Over a fine dinner of orange glazed salmon and saffron quinoa, my friend Jessica mentioned something very profound about my traveling choices. She said, “Most people choose their destinations by the sites they want to see or the resorts they want to stay in, but you choose destinations based on the food you want to try.” That clicked. In some ways I do choose destinations based on food.
I chose Tunisia, however, mainly to escape the cold rainy Bergamo spring, and to cross another continent off my list. For my first trip to Africa, food-wise I expected a cuisine similar to that which I had sampled in Moroccan restaurants previously. I was sadly disappointed. A young American foreign service officer stationed at the embassy in Tunis jokingly referred to Tunisia as Tuna-isia, and that’s a just name. Tuna of the canned variety seems to be the staple, and accompanies almost everything, along with a dollop of mayonnaise. I have nothing against tuna and mayonnaise, but it is a combination that puts to sleep 80 year olds with their casseroles. This is not to say that there aren’t any interesting dishes in Tunisia, but I had been expecting more.
It turns out Tunisian food is not like Moroccan food at all. Except for the couscous, a north African staple, Tunisian food differs completely from Moroccan. There is none of the rich, warm ,spicy stews or tagine that I had expected, at least not in the restaurants we ate in. We ended up eating in Tunisia what I eat in most other coastal cities, fresh seafood. The calamari I ate one night was especially fantastic, but nothing better than what I could have gotten in Sicily.
In my opinion, the only interesting plate I tried was a sauce called harissa served before every meal. Harissa is a hot red pepper sauce made of red chili peppers garlic, coriander, cumin, and olive oil. It is good, but I didn’t find it enough to satisfy the consuming craving for spice that I had developed living in spice-less Italy.
Now, I didn’t stay in Tunisia long enough to really explore the Tunisian relationship with food, but I got the impression that Tunisia lacks an identity, which is understandable in its current unstable political situation. Like its population, Tunisian cuisine is a mix of the traditional and the progressive with strong French influences that date from the time when it was a French colony. Tunisia is a country that hangs between Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The identity problem this creates is something that I have seen and experienced in Italy; however food culture is a different story. Greece, Italy, and Morocco all have strongly identifiable cuisines, so why not Tunisia?
I am not an expert, but I get the impression that food is approached differently. In Europe, and particularly Italy, meal time is sacred. It is a time to socialize, or to spend with the family. In Tunisia, I got the impression that socializing is done over tea and hookah.
Tunisian tea is special. It is a minty green tea usually served from an intricate metal pot with a slender spout. Special attention is given to its preparation, and unlike food, tea preparation falls under the male domain. Ingredients vary region to region, but tea is usually sweet and made with fresh mint leaves.
The tea is something to mention, because it is fantastic. So wonderful that I drank it at least once every day I was there. Here’s how to make it at home:
3 individual green tea bags (or the equivalent in loose tea)
¾ cups sugar, or to taste (I replace with honey)
2 large handfuls mint sprigs
2 tablespoons pine nuts, for garnish (optional)
In a saucepan, bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat, add the sugar, and stir. Add the mint to the tea and pour the hot water over and let steep, off the heat, for at least 5 minutes.
Strain the tea to remove the mint. Garnish with pine nuts. Serve warm.
Now, although the food is nothing to rave about, the sites are. Check back for a post about what to see in Tunisia.