Refuelling: The Food of Tunisia

Tunisia is a wonderful country to cycle around, but it’s an even better place to eat around. One of the beauties of long-distance cycle touring is the capacity to eat like a goat: grazing on anything and everything all the time. Hungry? You will be.

Lemons and garlic at Tunis market
Lemons and garlic at Tunis central market

Two unique and inescapable ingredients distinguish Tunisian cooking from the rest of the Mediterranean.

1. A nose-snorting chilli paste called Harissa:

Harissa by the tin. Serve with olive oil and bread. For breakfast.
Harissa by the tin. Serve with olive oil and bread. For breakfast.

2. Tinned tuna:

Tuna in tins. With tuna, of course.
Tuna in tins. With tuna, of course.

There is no reason at all that I can think of for why the Tunisians love tinned tuna so much. It’s not like Tunisia is land-locked; there’s 1,148km of Mediterranean coastline to fish in. And it’s certainly not like the Tunisians don’t know how to cook a fish (which I suspect is the reason why the English buy tinned tuna). I can vouch for that.

Fish.
Fish.
Ex-fish.
Ex-fish.

But despite this oceanic bounty, the Tunisians will serve tinned tuna with every conceivable dish. If it can be served with, beside, on, in or under a dollop of tinned tuna, you can bet your last dinar that it will be.

I once asked for a green salad, expecting a plate of leaves. I got half a head of lettuce, a tin of tuna and an egg. In my country that’s called a salad Nicoise. I wasn’t complaining – I like tuna – but the menu in this restaurant also listed a salad Nicoise. What would THAT come with?

Tuna is so popular that it can take chefs by surprise when you ask for something without tuna. I ordered a ham sandwich in Tunis and the chef (on auto-pilot) smeared it with a layer of tuna, before sheepishly scraping it off again.

These two ingredients, tuna and harissa, are so ubiquitous that you can assume they are present in every dish, unless otherwise stated. Needless to say, Tunisia is not an easy place to eat if you are a vegetarian who doesn’t eat fish. Or if you have delicate bowels that can’t take a dash of hot sauce.

Talking of vegetarianism, there is actually one reason I can think of for Tunisia’s obsession with tinned tuna: it’s cheap meat. In Tunisia, if you can afford meat, you eat meat. Being a Muslim country, it’s usually chicken or lamb, occasionally beef, but you can also try your teeth on camel or (if not Muslim) wild boar.

Rotisserie chicken. Eaten in quarters, halves or wholes.
Rotisserie chicken. Eaten in quarters, halves or wholes.
Rotisserie chicken, in close up.
Rotisserie chicken, in close up.

The classic Tunisian meal is based around couscous. Couscous is semolina rolled with water and salt. It’s made at home and it takes a day to make 50-100kg, then about three weeks to dry in the sun (hence why it’s made in the summer). After that, it lasts for a year. In Tunisia, the couscous is small and fine; in Morocco they make bigger granules.

Couscous is prepared in a couscousiere, which is a two-tiered pot-steamer. In the bottom you cook your spicy meaty stew and in the top you put the couscous, together with carrots, onions, potatos, chick peas – or whatever you’ve got in the larder. The stew is made with lamb, merguez sausages, fish or camel and, as it bubbles away, its meaty steam cooks the couscous and vegetables and infuses them with flavour.

Merguez couscous.
Merguez couscous.
Camel couscous.
Camel couscous.

I can assure you that it is perfectly possible to get bored of steamed vegetables, but luckily couscous is not the only dish of the day in Tunisia. Ojja is almost like a curry, with garlic, peppers, onion and tomato, a bit like a Kashmiri rogan josh. It’s never served with rice, but is mopped up with a French-style baguette.

Ojja. Plenty of chillies. Like a curry, but without rice.
Ojja. Plenty of chillies. Like a curry, but without rice.

Another speciality of Tunisia is the tagine. You probably already know what a tagine is, so I’ll confuse you with a photograph:

Tunisian tagine: nothing like Moroccan tagine. More like a quiche. Super tasty.
Tunisian tagine: nothing like Moroccan tagine. More like a quiche. Super tasty.

Yes, this is a Tunisian tagine: absolutely nothing like the more famous Moroccan tagine. Thank goodness. This tagine is way nicer. It’s almost like a quiche, with lots of lightly whisked egg. Often served cold. Yum.

Finally, I give you the brik. It is nothing like the English brick. Thank goodness. Instead it is a sort of deep-fried Cornish pasty, filled with whatever the chefs got in. Usually tuna, of course, but sometimes an unexpected burst of boiling fat will sear your tongue. It’s often served as a starter and comes highly recommended – just don’t watch them prepare it if you’re trying to avoid oily fat.

Brik. With tuna (inside), of course.
Brik. With tuna (inside), of course.

