The Mediterranean countries include France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal along the north; Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel on the east; the African countries of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco on the south and the Mediterranean Island Countries of Cyprus and Malta. The Mediterranean countries utilize many of the same healthy ingredients but each country has a unique way of creating recipes with those same ingredients. So far in this series, I have written about Mediterranean cuisine in general and about the cuisine in the countries of Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, and Libya. This series continues with the country of Tunisia.
Tunisian cuisine is a combination of French, Arabic, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors. Seafood is eaten in the coastal communities and features recipes like fettuccine with fresh seafood and a green harissa dressing, grilled mullet with lemon and celery salad, and fricassee salad with grilled cedar plank salmon. The spicy paste harissa is a staple side to every Tunisian meal. It’s made from chilies, garlic, lemon and a combination of caraway, cumin and coriander seeds. Tunisian sweets are also impressive. Their doughnuts, called “yo-yos”, are soaked in honey, lemon syrup and orange blossom water.
The diverse blend of flavors in Tunisian cuisine is representative of the country’s past and location. While the cuisine varies by region, Tunisian food usually combines French and African flavors with spicy seasonings. Couscous, the main staple in Tunisian dishes, is often topped with fresh seafood or hearty lamb depending on local availability. A melting pot of cultures, Tunisia doesn’t just feature local food but all types of international cuisine can be found in the country’s larger cities.
Though the country’s Mediterranean climate and rich soil make it an ideal location for wine production, it’s often overlooked as a wine region. But Tunisia has a rich wine history and a modern cultivation of numerous grape varietals. Tunisians first began producing wine over 2,000 years ago, but Arab control in the eighth century nearly eliminated the practice. French colonization brought winemaking back to Tunisia in the late 1800s.
The Foods of Tunisia
Couscous is derived from semolina and is present on nearly every dinner table in Tunisia. Couscous is prepared in endless ways across the country. In coastal regions, cooks prefer to serve it with fish, while interior regions opt for lamb and dried fruit. A local favorite, Sfax Couscous, is named for Tunisia’s second largest city, which is filled with freshly caught seafood.
Briks are another staple and can be found in little shops throughout the country. Similar to a samosa, a brik is made from wrapping pastry dough around a variety of fillings, including potatoes, eggs, or tuna. The packets are then fried in grapeseed oil and served piping hot with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
A thick, spicy paste made from hot chili peppers and garlic, harissa is a condiment for grilled meats and fish or stirred into soups and stews for added flavor. It is often served as a dipping sauce alongside bread. Harissa’s heat level varies depending on the number and type of chili peppers used. The peppers are typically smoked to add a complex, deep flavor.
While typically a breakfast dish, ojja is often considered fast-food by Tunisian standards. Traditional ojja combine eggs and merguez, a spicy lamb sausage, in a savory tomato sauce for a hearty, filling meal. Ojja is served with a side of grilled bread in place of a spoon or fork.
Tunisians take dessert seriously and they are routinely served after a large evening meal and accompanied with mint tea. Some local desserts include sweet cakes, fried almond pastries, and ice cream. But the Tunisian doughnuts, YoYos, are the favorite.
The melding of many cultures and flavors is apparent in Tunisia’s most popular drink, sweet mint tea. Served hot or over ice, this beverage is topped with pine nuts, a twist of flavor and texture, especially for those not accustomed to nuts in their tea.
Tunisia has seven distinct controlled designation-of-origin regions known locally as AOCs (for their French name, appellation d’origine controlee). The naming of wine regions is modeled after the French, with whom Tunisia shares many of the same grape varietals, such as Muscat.
Sidi Saad is a wine blend of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Produced using traditional methods in the Gran Cru Mornag region, Sidi Saad is corked in a distinctively shaped bottle.
Gris de Tunisie
Gris de Tunisie, or grey Tunisian wine, is the country’s most famous and unique wine. The wine is a dusky rose in color and tastes like a fruity rosé. It is best served on hot days paired with a spicy seafood dish.
Chateau Mornag Rosé
Chateau Mornag Rosé is the country’s most popular. Produced in the Mornag area in Northern Tunisia, it is light, crisp and tastes best with the region’s Mediterranean-influenced cuisine.
Make Some Tunisian Recipes At Home
100 g dried long red chilies, seeded
½ teaspoon caraway seeds
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
100 ml extra-virgin olive oil
5 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt and pepper
Soaking time 1 hour and 30 minutes.
Place chilies in a bowl and pour over enough boiling water to cover. Place a small plate directly on top of chilies to keep them submerged then set aside for 1½ hours or until very soft. Drain well.
Meanwhile, heat a small frying pan over medium-low heat, add the spices and fry, stirring frequently, for 2 minutes. Finely grind spices in an electric spice grinder or a mortar and pestle. Combine the drained chilies, spices, 1 teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon pepper and the remaining ingredients in a small food processor. Process to a smooth paste, occasionally scraping down the sides. Push mixture through a food mill, extracting as much purée as possible; the solids should be dry. Transfer mixture to a sterilized jar and seal. Harissa will keep for up to 1 year stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Tunisian Chickpea Soup (Lablabi)
Tunisian breakfast. Capers, chopped almonds, chopped olives, yogurt and some mint can all be added at the end, and the soup is commonly served ladled over cubes of day old bread. Tuna is often added also.
