Tunisian cuisine

By | Category: Travel destinations

bread will accompany every meal

With holidaymakers returning to Tunisia, what is the local cuisine that they can enjoy? Unlike other popular tourist destinations like Spain, Italy, Mexico, France, Portugal, Greece or Turkey you will be hard pressed to find a Tunisian restaurant in the UK in order to sample their food before you travel there. Sidi Bou in Ealing in west London, La Goulette in north west London and the incongruously named Adams Café in west London’s Acton.

Outside London I know of none although readers will soon let me know if there are any.

Most of us will never taste Tunisian cuisine before we arrive and many will assume that it is like Moroccan or Lebanese cuisine. It isn’t.

fruit will sit on a Tunisian table as well

Yes there are a variety of salad items, eggs (hard boiled) and cheeses that make up the menu along that red and hot chili paste, harissa, which will be served as an entre at almost every meal. Even at breakfast, Tunisians will think nothing of smearing harissa on some bread and eating it as part of the rest of their meal. Don’t think that all harissa served to you is the same. Families often make their own and they can range from hot to very hot and to stripping the skin off the back of your throat. If you haven’t eaten harissa before try it sparingly until you get used to it.

dates are widely grown

There will be plenty of dates and olives during a meal as well and as snacks at any time of the day.

Breakfast will be a combination of bread, salad items, yoghurts and cheeses. Some sliced meat will be available as will Tunisian sausage. Restaurants in hotels will have serve freshly cooked omelettes, fried eggs and cereals. For drinks, there will be any variety of coffee, water, tea (ask for milk if you want it) plus a variety of fruit juices such as orange, mango, strawberry lemon and a very green liquid which is apple juice. Most hotel restaurants are buffet style affairs with just the coffee and tea being ordered from the table.

a selection of traditional entrees to start the meal

For the main meal, (be it lunch or dinner)  a bric is often the starter. This is like a filo pastry but circular until the filling is added. Quite often the filling is a lightly cooked egg so that when you bite into it, the egg yolk runs Imagine biting into a fried egg sandwich and you know the mess you can get into if you don’t have a napkin/serviette ready! Other common fillings are tuna and minced lamb but if the filling is too great then the bric becomes a meal in itself rather than just a starter. Accompanying almost every course will be bread either as rolls or to be cut from small loaves.

os ban couscous

Tunisia produces any number of wines which have greatly improved over the years. As to which you should try, just pick one or ask for a recommendation. Since everybody has different tastes one I liked might not be liked by others but you definately should try them.

Other starters often include small bowls of tuna, tomato mixed with herbs and olives, small pieces of lightly battered fish, cooked prawns in batter.

Lamb plays a big part in the diet of Tunisians along with fish so lunch and dinner could well be one or the other. One traditional dish is os ban couscous. This is a combination of minced lamb and spinach cooked with rice and moulded into what some waiters will tell you is a haggis! This is served on a bed of couscous and is traditionally eaten with a spoon.

zriga

Whatever the local fish is will also be on the menu. It will generally be a white fish and often served with both head and tail left on. Sea bass is also widely available as a named fish in the tourist resorts, major restaurants and hotels.

As a finish to the meal, zriga is popular local dish. This is a local custard (assyda) with chopped hazelnuts in it. It can also be served with zoussa in the custard. This is a filo pastry stuffed with hazelnuts or sometimes walnuts or even almonds.

mint tea with pine nuts

And to end the meal how about a glass of mint tea which, as is common in North African countries is served heavily sugared. The difference here from tea I have had in Egypt or Turkey is that it is served with pine nuts floating in the top so you crunch as well as drink your tea.

The typical meal that I have described here is one that would be served in the more traditional Tunisian restaurants rather than those catering for international visitors. To find one I went into the medina in Tunis and it is to the chef and staff at the Restaurant Darbelhadj that I am grateful for patiently answering questions about the meal, its ingredients and service especially given that the restaurant is popular with locals and fills up both at lunch times and in the evening. Finding them isn’t easy if you are a stranger. The closest point to the restaurant is from the Place de Gouvernment part of the medina.

roadside vendor of snacks. The bambalouni can be seen on the extreme left

If after lunch you walk off some of the lunch but feel peckish as the afternoon wears on then a snack will keep you going until dinner. A bambalouni is likely to satisfy a hunger pang. Cooked by street vendors or in cafes this si a ring doughnut but a larger one that you might buy in Europe. Served with a paper napkin so as not to let the sugar get over you and to stop you burning yourself, bambalouni are very Moorish and I doubt whether I could eat more than three in one go! An alternative is a pancake which is also sold by street vendors who, incidentally, will be the cheapest place to buy food. And the pancakes can be served with almost anything as the filling.

As a testament to Tunisian food I came back weighing much more than before I went.

For more about food and wine in Tunisia, click here.

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