean climate, invasions and occupations by various ancient and modern civilizations including the Phoenicians, Romans, Turks, Arabs and more recently the French, have all left their stamp on the cuisine which has its roots in Berber nomadic culture.
The one distinct difference between Tunisian cuisine and that of its neighbours is its pungency. Harissa is the main condiment that flavours Tunisian food and is a potent spice mixture that is as pungent as it is complex. Dried red chillies, caraway, coriander and cumin seeds pounded with garlic, lemon juice and olive oil make up the blend which has become popular all over the Middle East.
Tabil, the Tunisian Arabic word for coriander seed, lent its name to another of Tunisia’s favourite spice blends. Coriander, caraway and cumin seeds, garlic and dried chillies are pounded and dried in the hot Tunisian sun, for use in stews, sprinkled over soups and used as a rub for grilled meats.
Spice is such a hallmark of the cuisine that it is used as a barometer of a wife’s affection for her husband – the hotter the food the greater the evidence of passion, while a milder dish would signify waning desire! In many dishes however, the fiery spices are tempered with sweet Tunisian honey and tomatoes, the latter being an essential ingredient in Tunisian dishes.
Aqua fresca is a popular way of dousing the flames of a fiery dish. These light fragrant beverages flavoured with rose and orange flower waters are aptly described as ‘scents from heaven’. Bsissa, a ground mix of cereals and dried vegetables, makes for an instant thirst quencher and energy booster when mixed with sugar or honey and water.
Kousksi bil ghalmi or lamb couscous, described as the national dish of Tunisia, encompasses all the flavours of Tunisia in one steaming mound of golden grain topped with a spicy meat stew. A keskes:s is used to prepare the dish with the meat and vegetables stewed with a healthy dollop of harissa in the bottom container and the semolina steamed in the aromatic vapours of the stew bubbling below. This is the perfect one-dish meal ideal for family or community dining which is another strong Tunisian tradition.
Another one-dish meal which is a Tunisian favourite is chorba or soupy stew, which is usually the first course in a traditional meal especially during Ramadan. The most loved soup is lablabi – a nourishing chickpea soup flavoured with herbs and harissa poured over bread cubes and topped with a lightly poached egg and an assortment of condiments.
The streets of Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, are peppered with stalls selling the substantial soup throughout the day. Ojja is another popular spicy stew of mixed meats and vegetables with the ubiquitous egg thrown in, the most delicious being the one containing chunks of merguez.
Of all the dishes associated with Tunisia, merguez sausages are the most famous. The spicy links are filled with a potent mixture of fresh beef or lamb mixed with spices and chillies which give it their characteristic red colour and piquant flavour. Grilled or chopped into stews they add a smoky pungency to a dish. Sheep and lamb feature large in Tunisian diets and every part of the animal finds itself turned into a delicacy.
Hargma, a dish of grilled sheep or cow trotters, spiced with harissa, naturally, and roasted sheep head are relished by all Tunisians. Kleya a dish of chopped liver and meat sautéed with onion and spices and topped with parsley is another favourite. Tunisia and neighbouring Libya produce their own versions of osban – a herbed rice, meat and offal sausage which is a special dish served during Eid celebrations.
While meat is front and centre at all Tunisian meals, fish holds a special place especially along the coastal regions. Mullet, sea bream and sea bass are the most popular, served grilled with a squeeze of lemon. A platter of crisp batter-fried seafood including squid, shrimp and octopus is the perfect treat to enjoy as you gaze at the azure waters of the Mediterranean. Tuna is a particularly favoured fish which is liberally used to top appetisers and salads and fill sandwiches, pastries and pies.
A pie which bears the misleading name of tajin causes much confusion as one expects to see a conical dish bearing a steaming stew, but is actually a baked dish which resembles a quiche! The savoury wedge has layers of thinly sliced potato, fused together with a spicy custard of herbs and eggs. Eggs have pride of place in a Tunisian kitchen. They are the essential ingredient in many traditional dishes like brik – a crisp pastry shell called malsouka encasing an egg which is barely poached as the pastry is deep-fried.
Swabaa Fatma literally ‘Fatma’s fat fingers’ which aptly describes plump rolls made of malsouka sheets wrapped around ricotta cheese and beaten eggs is another snack one will encounter all over the country. You can also expect to find lightly fried or poached eggs carefully placed atop stews and pasta and stirred into stews and soups, providing an unexpected, but welcome, touch of richness. Kafteji, a hugely popular snack, takes the richness one step further by adding chopped fried eggs to fried vegetables and topping it with herbs and harissa to make up what many Tunisians would consider a complete meal!
As expected of any Mediterranean country, vegetables and salads are an integral part of the cuisine. However the word salad in Tunisia also loosely translates as appetiser. Salat Mechouia is a mix of grilled capsicums or peppers, onion, garlic and olive oil and sometimes topped with shredded tuna and of course eggs! Salat Blankit is a derivative and consists of the grilled pepper salad slathered on slices of crusty bread lightly spread with harissa and topped with slices of boiled egg ( and perhaps some tuna as well !).
As in most Arab and Middle Eastern countries, desserts and sweets are built around dates, other dried fruit and various nuts, sweetened with honey and sugar syrup and scented with flower waters. Dro or sweetened sorghum cream, doughnut-shaped mkharek soaked in sugar syrup, zlabiya which resembles the Indian jalebi, bouza a luscious hazelnut pudding and makroud, aromatic semolina and date pastries, once again prove that the bold flavours and deeply rich textures of tiny Tunisia’s cuisine have earned it a special place of honour among the world’s significant cuisines.