100 ml extra virgin olive oil
2 onions, finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
Large pinch saffron
1 tablespoon harissa
2 liters (8 cups) chicken stock
4 (400g) cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
4 tomatoes, cut into large pieces
2 tablespoons white vinegar
4-6 eggs (depending on the number of servings)
Large handful coriander leaves
Slices of baguette, extra harissa, and lemon wedges, to serve
2 tbsp baby capers, drained
2 tbsp chopped blanched almonds
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring often, for 6 minutes or until softened. Add the cumin and coriander and saffron and cook, stirring, for another 3 minutes. Stir in the harissa then add the stock and chickpeas and bring to a simmer. Cover the pan then cook for 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook for another 3 minutes or until the tomatoes soften.
Bring a large saucepan of water to a simmer and add the vinegar. Crack each egg into a saucer then add them, one at a time, to the simmering water. Cook over medium heat for about 3 minutes or until the whites are set but the yolks are still runny. Carefully remove each using a slotted spoon to a tray lined with kitchen paper to drain excess water.
Divide the hot soup among large bowls. Place an egg in each bowl. Scatter over the coriander, capers, and almonds. Serve with the baguette, extra harissa, and lemon wedges to the side.
Broiled Red Mullet with Celery Salad
4 red mullets, cleaned (each 340 g net)
12 g mixed fresh bay leaves, rosemary, and thyme
2 teaspoons cumin seeds, crushed using a mortar and pestle
1½ tablespoons olive oil
1½ teaspoon salt
Lemon and Celery Salad
4 long, thin green capsicum (peppers), or 1 regular green capsicum (pepper) (140 g gross)
50 ml olive oil
1 lemon, peeled, seeded and cut into 1 cm dice (35 g net)
3 tender celery stalks, cut into 1 cm dice (120 g net)
10 g tender celery leaves, finely chopped
15 g parsley leaves, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
30 g black olives, pitted
½ teaspoon dried red chili flakes
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sumac
To make the salad, place the capsicum in a baking dish. Drizzle with 2 teaspoons of the oil and roast in a 400 degree F oven for 10 minutes ( or longer for regular capsicum), or until the skin is blistered and the flesh is soft. Transfer to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Once cool enough to handle, peel, cut into 1 cm dice and place in a large bowl. Add the remaining olive oil, the lemon, celery, and leaves, parsley, garlic, olives, chili flakes, and salt. Stir well and set aside.
Score the red mullet 2–3 times on each side in parallel lines at a 45-degree angle to the fish. Slice the bay leaves into fine strips and stuff into the incisions, followed by each of the other herbs. Place the fish on a baking tray lined with foil. In a small bowl, mix together the cumin, olive oil and salt. Drizzle or brush this over the fish.
Preheat a broiler on high. Once hot, place the fish underneath and cook for about 6 minutes on each side, or until the flesh is firm and cooked through. Serve the fish with the salad on the side, garnished with sumac.
Tunisian Doughnuts (yo-yos)
7 g sachet dried yeast
1 tablespoon white sugar
60 ml (¼ cup) orange juice
1 orange, zested
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus extra, to deep-fry
300 g (2 cups) plain flour, sifted
2 tablespoons lemon juice
110 g (½ cup) white sugar
360 g (1 cup) honey
2 teaspoons orange blossom water, optional
Place yeast, sugar and 125 ml (½ cup) lukewarm water in a bowl and stir to combine. Set aside for 10 minutes or until the mixture bubbles. Add orange juice, zest, and 2 tablespoons oil, and stir to combine. Place flour and a pinch of salt in a large bowl and make a well in the center. Pour yeast mixture into the well and stir until combined.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for 5 minutes or until smooth and elastic. (Alternatively, use an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook.) Place dough in a greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Set aside in a warm, draught-free place for 2 hours or until the dough doubles in size.
To make the honey syrup, place the lemon juice, sugar and 250 ml (1 cup) water in a pan over medium heat and stir until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat to high and bring to the boil. Add honey and orange blossom water, if using, then reduce the heat to low–medium and cook the mixture for 35 minutes or until the consistency of a runny honey; watch syrup to make sure it doesn’t boil over. Transfer to a large bowl and cool.
Fill a deep-fryer or large pan one-third full with oil and heat over medium heat to 180°C (or until a cube of bread turns golden in 15 seconds). Working in batches, tear off a piece of dough about the size of a plum and flatten slightly with your hand. Tear a hole in the middle and stretch the dough to make a 12–15cm ring. Gently drop the dough into the oil and deep-fry, turning halfway, for 4 minutes or until crisp, golden and cooked through. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
Using a skewer, pierce yo-yos on both sides, then soak in honey syrup for 4 minutes on each side. Serve immediately.