In The Kitchen — Travel: Tunisia’s Paradise

A Tunisian Feast Ends Our Trip to Djerba Island

In The Kitchen — Travel: Tunisia’s Paradise

Story & Photos By Habeeb Salloum, A Taste of Homesteading Around The World

The taxi driver, Ahmad, was talkative as we drove through the beautiful countryside of the Island of Djerba, known to many travelers as the paradise isle of Tunisia. As far as the eye could see attractive glimmering white buildings were smothered in swaying date palm trees and orchards. It was a picture-perfect post card scene—more enchanting than images painted by an artist’s brush.

Ahmad, watching me gaze at the panorama of color asked, “Is the country from where you come like Djerba?”

“Not at all! This lush greenery I only saw in books or in my dreams,” I absentmindedly answered as my thoughts went back to my youth on our farm in the southwest Saskatchewan prairies during the 1930s. In those years I often sat by the living room window gazing out where the wind blowing the sand mixed with Russian thistles filled the atmosphere, wondering whether there was a better life beyond. It was only in the year 1935 that crops grew and fields of green wheat stretched as far as the eye could see. This was the only time that I saw color during those depression years. Now on this paradise isle the sand storms were in another world.

No different from Ulysses, who some authors have described as Djerba’s first tourist, a traveller will find the people of this Tunisian isle friendly and hospitable. From the first day of a visit, the delightful charms of Djerba, sometimes referred to as the ‘Isle of Forgetfulness’, will hold most travellers spellbound.

According to Greek mythology, Djerba was the home of the seductive lotus-eaters. In Homer’s Odyssey, Ulysses almost lost his men when the beautiful maidens of the island fed them the lotus flower. The men were so pleasantly intoxicated by the lotus that Ulysses found it almost impossible to make them return to their ships.

Yet, even if this story is only a fable, Djerba has, for many centuries, enraptured travellers who have been lucky enough to land on its shores. A veritable floating garden, rising from the sea like a mirage, the island’s spell of forgetfulness which supposedly entrapped visitors in ancient times, has not faded with the passing centuries. It is said that Djerba is a land of dreams, created by nature to enchant the imagination of the human soul.

In Djerba’s Phoenician and Roman periods, the island and its principal town were known by the Phoenician name of Meninx whose ruins are found near the four miles of re-built Phoenician based Roman causeway, which joins the island to the mainland. After the Muslim conquest, Djerba became the haven for an Islamic sect, known as Kharidjite, which today, in its present form, only exists on this island.

During the Middle Ages, the people of the island withstood the most powerful and ruthless rulers of Mediterranean Europe. From the 12th to the 16th centuries, they fought almost continuously, usually against the Spaniards, but at times against the united kings of Christendom.

Djerba is a flat, 238-square-mile island situated off the southern coast of Tunisia, not far from the Libyan border. More than 145,000 inhabitants, mostly of Berber origin, live on this isle of mythology. Its 83 miles of shoreline abounds with sandy-white beaches, gently lapped by the warm-azure waters of the Mediterranean

Covered with trees and flowers, the island is in reality one huge oasis covered with more than one million date palms and 700,000 olive trees, some more than 3,000 years old. In between, small fields of apricots, carobs, figs, grapes, grenadines, lemons, mandarins, oranges and pomegranates cover almost every empty space. Only travellers dreaming of Djerba’s mythology are usually disappointed, nowhere is the fabled lotus fruit to be found.

Here and there amid these fields, watered from some 2,700 wells, are the breathtaking white, small villages and isolated homes. The striking white houses, known as menzels, and their architecture, unique to the island, appear like white jewels, sprinkled between the greenery. Their rounded domes and bright snowy color, embellished by sky-blue wrought iron trimmings, sparkle in the sunlight and give the buildings an appealing charm. Inside, there are clean courtyards filled with trees and flowers. Set amid these fairy-tale buildings are found 200 eye-catching small mosques, many of which were built originally as fortresses to ward off invaders.

