On the edge of Tunis’ winding, ancient medina, there is a tiny, makeshift cafe. Walk past and you’d barely notice it. The décor is plain, the tables and chairs wooden and the soundtrack is nothing more than the chatter and laughter of the customers. It doesn’t even have a name. But the server, whose name is Ahmed, pours mint tea from great heights and likes to spill dozens of tips on where to find the best food and drink in all of Tunisia.
“We’re a small nation and we’re not known for our cuisine,” he confesses, joined by his wife for a short break between waiting tables. “When you think of North African gastronomy, you think Morocco, you think Egypt,” he says. Morocco’s tagines and couscous dishes get rave reviews, and Egypt is famed for its carb-heavy kushari — a bowl overloaded with pasta, dried onions, spiced tomato, rice and lentils. “But Tunisia,” Ahmed says, gesturing to the customers eating sweet, date-filled pastries around him, “is where the real culinary magic happens.”
Of course, Ahmed – who later admits he is the son of a well-known Tunisian chef – may be a little biased. But after centuries of influence from the Romans, the Byzantines, the Turks, the Spanish and the rest of the Arab world, Tunisian cuisine is having its moment in the sun. It mixes sweet and savory, it’s easy on the spice factor, and it’s rich, subtle and filling — and often all at once. So from the clatter of the Tunis medina and its promise of warm lamb couscous, to the fishermen’s dreams of Sousse and La Goulette, we set out to explore the very best in homegrown Tunisian cuisine.
Wafer thin and fried in olive oil, a classic Tunisian brik pastry is stuffed with warm gooey egg, tuna, onions, spicy harissa sauce and parsley. Chicken, beef, capers and cheese are often thrown into the mix. The most fearsome Tunisian mothers are famous for trying the brik test on their daughters’ boyfriends. According to tradition, if the man eats the brik without getting egg on his face, he’s marriage material. So if you find yourself tucking into an extra-runny brik, you might want to take the hint: her mother probably doesn’t think you’re up to scratch.
Recommendations for the best briks in Tunis fall into two camps: some love the cheap, street-stall pastries on offer in the medina. They’re authentic, greasy, fried on the spot, and you can take your pick from buckets laden with fillings. Others swear by the delicate briks at Tunis’ most upscale restaurants. Dar El Jeld and Dar Slah in the medina both do creative spins on the brik, while in the town of Sfax, the gastronomic champions at Restaurant Baghdad (63 Ave F. Hachad, +216 74 223 856) serve classic briks that are easy on the oil. In Hammamet, seafood restaurant Le Barberousse does a wonderful egg brik appetizer.
This spicy Tunisian winter soup could take on the best French fish soup from the other side of the Mediterranean. But while its French equivalent has a thick texture and a strong fishy taste, chorba is light and loose. Chefs take slices of sea bass, gray mullet or grouper, making a stock from it before adding vegetables. But the star ingredient is barley: that’s not grease you see on the skin of the soup, it’s the soft shimmer that barley brings. In the most upmarket spots, a pinch of saffron seals the deal.
For great chorba, head to the atmospheric Au Bon Vieux Temps in chic Sidi Bou Said, about a half hour’s drive from downtown Tunis. There, you can sit back on the terrace and tuck into chorba served in sculpted ceramic bowls. It’s enough to banish any hint of winter chill.