Tunisian delights

Tunisian delights

Moving beyond the conventional falafel and baba ghanoush, Krishnaraj Iyengar discovers the lesser-known surprises in the little Maghrebi jewel of Tunisia.

Although India and Tunisia are miles apart, they share a passion for spices and flavours, with colourful markets in both countries selling fine arrays of magical masalas. The love for cooking and heart-warming hospitality connect both nations on so many levels. My trip to this little jewel turned out to be an unforgettable rendezvous with traditional Tunisian cuisine that made me step out of the hummus-falafel stereotype prevailing in my part of the world.

While wayside stand-alone trucks serving Lebanese cuisine sure draw in the hordes in Indian cities, you need to visit Tunisia for a quintessential culinary journey into the labyrinths of the Levant. With shish taouk, shawarma, baba ghanoush, falafel, hummus, mutabal, muhammara storming global platters, the potpourri of Lebanese, Syrian, Turkish, Egyptian and other specialties have become the identity of Arabic cuisine. But if you move west from Egypt, you witness fascinating transitions in culture, language, music and cuisine. Tunisia, Africa’s northern-most country, boasts of such starkly diverse flavours that are not known to many.

In Tunisia, as a guest of the affable Sidi Ben Haj Yedder (mathematician on weekdays and a maverick of flavours on weekends), I got to experience exquisite flavours amidst serene surroundings. Sidi’s quaint countryside cottage on the sleepy Island of Djerba was a beautiful abode that promised sumptuous meals. With its whitewashed stone facade, deep-blue doors and windows in synchrony with the frothing Mediterranean Sea few yards away, his cosy yet ornate home had the aroma of fresh olive oil, mint and spices.

Greeted with a piping-hot brik on my first day, I realised it is a large filo pastry (filled with mashed potatoes, parsley, capers, soft-boiled egg, tuna, a pinch of salt and pepper) deep fried and served with a salad. For spice lovers, you can team up your brik with harissa, the Tunisian chilli pepper paste made from roasted red peppers, serrano peppers, garlic, coriander seeds and olive oil. And yes, you would need tongues of steel to ingest it!

The traditional menu
Very close to Jerba’s ancient El Ghriba Synagogue stands Mat’amYonah, a Jewish restaurant right in the heart of the Arab World. Yonah, the chef, a keen, passionate, introverted Jew, famed and loved for his Kosher-Tunisian-Arabic-Jewish delights, welcomed us with cups of refreshing bright red mint tea, the eternal symbol of the Maghreb.

Like in India, Turkey, Persia and the Middle East, chai or shaai (Arabic) forms an integral part of human interaction in Tunisia also. No gathering or celebration is complete without Shaai Bi-n-na’na served in small, ornate glass tea cups. Be it a group of elders immersed in a card game on a Mediterranean beach, Berbers huddled up in a tent in the middle of the Saharan expanse or French tourists at a plush restaurant in the heart of the Medina old quarter of Tunis (Tunisia’s capital), mint tea invariably remains the country’s gift for your taste buds.

Vegetarians find the thought of dining in the Arab world nightmarish. But you may want to think again as there are plenty of options for vegans - like the delicious Jewish-style vegetarian briks served with lemon and salad, Kafteji Sandwich (a hefty baguette sandwich with generous stuffings of salads, onions, cheese, parsley, coriander, cumin, aubergines) and a Kafteji Platter (a filling melange of assorted fried vegetables, tomatoes, peppers, eggs, zucchinis, pumpkins topped with tomato sauce, chopped onions and parsley).

Another famous dish of Tunisia is tagine. In Morocco, tagine refers to slow-cooked stews prepared with sliced meat, poultry or fish, and served in conical earthen containers with circular bases. The Tunisian version, however, is a quiche, quite like an Italian frittata. A meal in itself, it is an intricate play of flavours with sliced meat, onions, spices, rosebuds, ground cinnamon, ground coriander, beans, chickpeas, potatoes, eggs, dried mint, parsley and often, sundried tomatoes and cooked vegetables. These tagines are the mouth-melting preludes to culinary seduction, Tunisian style.

After an interesting selection of salads like the Slata Tounsia, a nourishing
combination of hard-boiled eggs, green and black olives, cheese, tomatoes and coriander, and delightful entrees, it’s time for couscous, the signature dish in Maghrebian cuisine. Wholesome, comforting and enriched by a chemistry of diverse flavours dissolving into a homogenous semolina base, it’s known for its colourful and artistic dressings. In Tunisia, each chef, restaurant and household has its own style of preparing couscous. It is a rubik’s cube of colourful ingredients like steamed semolina and wheat flour, boiled potatoes, onions, carrots, turnips, often cooked in a mild or spicy broth, and served with meats.

Known for their sweet tooth, Tunisians are armed with their lethal arsenal of samsa, a honey, almond and sesame filo, quite the North African version of the Turkish baklava. The
delicious bouzat haleeb (milk ice cream) is also worth a try.

Tunisian cuisine is, actually, a tantalising tango of the most unique flavours that can enliven any palate in the world. Despite this Levantine cuisine enchanting the Indian appetite, Tunisia’s culinary concerto has a long journey before an Indian overture unfolds.

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