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Tunisia - Cooking and Food Edit

Overview of Tunisian Cuisine HistoryEdit

Tunisia is this beautiful coastal land at the most northern tip of Africa, in the cross-roads of Eastern and Western cultures at the center of the Mediterranean region. Its documented 8,000-year history has been influenced by religions such as Paganism (with the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians), Judaism (in Soussa and Djerba), Christianity (early Christianity) and Islam (since the 8th Century).

The ethnic origins of the Tunisians are Lebanese (Canaanite or Phoenician) in the Northern coastline, Berber by the mountainous region of the Atlas, Bedouin and Sahelian nomads in the south, Israelite in the southern islands, Greek from the Byzantine Empire, Spaniard, French, German (or Vandal), Arabian, Italian, Turkish and African. Every regional empire counted Tunisia as an essential element of its influence. In cultural and culinary terms, all these influences have been concentrated in its national and regional dishes. Tunisians have embraced their rich history in a highly diverse and flavorful refined cuisine.

For a quick overview of Tunisian culinary ingredients, here is a short list of typical elements:

  • Spices: garlic, anise, saffron, cinnamon, caraway, coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, ginger, white pepper, black pepper, red pepper and cloves.
  • Vegetables: onions, bell peppers, carrots, tomatoes, capers, celery, turnip, potatoes and eggplants.
  • Fruits: lemon, oranges, figs, dates, olives, apricots and quince.
  • Nuts: hazelnuts, almonds, chestnuts and peanuts.
  • Herbs: cilantro, mint, basil, rosemary, bay leaves and oregano.
  • Condiments / Flavoring: hrissa, rose water, orange blossom water, jasmine water, geranium water.
  • Fish and Seafood: tuna, squid (calamari, pulp), anchovies, eel, herring, mackerel and sea bass.
  • Game: hare, partridge, squab (young pigeons), quail, turkey and antelopes (venison).
  • Farm animals: lamb (under a year old), mouton, veal, beef and chicken.
  • Other popular ingredients: honey and the smell of sea water.

Here is also a short list of typical Tunisian dishes: brik (an appetizer) which is mainly egg, cheese and tuna, tajin (like a frittata or a quiche), shorba (soups), slata (salads), marqua (stews), rishta (pastas), couscous (the national pasta), samsa (a popular pastry), kifta (ground meat), kaak (pastries), gnawiya (gombos), merguez (lamb sausage) and shakshouka (ratatouille).

Tunisians also produce unique and delicate varieties of grapes, wheat, barley and orchards; which are the source of outstanding wines (Chateau Mornag), Beers (Stella brand - now owned by Heineken) and apple ciders. But scented waters, similar to agua fresca with flowers, are sent from heavens.

In conclusion, although Tunisia neighbors Algeria, Libya and Italy, its cuisine has a definite separate culinary profile. For those not familiar, if you enjoy Spanish, Southern French, Italian, Greek or Middle-Eastern cuisines, there is no doubt that you will find something familiar. Some terms used in Tunisian cuisine are the same as in Moroccan cuisine but mean different things. Also, some similar ingredients used in Morocco and in Tunisia have different names.

Cuisines of Tunisia Edit

Map of Tunisia

Map of Tunisia- Click to enlarge

Tunisian cuisine can easily be seen to have distinct influences from many of the surrounding cultures. Heavily influenced by Mediterranean cultures, many of the dishes heavily incorporate foods such as tomatoes, olive oil, and fresh bread. This is not to say that these are the cornerstones of Tunisian cuisine. By far, the undisputed foundation of Tunisian cuisine is couscous. Dating back two to three thousand years to the Tunisian ancestors, the Berbers, couscous is dish made from coarsely ground semolina pasta. Usually, this is combined with a variety of meats and vegetables as well, including Lamb and poultry. Also, it is not uncommon for Tunisian couscous to be combined with a variety of sauces, usually a sauce known as Harissa, a traditional spicy red pepper sauce made from a combination of tomatoes, olive oil, peppers, and spices. In fact, use of Harissa is so commonplace that many Tunisians will eat it alongside a serving of bread and olive oil, or even on a sandwich in place of mayonnaise.

Spices and peppers tend to play a very central role in overall cuisine. In this respect, Tunisian food is much like other North African cuisines; it is quite spicy and hot. Hot peppers play a key role in tying a meal together; a bland meal is considered by most Tunisians to be a bad one. Also, most dishes are heavily spiced with a variety of seasonings such as bay leaves, cumin, caraway, saffron, cumin, cinnamon, and mint. In the eyes of Tunisians, usage of seasonings in meals adds to its flavor and overall quality.

Tunisian meals are typically family style meals, usually lasting very long periods of time with numerous amounts of guests. Dinner usually proceeds with generous servings of appetizers including various soups, vegetables and salads. The main entree is usually a dish consisting of couscous, a variety of meats, and an assortment of vegetables. To complete the meal, Tunisians will usually enjoy coffee, tea, fruits, and pastries.

Tunisian Food Glossary Edit

Finding the ingredients for an Tunisian Recipe is not so easy when you do not know the names of the ingredients. Take time to make a list of ingredients and the name they may be found under at the Local Markets.

Check The Great Book of Couscous by Copeland Marks. One third of the cookbook is dedicated to Tunisia and its role in the making of couscous worldwide. You could make your food names word list in dictionary form. This books treats Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian cuisines. You can compare the names given similar foods and see how they differ among the three countries. More Tunisian foods and recipes can be found here than in other cookbooks, which occasionally mention Tunisia's contribution to the Arab world. You will develop a rich and interesting vocabulary and knowledge of new food preparations.

Preparation Methods for Tunisian Cooking Edit

Great care is taken when preparing a traditional Tunisian meal. The focus of Tunisian meals is less concerned with visual preparation, and more with the overall quality of the food itself. Generally, the spicier the food, the better the quality. Therefore, Tunisians will only select the foods known to produce the spiciest flavor. Harissa is usually prepared along with the meal, as its usage is quite common. couscous, the cornerstone of all Tunisian meals, is usually prepared in conjunction with the main meat or vegetable dish, as this helps to retain the flavors trying to escape from the food.

Special Equipment for Tunisian Cooking Edit

One of the most important things in making a great Tunisian meal as opposed to a decent one is the usage of fresh spices. For this purpose, it is generally recommended to use to spice or coffee grinder to grind the spices just before cooking. Doing so releases oils within the spices, further enhancing the quality of a meal. Special equipment is also used to prepare traditional couscous. In order to prepare couscous in a typical Tunisian way, one must use a special kind of boiler known as a couscousière. A couscousière is a combination boiler, which is used to prepare meat and vegetables, and a steamer, used to cook the couscous. This is not the only method of preparing couscous, but it is generally favored, as the steaming process allows flavors escaping from the meat to remain within the couscous.

Tunisian Food Traditions and Festivals Edit

Holidays are a very special time in Tunisian cuisine. Typically, the meals on holidays are very strictly traditionally and are rarely open to alteration or creativity. Just as normal meals, holiday meals are large, social events, lasting quite a long time and consisting of many courses. One particular traditional holiday meal is zgougou, which is a type of pudding made with pine seeds and topped with a vanilla spread. Aside from preparing and consuming traditional Tunisian foods on holidays, relatives will often visit with each other to participate in common Tunisian traditions. For example, after the fast of Ramadan, relatives will get together to enjoy company and to exchange plates of delicious Tunisian pastries and treats.

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