Dining Out in Post-Revolutionary Tunisia

Patrizia Schlosser, DPA, October 4, 2011

Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution, which saw President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali forced out by popular protest, dealt a body blow to tourism in the North African country. For many months afterwards hotels remained empty and the beaches were deserted.

At the same time, the political upheaval opened up a host of new opportunities and visitors are now able to see more of the country and its culture than ever before. "There is certainly plenty of interest from people keen to get to know the new Tunisia," said Andrea Philippi of the Tunisian Tourist Office in Frankfurt, Germany. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by sampling the local culinary delights.

Visitors who drag themselves away from the hotel buffet will find stimulating cuisine, a blend of cooking which combines recipes from the traditional desert dwellers and the Mediterranean. The town of Boumerdes, just a few hours' drive from Hammamet, is a prime example of a place where holidaymakers can enter this new culinary cosmos.

At a typical village celebration women clad in colourful local costume offer all manner of specialities. Rafik Tlatli, Tunisia's best-known chef, can also be found dashing between the booths. The acknowledged expert on all things tasty in Tunisia samples everything from ragouts to couscous and baked macaroni -- the geographical proximity to Italy saw pasta imported to Tunisia centuries ago.

Orange and red are the dominant colours of Tunisia's sunshine cuisine. "We use a lot of tomatoes and paprika in Tunisia," said Tlati. "Put it this way, if the meal is not red your average Tunisian won't touch it." Here lies one of the main differences between Tunisia and its neighbours. Tunisian cuisine is notably spicier than in other North African lands, thanks to the popular condiment harissa, a thick chilli sauce which gives every dish a fiery note.

Fortunately, Tlatli understands the delicacy of the European palate and food prepared for foreign guests is often toned down. As a young man a scholarship took Tlati to the German city of Dortmund where he studied hotel management. "Since I've been back home again I have been trying to ensure that the understanding of traditional Tunisian cooking is kept alive," he said.

Armed with a pair of kitchen scales, a video camera and a notebook, Tlati persuades housewives to part with their kitchen secrets. In his restaurant "Slovenia" in the coastal town of Nabeul the star chef uses the knowledge to create crossover-dishes such as cassoulet, a mixture of couscous and Spanish paella with seafood ingredients.

"If our cuisine is to appeal to foreign visitors we must get away from the mass tourism approach," said Viktoria Hassouna. Along with her Tunisian husband, the 45-year-old German runs the organic olive tree plantation "Ksar Ezzit." It lies in the interior of the country, around two hours by car from Hammamet.

A typical meal at Hassouna's restaurant might begin with goat's cheese followed by a slata mechouia, a Tunisian salad with grilled green peppers, tomatoes and garlic. Next off is a great-tasting classic egg recipe called shakshuka -- Tunisian poached eggs in tomato sauce. Tunisians have other versions of the famous dish, which includes potatoes, cauliflowers, carrots, and salami. After all, shakshuka means "to mix it all up" and there are many ways of preparing it.

Pomegranates in rose water are served as a dessert. Accompanying all the courses is tabouna, a traditional bread which is fire-baked in a cylindrical oven. Visitors to the organic farm and hostelry "Dar Zaghouan" near Hammamet can watch the process and knead dough themselves.

The baking mixture for the unleavened bread consists of wheat semolina, yeast, caraway seeds and black sesame to which water and olive oil are added. Once the tabouna oven is glowing, the moist, flat breads are slapped on to the insides. Within minutes the dough expands and a crust forms. Add a portion of slata mechouia and you have the perfect light meal.

Tunisia's capital seems to consist of two entirely different worlds, a modern part and the old quarter of town, the so-called Medina. The contrast is reflected too in the food.

For trendy young Tunisian revolutionaries, it is cool to munch a crepe at one of the French-influenced establishments such as the Grand Cafe du Theatre. In the souks things are more traditional. The stands are piled high with elaborate heaps of spices and the air is pervaded by the fragrance of rose leaves and herbs.

Instead of wrangling over the price of cheap souvenirs in the old part of the town visitors should look out for some of the Medina specialities. An invigorating meal for tourists inclined to get lost in the myriad alleyways hereabouts is a steaming bowl of lablabi. The chickpea soup is served with small pieces of bread and goes down well with some date-filled makroudh pastry as dessert.

Offal, such a tripe and beef liver spiced with cinnamon, is a traditional staple of Tunisian cuisine too along with sheep's head or scrambled egg with lamb brains. Such hearty meals may not be to every visitor's taste but those who try them will find that an oriental mint tea is a welcome aid to digestion.