Enhancing these and other villages, are Djerba’s annual 300 days of sunshine and warm blue waters with their cooling breezes, edging glittering sands, embellished by the many attractive and comfortable modern hotels with the most up-to-date tourist facilities. Without disturbing the calm and peace, 125 of these eye-catching tourist palaces built in traditional menzel style, fit neatly into the palm-saturated landscape. Nature and the structures built by man have merged together to strengthen the island’s magical spell.

These attractive and comfortable hotels, hospitable and friendly people with a slow-moving lifestyle, breathtaking countryside, mild winters, cool summers and tantalizing sea, make Djerba one of Tunisia’s most popular tourist spots especially for Europeans since it is on their doorstep.

With the softness of its sweet-serene air, perfumed by the flowers of the many fruit trees, overshadowed by a clear blue sky and ringed by golden sands, this paradise isle entraps even the most sceptical visitor.

Sad to say, unlike Ulysses we did not meet the beautiful maidens with their lotus flowers before ending our tour at the city of Oumt-Souk or “Market Center”. With a population of 45,000, it is the capital of the island and one of the most picturesque urban centers in Tunisia. It is a well-kept bright town centered on the souk area, overflowing with handicraft products. Traditional clothing, blankets woven since the time of Hannibal, beautifully wrought gold and silver jewellery; leather goods, straw mats and beautiful pottery saturate the markets.

In town, two of the most important usual stopovers for visitors are the Museum of Folklore and Popular Art, displaying traditional costumes and jewellery; and the historic fortress of Borj el-Kebir, a 15th century Arab citadel. Interesting to many tourists is the plaque nearby marking the spot where 5,000 skulls of a Spanish defeat were once piled pyramid style.

We barely had time to examine the numerous handicrafts offered in the endless shops as a colleague had invited me to a Tunisian feast that evening along with some other friends.

As I was ushered to my seat at his home, I was overcome by the food and aroma that represented the best of Tunisia’s traditional food-culture. The table was overflowing with plates of mechouia (grilled vegetable salad), briks (fried pastry stuffed with meat, cheese and eggs), shakshouka (a fried vegetable dish), doulma (stuffed zucchini), kamounia (a liver and meat dish flavoured with cumin), mechoui (seasoned barbecued lamb), and couscous. This was truly a royal feast.

In the usual Arab fashion, our host urged his guests on as we savored dish after dish, each tastier than the next. While we dined, in the background soft strains of Andalusian-Arab music put us at ease. The soothing melodies and the subtle spicy taste of the colorful food created a happy and relaxing atmosphere at our friend’s hospitable table.

Tunisian
Traditional Tunisian clothing.

Maqruds, date-filled squares dipped in honey, and samsa, a flaky almond and sesame seed pastry accompanied by mint tea ended this feast of culinary perfection.

Throughout the following days, we travelled to many parts of the country and sampled, in the people’s restaurants, the delectable delights of the traditional foods. These were unforgettable home-cooked meals and the epitome of our exploration into the Tunisian kitchen.

Tunisian cuisine is neither western nor oriental but a mixture of the two. It has borrowed a great deal from its neighboring countries, and preserved much from its past. From this blend of numerous cultures, Tunisian cooking has evolved into a world of exciting and unique culinary pleasures. The country’s succulent, sapid dishes are spiced with caraway, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, hot peppers, thyme and saffron, and artistically arranged to make them pleasing to both eye and taste.

Unlike Middle Eastern and North African cuisine, with the exception of the Libyan kitchen, 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.

Once newcomers to Tunisia become familiar with the tempting foods of that land, they will ask for them again and again. Enjoying a slightly peppery brik in one of the many small corner cafes or munching on dainty pastries after a spicy meal are culinary adventures tourists rarely forget.

Tunisia as a travel and gourmet destination is at the top of my list of favorites. Its history has made it a nucleus of its ancient past, its Andalusian history, its colonial era, and its modernization into the 21st century. It has moved with the times but retained its traditional cuisine reflecting the nation’s past glories and giving the country its gastronomical trademark.

Tunisian cuisine can become an obsession. For this reason, I have provided the following recipes that truly reflect the richness of the country’s culinary heritage adapted according to my taste. What you will experience is a glimpse into what this white and blue country has to offer the world.

