If you love tasty food then you’re in for a treat in Tunisia. The country combines the best of Arabic cooking with a healthy influence from the many years of French rule. You can have fish fresh from the sea and grilled to perfection, a wide variety of good fruit and vegetables, mouthwatering if fattening pastries, and all washed down with the surprisingly good Tunisian wine.
Most restaurants will place a complimentary selection of two or three starters on your table, which will usually include olives, bread, perhaps some ham, cheese or tuna, and almost certainly harissa. This red sauce made from tomatoes, onions, garlic and crushed red chillis is found everywhere, and is a Tunisian favourite. It is delicious, and tourist restaurants often offer a milder version to their guests, but always try a small amount first to gauge how hot it is.
Another favourite is michouia, which is a mixture of cooked vegetables usually with tuna, boiled egg, olives and other embellishments, all served cold. A salade Tunisienne is like a salade Niçoise (tomatoes, onions, tuna, egg) and chorba is a peppery soup.
The National Dish
This is couscous, which are actually semolina granules. Couscous is a grain which is said to date back to the ancient Berbers and is capable of being served in over 300 different ways. It’s steamed over, and usually served with, a stew of lamb, veal or fish, and the Tunisians generally eat it with harissa, a spicy chili sauce. You might want to try just a little harissa first, in case it’s too spicy for you as some types are so hot they’ll bring the tears to your eyes. If you develop a taste for couscous then look out for a couscoussier to take back home, the traditional dish that it’s cooked in.
Lamb is the main meat served in Tunisia, and there may well be 300 ways of cooking this too. You could try coucha, if you see it on a menu: this is shoulder of lamb that’s been rubbed in olive oil, salt, pepper, mint and turmeric, and baked slowly in the oven in a sealed earthenware dish. When done it is tender and totally delicious.
Fresh fish is everywhere in Tunisia, and cheap when you compare it to the prices you would pay back home. This, then, is your chance to try red mullet, sea bass, tuna, grouper, perch, sole, simple sardines or squid. Shrimps, prawns and lobster are common too.
Try a Brik
If someone invites you to chew on a brik, then take it. This is another Tunisian speciality, a paper-thin pastry that usually contains an egg with some chopped parsley and meat or fish, frequently tinned tuna. It’s then fried and eaten as a snack or an appetiser.
Some Other Common Dishes
Merguez and mechoui are two more common dishes. The former are spicy little sausages usually made from beef or mutton with red chilli, and the redness of the sausage is an indication of just how spicy they might be. Mechoui is also spicy but in this case is grilled meat, often lamb, served with peppers and capers. Ojjas are boiled eggs served with meat and peppers, and chakchouka is a Tunisian ratatouille which normally has veal in it. Other grilled and stewed meats are very common too. Vegetarians will not starve as there are many suitable dishes, but always ask as sometimes what sounds like a vegetable dish might have pieces of minced or other meat in it.
Tunisian desserts are not very sophisticated, and usually very sweet indeed, such as baklava (pastry with honey and nuts), loukoum (Turkish delight), halva (sweet sesame-seed concoction) and magroudha (semolina and dates, baked and covered in honey). However, there is plenty of fresh fruit too, such as oranges, grapes, melons, dates, pomegranates, medlars, cherries, apricots, plums and many more. Obviously availability is seasonal, and sometimes in early Spring there may not be too much choice, but once the harvests start it’ll be rich pickings for the fruit lovers. You can stock up in the markets, although don’t forget to give the fruit a good wash before eating it, unless it has a thick peel on it.