This post is the first in a series about Tunisia, a small country on the Mediterranean Sea in North Africa. To many of you in Europe, it may be familiar as a budget-friendly tourist destination at its beach resorts. To much of the rest of the world, Tunisia took on importance as the birthplace of Arab Spring in January 2011 and one of the ‘success stories’ of democracy. Scarcely two months have passed, however, since the tragic attack at the Bardo Museum in March 2015. My heart goes out to the families of those lost in that attack, as well as to the Tunisian people, who are some of the most friendly and tolerant I’ve ever met. I hope each of you enjoys this introduction!
Tunisia’s importance has historic significance predating today’s turbulent times. Its strategic seaside location and wealth of natural resources inspired colonization by the Phoenicians and ancient Romans – for whose empires it was the ‘breadbasket.’ More recently in the 19th and 20th centuries, France and Italy vied for control before Tunisia finally received independence in the 1950s.
Though small, Tunisia has much variation in terrain and vegetation: windswept Mediterranean cliffs; fertile, rolling hills that remind one of Piedmont or Tuscany (Piemonte o Tuscano) in Italy; and sandy, desert dunes reminiscent of another world. In fact, southern Tunisia has served as the location for the production of numerous films, most famously, Star Wars Episode I, which since has attracted tourists to Tatouine. Its cuisine is equally heterogenous and hard to characterize: A mix of land meats (if this term does not already exist, then I officially claim it) and seafood; an abundance of sweet, tart citrus; and influenced by Mediterranean and Arab flavors and culinary techniques alike.
From the Mediterranean shores come its sea influence. Cold tuna salad, octopus, and calamari (also referred to as cuttlefish or seiche) are as easily found as simply grilled dorade or sea bass. Fish are often served simply with lemon and french fries or rice – or a side of pasta, a common sign of Italian influence.
Inland, roast lamb and chicken are are most common main dishes. You might be startled to find your future meal – a giant, fresh lamb carcass – literally hanging in front of your eyes as you order, only to find your cut of meat butchered in front of you and promptly grilled. You can’t say it isn’t fresh!
Couscous is a common conduit for this meat, though it tends to be much drier than its more widely known Moroccan brother. An egg dish, brik, is a national dish of Tunisia. I liken it most to a Spanish tortilla, and often it is eaten by hand. Much of Tunisian cuisine is built upon simple flavors; when Tunisians need a little spice, they turn to harissa, North Africa’s best and most versatile condiment. Harissa, a spicy roasted red pepper and chili spread, livens even the most mundane dishes.
Both ashore and inland, Tunisia’s winter citrus crop seems endless. One day, we had the opportunity to pick at least four varieties of oranges, as well as lemons, from a small orchard. Fresh fruit is never hard to come by during Tunisian winters: Fruit carts can be found alongside busy city and village streets or even along some highways. Alongside citrus and seasonal fruits are sweet dates, ubiquitous throughout Tunisia and bought by the sprig (still on the branch) from vendors.
Sweets are serious in Tunisia. Bakeries are plentiful; their goods combine both French/European and Arabic flavors. They can be a bit on the sticky sweet side, but with honey, cardamom, dates, and pistachios on their side, it’s hard to resist a small pastry.
With such a wealth of food resources, one might expect dining in Tunisia to be an amazing experience. My experience of several weeks led me to conclude that Tunisian food is best experienced cooked in the home. I did have inspiring experiences with Tunisian and Moroccan ingredients and style, as well as Italian and even Indian. I’ll share a few of them with you in posts to come, including my own incorporation of these ingredients, such as harissa. Cooking your own meals with Tunisia’s bounty – or Tunisian inspiration – will give you a sense of this lovely country.