|Grand Mosque in Sousse|
History and culture were what brought me to Tunisia, on an independent three-week trip in the summer 2003, but it was its food that surprisingly delighted me. It was familiarly Mediterranean, but with beguiling, sun-kissed twists. There was exceptional olive oil (Tunisia is one of the world’s largest producers), capers, olives, tomatoes, fish, peppers, and chickpeas, and pasta, but all prepared in novel ways. One example is leblebi, a hearty breakfast soup made with a chickpea broth, flavored with capers and cumin, thickened with stale bread, and laden with whole chickpeas. It is also rich with olive oil and a freshly broken egg and spicy from the addition of harissa, a fiery paste that is almost as ubiquitous as ketchup.
|Ojja - A traditional Tunisian dish with scrambled eggs & harissa|
There are also certain dishes and flavorings that you can’t find anywhere else. The classic is briq, a crispy triangle of paper-thin dough, stuffed with a runny egg and some tuna and capers or with potatoes, and deep fried. This became one of my favorite things to eat in Tunisia and it’s a dish that makes Tunisians abroad yearn for home. A spice blend unique to Tunisia is tabil, the specific spices of which change depending on who is making it. In a recipe to make tabil at home, the cookbook author Paula Wolfert provides a list of the following ingredients: coriander seeds, caraway seeds, garlic powder, ground red pepper, fennel seeds, anise seeds, cumin, turmeric, and black pepper.
If Tunisia is not in your travel plans, you can get a taste of sunny Tunisia at Sickles. Les Moulins Mahjoub offers an exquisite, “haute couture” line of products, which are the result of organic farming and traditional production methods. Favorites for us in the cheese department include the textured couscous, extra virgin olive oil to drizzle on burrata, mountain capers, bitter orange marmalade to pair with goat cheeses, delicate artichoke petals, and, of course, harissa, either sweet or spicy, that you can use for about anything.
And if you need an additional reason to make the trip to North Africa, here’s one from the owner of Les Moulins Mahjoub, whom I recently saw when he paid a trip to Sickles last Wednesday. When I asked him why Americans should travel to Tunisia, he replied that Americas know well the northern side of the Mediterranean and that it’s now time to explore the southern Mediterranean.
I couldn’t agree with him more.
bil-hanā' wa ash-shifā' (Bon Appetit!)
Diana Pittet, the traveling cheesemonger