Maghreb Voices – Tunisian Days II

Food, Glorious Food

“A flavor . . .what do you think, old madman, what do you think? That if you find a lost flavor you will eradicate decades of misunderstanding and find yourself confronted with a truth that might redeem the aridity of your heart of stone?” ~ Muriel Barbery

Tunisian cuisine shares the same epicurean sophistication of Barbery’s native Morocco. The key difference between Tunisian cooking and that of the rest of the Maghreb is the extremely hot spices that flavour much of the food (for which Tunisians have won the moniker les gens du piquant).

The mouth-searing dishes aren’t ubiquitous, however, and if a Westerner sits down to a laden table (which in most cases will be a low table surrounded by diners on floor cushions) he or she will be warned of certain items: C?est pas pour vous? il pique. (This isn’t for you. It’s hot.)

The care that goes into cooking in Tunisia is entirely dependent on the specialized style of living. Here in Tunisia, where children remain with their parents until they marry or until work obliges them to relocate, many hands make light work in the kitchen, and so a high standard is sustainable. It’s hard imagine transposing this daily parade of culinary splendour into Western culture, where meals, if produced at all, are often no more than a quick transit from supermarket to freezer to microwave.

Since the revolution, inflation has created a far more spartan fare, but fava beans, lemons, pomegranates, and savoury herbs can be easily grown within the enclosed courtyard at home, while fruit and vegetable sellers are always close, proffering a wide variety of fresh, local produce.

Although traditional Arabic recipes highlight meals, the French influence is evident. There’s little conversation at the table?people eat quickly and pack up after efforts to pressure the guests to eat more eventually become fruitless. The eating schedule isn’t carved in stone, but family are expected to come to the table when called.

Fresh baguettes are purchased each morning and accompany every meal as a desirable dipper for the unctuous sauces. The local bakeries vary in quality, so when you find one with a nice, crusty loaf and fragrant, cloud-soft innards you tend to stick with it.

In the early 1980s, in the wake of political instability and economic distress, the IMF imposed austerity measures on Tunisia that included raising the price of bread and semolina. This led to the bread riots across the country. Those who remember this time remember it as one of apprehension but admit that, in retrospect, it really wasn’t bad; they could still make the traditional Arab flatbread (almost identical to American Indian frybread), and the price of bread soon returned to normal.

Most Tunisian’s drink bottled water. Alternatives are fruit juice, soda, café Arab (made by placing very finely ground coffee in a small metal pitcher and bringing it to a boil twice), green tea brewed and then garnished with fresh mint, and red tea (what we know as rooibos).

A not-so-common treasure is bsisa, a drink made from roasted and ground wheat, chick peas, spices, and sometimes other grains. Sugar, olive oil, and sometimes milk are added to make a delicious concoction. (I slept like a baby after only half a cup.)

Tunisian kitchens also stock bottles of blossom-scented waters?the most common being mock orange that is used to flavor the mekroute (a small, diamond-shaped cookie), and also for medicinal purposes. There are also many traditional Arabic herbal teas used to treat a variety of complaints. In many instances, these are said to work much better than allopathic medications.

Most sauces include at least a little tomato, fresh or canned. Care is taken to add ingredients in the right order, and to add water slowly to smooth out the acidity, but from there you launch into a broad spectrum of sauces for pasta, couscous, or simply bread-dipping. There’s also an exquisitely silken lamb gravy.

Main dishes include tajine (a quiche-like casserole made with eggs, fresh parsley, diced potatoes, and spices), bric (a pastry containing eggs or a mix of eggs, tuna, or chicken), aija (a tomato and egg sauce for dipping), braised fresh fish, couscous, and pasta. Fresh lemons are always at hand, and plain olive oil is also used as a dipper.

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We attend the Grand Eid, the Muslim feast commemorating God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his firstborn son. It begins with harvesting the meat of rams. The meat is cut into portions while small hibachis are set up in the courtyard to cook it. The children have their own small toy hibachis fashioned from tin cans that are hammered flat.

When served, I find It’s the sweetest, most tender mutton I’ve ever tasted. And, somehow, the experience of witnessing its harvesting from beginning to end is sobering. After experiencing such a thing It’s hard to take food for granted or to ignore its spiritual context.

The following day I help make ausban, a dish very much like haggis (coincidentally, Tunisians also have a bagpipe: the mezwed) but with minced lamb, a lot of parsley and spices, and rice or cracked wheat, all cooked in a steamer.

Eating it is the best part. In the evening of the second day of Eid we happily dip our bread in sautéed sheep’s brain, which is ever-so-much yummier than it sounds.

The meal begins with bismillah (in the name of Allah) and ends with Alhamdulillah (all thanks and praise to Allah).

To each other we simply say sahha (bon appetite).

It’s all good.