Adapting to Tunisian Food

Tunisian cuisine can be more or less described in one word: harissa. The basic ingredients of harissa are dried hot chili peppers rehydrated in oil, to which various seasonings, including garlic, cumin, salt, etc., can optionally be added. Wiktionary remarks helpfully that harissa is “used both as a condiment and an ingredient,” which pretty much says it all. Tunisians are fond of a soup that seems to consist entirely of watered-down harissa. If you don’t stop them, they will spread it liberally on any of their myriad types of sandwiches. Axa even claims to have seen someone putting it on pizza. Tony has taken a fantastic liking to harissa, which he prefers to purchase from the homemade vats available at each little corner store. Yesterday, I finally banned his collection of plastic-bagged harissa from the refrigerator, since I was tired of harissa-flavored butter (and everything else). I like harissa too, but after a while I find that it has a deadening effect on any other flavors in the dish that you’re attempting to condiment with it (or perhaps that’s just my tastebuds being deadened).

In any case, I admit that the harissa fest was somewhat of a letdown for me, since I was hoping Tunisian food would resemble the rich complexity of Moroccan cuisine. I’m trying to learn to appreciate it on its own merits. Still, when I made my first couscous the other day (well, my first couscous in Tunisia), I used a Moroccan recipe. It just so happened that the General and his wife (our landlords) were visiting on the day I made it. She had previously explained to me the use of the couscous pot, which consists of a tall stew-pot underneath with a specialized couscous steamer on top. I was a little dubious about the steamer, which has holes that look far too large for couscous. But by some miracle of physics unknown to me, only a minimal amount of the tiny couscous fell through the holes into the stew beneath. I guess the steam holds it up? Still, after over an hour of sitting on top of a simmering stew, my couscous was as dry as ever. I decided to ask my conveniently present landlady if I was doing it right, since I had cooked couscous before in a less authentic fashion, and it took all of five minutes (not that I was about to admit that to her, however). She explained to me that the couscous needs to be periodically taken out of the pan, poured into a shallow receptacle, sprinkled with water, and then stirred until it is uniformly moist. In fact, she informed me that I was supposed to have done this in the beginning, but with oil, to prevent the couscous from sticking together. Great. This was starting to look like a Tunisian version of The Ten Commandments of Pasta. After we had done this together three times (the third time using the sauce from the simmering stew beneath rather than water), we let the couscous cook for another fifteen minutes or so. She came outside to tell me it was done. Al dente couscous. Who knew? It ended up a little crunchy for my taste. I think I’ll cook it my old way next time (by stirring in boiling water and letting it sit for five minutes. Gasp!). Shh. Don’t tell.

My dear landlady was very diplomatic about the stew for the couscous. She said it smelled good, although she remarked that they never used cinnamon. I hastily and deferentially explained that I had gotten the recipe off the internet, and thought it might be a Moroccan recipe (I didn’t have the heart to say that I’d used a Moroccan recipe on purpose). She raised her eyebrows at the raisins too, and pointed out the recipe for Tunisian couscous (in French) on the couscous bag, which I had barely glanced at initially, since I thought it just told how to steam the couscous, which didn’t seem hard at all to me. How wrong I was! In the end, she concluded that she would buy me a proper Tunisian cookbook. In English.

Personally, I really liked my Moroccan couscous. The lamb was fall-off-the-bone tender, and the raisins and cinnamon added just the right hint of sweetness. You can make it yourself from this recipe off the BBC website. I couldn’t find some of the Moroccan ingredients, either because they don’t exist here or because I didn’t look them up in French and Arabic before I sent my husband shopping for them. For instance, he brought home what looked like paprika. Luckily, I tasted it before I added it, and it turned out to be a much hotter pepperish thing than paprika, just as I had suspected. And ginger he could not find at all, nor dried apricots. I compensated by adding orange juice and coriander seed. And I was so flustered about the presence of my landlady that I completely forgot the almonds, dates, and coriander (they actually mean cilantro leaves) mentioned in the recipe. I’d recommend the original recipe over my inadvertent modifications, though. In fact, I’m making it again today with the proper ingredients for a potluck dinner (to be attended only by Americans, don’t worry).

The ubiquitousness of cilantro here makes me excited about the possibility of making some proper Mexican food, which we rather missed in Italy. In fact, a shawarma sandwich here is not that far off from an asada burrito in San Diego . . . although sadly avocados might as well be growing on the moon for their availability here.

One final funny note on my couscous recipe is this: You’ll notice that the recipe calls it tagine, which is the Moroccan word for the fragrant stew you pour over couscous, as well as for the picturesque peaked ceramic pots in which it is cooked (or at least served). But in Tunisia, a tagine is a potato omelet that resembles the Spanish potato-egg tortilla. Whereas in Mexico, a tortilla is a round, flat bread made out of corn and cooked on a griddle . . . I wonder how many cases of confusion and disappointed (or pleasantly surprised) tastebuds this little collection of international equivocations has caused?

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