Spices of North Africa Come to Life in Tunisian Cuisine

From its blend of many cultures, Tunisian cooking has evolved into a world of exciting and unique culinary pleasure

The red-hot embers kept us barely warm as we huddled around a Tunisian earthenware qanoun (tiny stove) at our friend’s home in Tunis, the capital city of Tunisia. On that cold January day in Africa’s northernmost republic, the aromas flowing from the kitchen aroused our hunger as we waited for the household cook to prepare lunch.

Soon a young lady came in with steaming dishes of leblabi, a spiced chick pea soup accompanied by tajine, a Tunisian shepherd’s-pie filled with ground almonds, eggs, and cheese. To add flavour to the meal, she set before each person a small dish of harissa, a fiery sauce of red-hot peppers, garlic, and salt. We praised our host for the mouth-watering food as we enjoyed the gourmet vegetarian meal.

In the ensuing days during our stay in Tunisia, we travelled to many parts of the country and sampled, in the people’s restaurants, the delights of traditional foods which included a great number of vegetarian dishes. However, the home-cooked meal at our friend’s home in Tunis was the epitome of our exploration into the Tunisian kitchen. It was a gourmet experience, never to be forgotten.

Tunisian cuisine is neither Western nor Eastern but a mixture of the two. It has borrowed much from neighbouring Mediterranean countries and previous civilizations which once thrived in that land. Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Andalusian-Muslims, Turks, French, and the native Berbers all contributed to the creation of the Tunisian kitchen.

From this blend of numerous cultures, Tunisian cooking has evolved into a world of exciting and unique culinary pleasure. Without losing their original character and flavour, the dishes from the land of Hannibal have become delicious gourmet creations – somewhat different from the cuisine of any other country.

Roaming the beautiful villages of Djerba, Tunisia’s paradise isle, or strolling through the ancient streets of the holy city of Kairouan, one is always tantalized by the scent of spices diffusing from exotic dishes.

However, the age-old heritage of Tunisian cooking is best exemplified when prepared at home. The result is succulent, tasty dishes spiced with caraway, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, hot peppers, thyme, and saffron, all artistically combined to be pleasing to both eye and palate.

Unlike Middle Eastern and North African cuisine, Tunisian food is noted for its spicy hotness. It is said that a husband will judge his wife by the amount of hot peppers with which she prepares her food. Some men even believe that if a wife’s cooking becomes bland, it means the love for her husband is fading. On the other hand, when food is prepared for visitors, the amount of hot peppers is decreased to suit the usually more delicate palates of guests.

Fortunately, one need not travel to Tunisia to sample its exquisite cuisine. Delightful dishes from that country’s savoury repertoire can, with little effort, be prepared in any kitchen. For most Europeans and North Americans, these dishes with hot peppers added to taste would be more palatable than their Tunisian counterpart.

Although meat and seafood are staples in the Tunisian kitchen, there are also a great variety of popular vegetarian dishes served. Let’s have a look at them now.

Leblabi is often served for breakfast in Tunisian restaurants. (Serves about 8)

  • 1½ cups chickpeas, soaked overnight in 10 cups water mixed with ½ tsp baking soda
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 hot pepper, finely chopped
  • 4 Tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander leaves
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp ground caraway seeds
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 3/4 tsp pepper
  • 4 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 4 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 cups or more crumbled toasted bread

1) Place chickpeas with their water in a saucepan and bring to boil. Cover and cook over medium heat for 1½ hours or until chickpeas are tender. Stir in remaining ingredients, except lemon juice, olive oil, and bread, then re-cover and cook for further 30 minutes or until chickpeas are well cooked.

2) Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice and olive oil. Serve soup, with each person adding bread to taste.

The Tunisian and Libyan kitchens are noted for their spicy hotness. In Tunisia, this sauce accompanies almost every meal. Diners use it according to their individual tastes.

(Herb note: Caraway is used in folklore medicine to alleviate digestive problems including heartburn, bloating, gas, loss of appetite, and mild spasms of the stomach and intestines. Caraway oil taken internally is used to help people cough up phlegm, improve control of urination, kill bacteria in the body, and relieve constipation. Women use caraway oil externally as a massage to start menstruation and relieve menstrual cramps; nursing mothers use it to increase the flow of breast milk.)