Talking of deep frying, here are some more random deep-fried objects:

Assorted fried goods. With tomato and onion.
Assorted fried goods. With tomato and onion.

When Tunisians are not eating couscous, tuna or harissa, they are probably eating baked goods. These are usually a toothsome blend of French patisserie and Tunisian taste. This creates such delights as the Tunisian pizza:

Tunisian pizza! With tuna, of course.
Tunisian pizza! With tuna, of course.

The Tunisian pasty:

One Tunisian pasty for the road. With tuna, of course.
One Tunisian pasty for the road. With tuna, of course.

And the Tunisian deep-friend sandwich, known as a fricasse:

Fricasse. Super oily. With tuna, of course.
Fricasse. Super oily. With tuna, of course.

Galettes, a kind of pancake, are served up everywhere and stuffed with cheese, ham, egg, harissa, tomato, onion, chips, mechouia salad – and tuna, of course.

Preparing galettes on the side of the road. With tuna, of course.
Preparing galettes on the side of the road. With tuna, of course.

Luckily, there ARE limits to the Tunisian use of tuna in baking. You can get decent French baguettes, pain au chocolats and croissants and pretty much every region has its own speciality sweets, all without tuna.

One sweet I didn’t take a photograph of was the Corne de Gazelle of Tataouine, in the south of Tunisia. This is a baked hard cone of pastry (the horn of the gazelle), filled with nuts and seeds and then slathered in syrup. My teeth still hurt from the sugar-rush.

Sweets. Make sure you have sesame seeds, dates and loads of syrup.
Sweets. Make sure you have sesame seeds, dates and loads of syrup.

Biscuits are popular and come in a variety of shapes, like stars and moons and hearts. They probably shouldn’t be called biscuits, actually, because they are very soft – more like the cakey bits of Jaffa Cakes, which are famously NOT biscuits. Perhaps biscuits are taxed at a higher rate in Tunisia as well.

These “biscuits” do not, however, come in a variety of flavours. They are basically flour plus jam. The jam can nominally vary in flavour, but they all taste the same. I advise you to avoid anything purporting to be “chocolate” – it will only disappoint you. The “chocolate” is a brown substance finely sprayed onto the surface of the biscuit, so as to give the appearance of abundance, but it is nothing but appearance.

Lemony biscuits. Very floury and crumbly.
Lemony biscuits. Very floury and crumbly.

Beyond the colonial boulangerie influence, Tunisia has its own native baking tradition. Tunisian bread is flat and often flavoured with yummy things like cheese and olives. And tuna and harissa, obviously. In the country, it comes out of ovens like this one:

A bread oven at a farm.
A bread oven at a farm.

And it looks like this, all lovely and warm like a jumper just out of the tumble-dryer:

Bread! From a campfire at Ksar Ghilane oasis.
Bread! From a campfire at Ksar Ghilane oasis.

Or like this, topped with cheese and impregnated with harissa:

The best bread in the world: impregnated with harissa.
The best bread in the world: impregnated with harissa.

When you enter a Tunisian restaurant, a basket of some sort of bread will be dumped on your table, accompanied by a saucer of harissa. Eat it: it’s free. Quite often you’ll get a plate or two of salads as well. In fact, by the time the main course comes around, you won’t be hungry!

Tunisia does a good line in salads. Salad mechouia is a green splodge that tastes of burnt peppers. It can be very spicy, so dip before you add harissa yourself.

Salad mechouia - with tuna, of course.
Salad mechouia – with tuna, of course.

And, being a Mediterranean country, Tunisia is abundant with fresh vegetables, ripe for the salading.

Tunisian tomato salad. Like an English tomato salad, except this one tastes of actual tomatoes.
Tunisian tomato salad. Like an English tomato salad, except this one tastes of actual tomatoes.

But mostly you’ll get a chopped salad buried under tuna and egg:

A salad. With tuna, of course.
A salad. With tuna, of course.

A post on Tunisian cuisine would not be complete without mentioning drinks. Juices are blended at street stalls: lemon, orange, carrot… Whatever blends, gets drunk. Coffee is an Arab speciality, coming in tiny glasses and as black as your soul. The English word “coffee” comes from the Arabic, incidentally.

So does the word “sugar” and you’ll understand why if you ever take a tea with a Tunisian. Every meal is finished off with a glass of tea, with a twist of mint and an inch of sugar in the bottom.

Tea. Serve with an inch of sugar and a twist of mint.
Tea. Serve with an inch of sugar and a twist of mint.

Phew. I don’t know about you, but I’m stuffed. I know I’ve missed out all kinds of dishes (e.g. Kamounia, a spicy meaty little number), but just like my cycle tour it’s been only a brief taste of Tunisia.

Eating and cycling are made for each other. The one makes the other all the better and they find perfect harmony in Tunisia.

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