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Hot Red Pepper Sauce (Hareesa)

This sauce is served with every meal in Tunisia. It is an excellent condiment for those who like their food fiery hot. For an added taste of heat a little hareesa to any soup, salad or entrée will do the trick.

• 1/2 cup fresh ground cayenne pepper
• 1/4 cup freshly ground cumin
• 1/2 cup olive oil
• 5 cloves garlic, crushed
• 2 tablespoons ground caraway
• 2 tablespoons salt

Thoroughly mix all ingredients. Pour into a jar with a tight fitting lid. Cover and refrigerate and use as needed.

Note: Enough hareesa can be added to the entrées which follow to make them fiery hot to taste.

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Grilled Vegetable Salad (Mechouia)

Mechouia

SERVES ABOUT 8

• 2 large red bell peppers
• 4 medium firm tomatoes
• 3 medium onions
• 1 small hot pepper
• 3 tablespoons lemon juice
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon oregano
• 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
• 1 can tuna (7 ounces)
• 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
• 2 hard boiled eggs, chopped

Grill red peppers, tomatoes, onions and hot pepper in an oven, turning them over once or twice until they become soft, (onions need a longer time to grill), then allow to cool. Chop into small pieces, removing the seeds from the peppers in the process, then place on a flat serving plate and stir in lemon juice, oil, salt, oregano and pepper.

Spread tuna, cheese and egg in that order evenly over the top, then serve.

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Potato and Anchovy Salad

Potato and Anchovy Salad

SERVES ABOUT 8

• 8 medium sized potatoes, washed
• 1 small can anchovies (1.75 ounces), cut into very small pieces
• 3 hard boiled eggs, chopped
• 4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves (cilantro)
• 2 garlic cloves, crushed
• 4 tablespoons lemon juice
• 5 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
• 1/4 cup pitted green olives, sliced in half

Place potatoes in a saucepan and cover with water, then cook over medium heat until they are done but still firm.

Allow to cool, then peel and dice into 3/4-inch cubes. Place in a salad bowl, then add remaining ingredients, except olives, and gently toss. Garnish with olives just before serving.

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Fried Vegetable and Eggs (Shakshuuka)

Fried Vegetable and Eggs (Shakshuuka)

SERVES ABOUT 8

• 4 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 large green bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped
• 2 medium onions, finely chopped
• 6 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
• 1 small hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped
• 4 cloves garlic, crushed
• 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
• 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
• 1/2 teaspoon ground caraway seed
• 1/2 teaspoon cumin
• 6 eggs

Heat oil in a frying pan, then add remaining ingredients, except the eggs. Cover, then cook over medium heat for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. Break eggs over the top, then re-cover and cook over low heat for a further 10 minutes. Serve while still hot.

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Tunisian Spaghetti (Ma’caruuna bi-l Salsa)

SERVES 6 TO 8

Tunisia, located only 100 miles from Italy, became a colony for continual waves of Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, Spaniards, Turks, the French, and the Italians, all having had an influence in shaping Tunisia’s diverse and savory cuisine. Tunisian Spaghetti, Italy’s contribution to this North African country’s cuisine, is a very popular, tasty and filling meal, fairly quick and easy to prepare.

• 1/4 cup olive oil
• 1 1/2 pounds lamb or beef, cut into large pieces
• 1/4 cup finely chopped coriander leaves (cilantro)
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
• 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
• 1 teaspoon allspice
• 4 bay leaves
• 4 garlic cloves, crushed
• 1 can tomato paste (5.5 ounces), diluted in 2 cups water
• 3/4 cup tomato sauce
• 2 cups water
• 1 pound (454 g) package of spaghetti

In a saucepan, heat the oil, and then add the meat and sauté over medium until it begins to brown.

Stir in the coriander and sauté for two minutes, and then add the salt, pepper, cayenne, allspice, bay leaves, garlic, the diluted tomato paste, tomato sauce, and the water. Cover the saucepan and cook over low heat for about 1 hour or until the meat is cooked. Remove the bay leaves, turn off the heat but keep warm.

In another saucepan, cook spaghetti according to package directions. Drain then mix with the sauce.

Serve immediately.