Ingredients:

  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ½ cup cayenne
  • 4 Tbsp cumin
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • 2 Tbsp ground caraway seeds
  • 5 cloves garlic, crushed

1) Thoroughly combine ingredients then pour into a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Cover, then store in a cool place and use as needed.

(Serves about 8)

Ingredients:

  • 4 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 medium sized onions, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 small hot pepper, finely chopped
  • 4 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 can white kidney beans (19 oz/540 ml), with its water
  • 1½ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • ½ tsp pepper
  • ½ tsp cumin
  • 2 cups water
  • 4 Tbsp butter
  • 1 10-oz package spinach, thoroughly washed and chopped
  • 1 cup ground almonds
  • ½ cup grated white cheese, any type
  • 6 eggs, beaten

1) Heat oil in a frying pan, then stir-fry onions, garlic, and hot pepper over medium for 5 minutes. Stir in tomato paste, beans, salt, oregano, pepper, cumin, and water then bring to boil. Cover, then cook over low heat for 30 minutes, adding a little more water if necessary.

2) In the meantime, melt butter in another frying pan, then stir-fry spinach until it wilts. Stir in the two frying pan contents and the remaining ingredients into a casserole dish, then place in a 350°F preheated oven. Cover then bake for 30 minutes.

Versions of this dish are found throughout Tunisia.
(Serves about 6)

Ingredients:

  • 2 large sweet red peppers
  • 4 medium firm tomatoes
  • 2 medium onions
  • 1 small hot pepper
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 3 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp pepper
  • ½ tsp dried thyme
  • ½ cup crumbled feta cheese
  • 2 hard boiled eggs, chopped

1) Grill red peppers, tomatoes, onions, and hot pepper in the oven until they become soft, turning them over once or twice – onions need longer time to cook. Allow to cool then chop into small pieces. (Make sure to remove seeds from peppers.) Place on a flat serving platter, then stir in olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and thyme. Spread cheese and eggs evenly over top and serve.

I first became familiar with this dish in the old section of Tunis. (Serves about 6)

Ingredients:

  • 4 Tbsp olive oil
  • 5 medium firm tomatoes, chopped
  • 2 medium onions, finely chopped
  • 2 medium sweet green peppers, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 small hot pepper, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 1/2 tsp ground caraway seeds
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 6 eggs

1) Heat oil in a frying pan then stir in all ingredients except eggs. Cover and cook for 25 minutes over medium heat, stirring a few times. Break eggs over top, then recover and cook over low heat for further 10 minutes. Serve hot.

Versions of this Tunisian dish are also found in the Iberian Peninsula. (Serves 4)

Ingredients:

  • 4 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 cups fresh or frozen peas
  • 1 cup water in which are dissolved 1 tsp salt, ¼ tsp pepper, ¼ tsp cumin, and 1/8 tsp cayenne
  • 4 eggs
  • ½ tsp paprika

1) Heat oil in a frying pan, then sauté onions and garlic over medium heat for about 12 minutes or until onions began to brown.

2) Transfer frying pan contents to a casserole dish, then stir in tomato paste, peas, and water. Cover and bake in a 180°C (350°F) preheated oven for about 25 minutes or until peas are done. Remove and break eggs side by side over peas. Re-cover and bake for a further 10 minutes or until eggs are done. Garnish with paprika and serve straight from casserole dish to plates.

Stuffed vegetables is a Greek invention that was adopted by the Ottoman Turks when they occupied Greece. In the ensuing years during their rule of North Africa, they introduced this dish to Tunisia. (Serves 12)

Ingredients:

  • 12 large sweet bell peppers (6 green and 6 red)
  • 4 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, finely chopped
  • 2 large cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 medium japaleño pepper, finely chopped
  • 3½ cups cooked chickpeas
  • 2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp crushed dried oregano
  • 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • ½ tsp ground allspice
  • 3 eggs, beaten

1) Cut out stem ends of the peppers but do not discard, remove the seeds and set aside. Heat oil in a medium-size frying pan and sauté onion, garlic, and hot pepper over medium heat for 8 minutes. Stir in the remaining ingredients, except eggs, then cover and cook for 10 minutes, stirring a few times and adding a little more water if necessary. Remove from heat and stir in eggs.

2) Stuff peppers with chickpea mixture and replace stem ends. Place in a large casserole and add 2 cups water. Cover and bake in a 350°F preheated oven for 50 minutes or until peppers are done.

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