With its heart in the Mediterranean region, Tunisian cuisine is a melting pot of culinary influences, although many dishes are formed from a base of tomatoes, herbs, olive oil, and fresh bread.
Over time, each culture has contributed a generous dollop of know-how to Tunisia’s unique gastronomic style – to mouth-watering effect. Dishes are refined, flavour-rich and created using the nation’s abundant supply of fresh local meats, poultry, vegetables, dairy and fruit. Hare, venison, lamb, veal, chicken, squid, sea bass and tuna are found on a vast menu of national and regional dishes, often in a stew (marqua) or soup (shorba). Freshly-cooked frittata (tajin) is light as a feather and delicious when delicately flavoured with mint. Other must-tries include the oh-so-succulent lamb sausage (merguez), Tunisia’s rough-cut ratatouille (shakshouka) and the national speciality brik (a deep-fried half-moon-shaped egg-and-tuna turnover). Yet it is Tunisia’s proud national dish, couscous (coarsely ground semolina), that appears on every menu, cooked with delicately seasoned root vegetables, chickpeas, boneless chicken, peppers and tomato paste in a heavy-bottomed metal couscousiere.
Food is well seasoned with aromatic herbs and spices from garlic, anise, saffron, cinnamon, caraway and fenugreek to ginger and cloves. Robust sauces are created from slow-simmered tomatoes, onions, aubergines, peppers and olive oil. Simple accompaniments include nuts, mint, bread and rice - often with a zing of citrus and always with Tunisia’s much-beloved harissa.
Every chef in Tunisia has a secret family recipe for harissa using hot dried chilli peppers, garlic, cumin and olive oil. Dip your bread in it, eat it with your meal or as a snack mixed with olive oil and tuna. Be warned though – some regional versions of this traditional spicy sauce are fiercely hot, so add it to your plate with caution!
Mint tea is Tunisia’s favourite drink, often sweetened and sometimes sprinkled with pine nuts. Tap water or mineral water is served with meals. Brightly coloured syrups, such as pomegranate, rose essence and geranium, are diluted with water.
Tunisia has produced good wines since Roman times (red, rose and white) and is also proud of its potent fig brandy and home-brewed beer. Small shots of dark coffee are consumed slowly as the world goes by. Tiny honeyed pastries (baklava), fresh fruit and custard desserts provide a fitting finale to every meal.