Travel: Tunisia

We just returned from a week-long holiday in Tunisia, so of course I have to report on the food!

Tunisia, located in North Africa between Algeria and Libya, has an unusual culture stemming from its indigenous Berber roots, Arabic legacy and French colonialism (which ended in 1956). The food, as a result, is an interesting mix of all of these cultures: couscous and harissa, fantastic Turkish-style desserts and mint tea, and good French pastries.

The national dish is couscous. One of my first observations is that Tunisia doesn’t have a well-established ‘dining out’ culture; it is known among Tunisians that the best food is had in a Tunisian home.

Thankfully, we had the excellent good fortune of being in Tunisia at the same time as my friend Naima, who lives in Seattle. She and her husband are Tunisian, and she was rounding out a three-week trip to visit her family when we were able to see her during our stay in Tunis, the capital of the country, and the city in which her family lives. So in addition to getting to go sightseeing with her and her kids (who had a great time with my kids), we also got to have a home-cooked meal prepared by her sister Bahia, who is an excellent cook. Our lunch at their family house was the best food we had during our trip. Bravo Bahia!

Bahia’s excellent couscous with chicken and fava beans

This was the best couscous I’ve had. Naima explained that in Tunisia the main base flavor for couscous is tomato paste, so you always end up with a reddish couscous (unlike in Morocco, where other spices are often applied). This gives it a sweet flavor, and of course, heat can be added as well with the use of chiles. The couscous was so good that I ended up buying a couscoussier–a Tunisian couscous steamer for properly preparing it. (American recipes often call for couscous to simply be boiled in broth, but to obtain the lightest, melt-in-your-mouth texture, the couscous in places like Tunisia is always steamed–and sometimes even steamed twice.) Hopefully, because we have a huge Moroccan market here in Den Haag, I can also try to find the extremely fine-grained couscous that is used in Tunisia. According to Naima, many Tunisian cooks even make their own couscous, rolling the semolina with their hands. I’m hoping I don’t have to resort to that!

The other Tunisian specialty, which was my absolute favorite is brik l’oeuf. I love anything with an egg in it (me being Asian and all), but this recipe takes the cake for fans of yolky, runny eggs. It is basically a fried pastry shell stuffed with tuna or seafood, herbs and vegetables, then an egg is broken into the mixture, the packet is quickly sealed and deep-fried. It takes lots of practice to keep the package sealed without it breaking open in the pan, and it takes quite a bit of skill to eat it–otherwise you end up with egg all over either your face or your clothes.

Brik l’oeuf: squeeze a bit of lemon, then pick it up and eat it, tilting it so you don’t get egg yolk on your clothes

Naima also made a delicious Lebanese salad with herbs, that hopefully I can get her to post on Crispy Waffle. :)

Naima’s salad with herbs

Here are some other pictures of the various things that we ate and saw in the markets. Hopefully some recipes are forthcoming, once I work them out, especially for the mint tea and for couscous.

Sandwich thon

Street food in Tunisia involves a lot of sandwiches in either flatbread, pita or even baguettes. There are even savory fillings for fried doughnuts (which I ended up not trying–I was too full after eating a huge sweet doughnut and I just couldn’t do it). My favorite was the typical tuna sandwich in griddled pita. Tunisians take the use of tuna to a new level (and it also helps that their canned variety of tuna is quite different and very tasty–very much like quality Italian canned tuna varieties.) In sandwich form, the pita is filled with tuna, harissa, olives, cucumbers and onions. This I will definitely recreate. The best of these sandwiches was at Carthage. We were walking around and Naima’s 2-year-old son befriended an elderly man and his friend who were having their lunch on a bench. He ran ahead of us and in a moment, the little guy was chewing something, so Naima went to investigate. (That the man was giving the little guy a snack is nothing surprising. Tunisians are unbelievably friendly with small children; my son was often picked up and hugged by strangers– a bit alarming at first, but we got used to it pretty quickly.) Before you knew it, the man had given us half his sandwich to try. Naima said, “But this is your lunch!” and he simply said, “I’m sharing it because it’s all from God anyway.” The tuna sandwich he was eating had the most delicious olives and pickled cucumbers in it.

Tunisian doughnuts

The doughnuts at the street stands were also quite good. The best way to describe them is as a giant beignets covered in a sticky honey syrup. Delish. I don’t know what they’re called, so I did a lot of pointing and eating (as I usually do with street food!)

The little guy chowing down on a giant doughnut

Tunisian sweets. My son had to be dragged away from this stand kicking and screaming. They gave him so many samples that he thought it was all free!

Giant blocks of nougat at a sweets stand

A cow head advertising freshness at a Sousse butcher shop