Tunisian Food Revisited

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Well, perhaps I was a bit hasty in my first blush assessment of Tunisian food. I think I can partially blame it on moving here directly from Italy. Sudden withdrawal from the consistently elegant simplicity of Italian food is bound to cause some degree of culinary culture shock, no matter which cuisine replaces it. However, during the past month, my perception of Tunisian food has undergone something of a rehabilitation.

First, there’s the fish. The Roman mosaics are full of fish, whether they’re appearing in Neptune’s train or being caught in nets by down-to-earth fisherman in little boats. And the Tunisians of today are just as enamored of the bounty of the sea. They don’t do anything fancy with it, just grill or pan-fry it, or put it in couscous. But the fish is so universally fresh and good that it’s nice to eat just like that. The only item of pescatory origin that I’m not too crazy about is the dryish canned tuna that gets sprinkled on everything here.

And then there is briq, paper-thin pastry wrapped around an egg, spiced with parsley, onion, capers, and the ubiquitous tuna (or if you’re lucky, shrimp), and then fried. I think it may be the best Tunisian street food, although you have to be careful to not “spill” the egg yolk on yourself.

But let me tell you about my latest epicurean fetish: ojja. For the first few months we were here, I would see ojja on menus everywhere, but was afraid to order it because I had no idea what it was. It wasn’t like other dishes like meshouia (another absolutely delicious typical Tunisian dish), which on the multilingual menus here is sometimes just transliterated, but at other times labeled “salade grillée,” which I can pretty much figure out, or even “grilled salad.” Ojja is always just ojja, no matter which language or alphabet. And what does ojja sound like to you? I was afraid it was something like brains of some strange animal, or pickled fennel, or squid-with-ink-sauce. The other day, Tony and I were speculating yet again on what ojja could possibly be. The waiter of the little sidewalk restaurant where we were eating (who was also I think the owner, and the only person present besides us) must have overheard us, because when he brought out our food he also brought out a little dish of–you guessed it–ojja!

It wasn’t immediately apparent what it was, but we tried a bite, and then another, and then quickly finished off the whole thing. Yes, we like it, Sam I am. Ojja is just eggs lightly poached in a spicy tomato-ish sauce. It doesn’t sound like much, but it is yummy. The funny thing is, I used to make a similar North African dish called chakchouka. But somehow, my canned-tomato, harissa-less recipe (to which I refused to add bell peppers because I didn’t like them at the time) left something to be desired. I would always pick out the egg and not be able to eat most of the tomatoes (I should have just stuck to making poached eggs, maybe). Now that I’ve had the real thing, here’s a recipe I’m planning to try. I’ve had it both with merguez (Tunisian sausage) and without, and both were delicious. Next I’d like to try it with shrimp.

This week we also celebrated solidarity with Libya by having Aubergine-wrapped Kufta in Tomato Sauce. Doesn’t “aubergine” sound so much more classy than “eggplant”? It turned out to be a tasty variation on Moussaka, which is a sort of cinnamon-y Greek lasagne with roasted eggplant substituted for pasta, and one of our all-time family favorites. Sadly, I have actually never, ever made Moussaka with ground lamb (let’s face it, in the U.S. lamb is too expensive to grind up). The lamb Kufta was delicious, and now I’m going to have to make Moussaka with lamb too, rather than our usual ground beef. As soon as I get around to psyching myself up to do all the work that is eggplant again, that is.

And one final discovery: In Italy, I would pop a little pancetta or prosciutto into quite a few dishes. Unfortunately, pork is not a huge item in Tunisia, and they’re not really into curing meats either. So I’m left high and dry with several recipes, including my favorite Tuscan White Bean Minestrone, left over from our Florence days. I always put pancetta in it instead of the bacon (because pancetta is a sort of sublime Italian version of bacon). I wanted to make it here, so I went hunting online for a suitable substitute for bacon. Most of the suggestions were various other types of cured pork, none of which are easy to find here. So I tried looking for a vegetarian version. Fake bacon bits was a no-go as far as I was concerned. And tofu smoked, frozen, marinated, cut into cubes, and then baked (I kid you not! Someone actually suggested this) sounded like a lot of work, gross, and not readily available in Tunisia either. Then I hit the jackpot: full-flavored olives. If there is anything readily available in Tunisia, it is good olives. You know that expensive, trendy olive bar at the upscale natural grocery store? We have it here too, only it’s in a tiny little corner shop, and all the olives are in ghetto tin cans. I selected some rich, fruity already-sliced black ones (wimpy, I know! But I don’t have an automatic olive-pitter, and I didn’t feel like hacking olives off the pit with a paring knife. Does anyone know a better way?). And they went perfectly. The taste was different from when I make it with pancetta, but equally nice. In fact, it suddenly bore quite a resemblance to my mom’s White Bean Black Olive Soup. I know. Sometimes you have to travel all around the world to finally rediscover home.