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.
A trip to Tunisia would be nothing without tucking into a good couscous. Famous all over North Africa, what sets Tunisian couscous apart from its Moroccan or Algerian counterparts is the strength of its Berber origins. It goes back to the 12th century and was typically made by Berber families as an easy, inexpensive meal. The word is couscous derived from the Berber term kesksu, or well-rounded. And there’s no denying that. Tunisian couscous has everything; soft grains, hearty vegetables, a kick of spice and chunks of braised meat or fish. You’ll notice regional variations on couscous as you travel through Tunisia. In the north, where temperatures can drop in winter, they like a little extra warmth. In the south, fenugreek is sprinkled on the top.
Every Tunisian restaurant worth its salt makes a signature couscous. We like the light, mildly-salty version at Dar Slah in the capital, but even better is the delicious, fiery dish served by the chefs at El Brija in the holy city of Kairouan.
Like ketchup to hamburgers and hollandaise to eggs benedict, harissa is the binding spice of Tunisian cooking. Without it, there would be no brik, no couscous and no mloukhieh. It’s an omnipresent red chilli paste, loved by everyone from fishing families to ancient nobility. Harissa du Cap Bon is the Heinz of harissa; its bright yellow, 1950s style packaging has a place in every family kitchen. Some versions include mint, garlic or caraway seeds, but there’s no need to worry if you’re not into fire: it’s often diluted or mixed before being added to dishes.
If you make it to the desert island of Djerba, you’ll find mloukhieh on menus. It’s also served during the Muslim festival of Eid. Fortunately it’s a little easier to get your tongue around once it’s actually in your mouth. This is a lamb dish made with turmeric and Jew’s mallow – which tastes somewhat like spinach but is much darker in color. The resulting dish is a little like a pot roast, with crusty bits around the edges. Once you get to know it, it’s the perfect comfort food. Essofra (rue Taleb Mhiri, +216 98 281 049) on Djerba serves excellent mloukhieh.
A mildly sweet cream made from pine nuts, zgougou is often served as a dessert during parties and holidays. It’s ubiquitous during Eid and usually garnished with dried fruit and nuts. The art gallery and restaurant Foundouq Al Atterine in Tunis’ medina often has zgoulou on its lunchtime dessert menu.