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Tunisian Meat and Egg Pie (Brik)

Tunisian Meat and Egg Pie (Brik)

MAKES 12 INDIVIDUAL PIES

Briks are as popular in Tunisia as hamburgers are in North America. They are sold in small restaurants and are commonly made and eaten daily at home. A crispy turnover it serves as a good main dish, and even more, a tasty one.

• 1 large egg
• 4 tablespoons butter
• 1/2 pound lean ground beef or lamb
• 1 medium onion, finely chopped
• 2 cloves garlic, crushed
• 4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves (cilantro)
• 1 small hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon cumin
• 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon allspice
• 1/2 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
• 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
• 24 sheets of filo dough
• 1/4 butter, melted
• 12 small eggs
• Oil for frying

Beat the large egg in a small bowl then set aside.

Prepare filling by melting butter in a frying pan, then sauté meat over medium heat for 5 minutes. Stir in onion, garlic, coriander leaves, hot pepper, salt, cumin, cinnamon, allspice and pepper, then stir-fry for 10 minutes or until meat is cooked. Remove from heat, then stir in cheese and set aside to cool. Divide into 12 equal portions.

Place oil in frying pan to about 1/2-inch deep then heat over medium.

Take a sheet of filo dough, brush edges lightly with melted butter then place another sheet of filo dough on top. Fold twice then slightly fold the ends in on 2 sides to make a square. Place 1 portion of the filling in the centre and make a well in the filling. Lightly brush edges of square with beaten egg then break one egg into the well. Fold 2 ends of the square to make a triangle then press the edges together to seal. Carefully slide brik into hot oil and fry for about 30 seconds or until golden on one side. Turn over gently using 2 spatulas and cook on other side until golden, about 30 seconds. Carefully lift brik from oil and place on paper towel to drain excess oil. Let rest for a minute then transfer to serving platter. Repeat the process until all the briks are done.

Serve immediately.

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Tunisian Almond and Sesame Seed Pastry (Samsa)

Tunisian Almond and Sesame Seed Pastry (Samsa)

MAKES 24 PIECES

Many of the delicious desserts of North Africa have their origin in Al-Andalus, the Arab created earthly paradise in the Iberian Peninsula. One has to only read Ibn Razeen at-Tujeebee’s 13th century culinary work entitled Fadaalat-al-Khiwaan fee Tayyibaat at-Ta`aam wa al-Alwaan to know that the sweets North Africans prepare today had a history in Arab Andalusia.

• 1 1/2 cups sugar
• 2/3 cup water
• 2 tablespoons lemon juice
• 2 tablespoons orange blossom water
• 1 1/2 cups almonds, blanched
• 1 1/2 cups white sesame seeds
• 1 1/2 cups clarified butter
• 1 package (1 pound or 454 grams) filo dough

To prepare the syrup, in a saucepan, stir together the sugar and water and bring to boil. Lower heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the lemon juice and continuing cooking for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the orange blossom water. Let cool.

Spread almonds and sesame seeds evenly on a large shallow pan. Bake until they turn light brown, stirring occasionally so that they brown evenly. Pulverize browned almonds and sesame seeds in a processor, then set aside.

In a well-buttered 9- by 13-inch baking pan, place 1 sheet of baklawa dough, then brush lightly with butter. Repeat procedure until 1/3 of the sheets are used.

Spread 1/2 of almond and sesame seed mixture on the baklawa dough, then add another 1/3 of dough, sheet by sheet, buttering them as before. Spread remaining almond and sesame seed mixture on the dough, then cover with the remaining 1/3 of the dough, buttering sheet by sheet as before. Brush top with remaining butter, then with a sharp knife carefully cut into 2-inch squares or diamond shapes.

Bake in a preheated oven of 400°F for 5 minutes, then lower heat to 300°F and bake for approximately 40 minutes, or until the sides turn to light shade of brown.

Before removing samsa from oven, place under broiler for a few moments, turning tray around until top is evenly golden. Remove from oven, then pour syrup evenly over top of hot samsa. Let cool then serve.

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Habeeb Salloum
Habeeb Salloum

The World Tour — Join HABEEB SALLOUM as he takes us around the world to six continents, describes their homesteading culture in every city he visits, and presents us recipes from the region.

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