Tunisian Odyssey

A cook's travels reveal another Mediterranean diet.

By Deborah Madison

Photography by Mitch Mandel


A few years ago, I traveled to Tunisia with a group of other food writers, in search of a different side of the Mediterranean diet. Italy and Greece most often come to mind in terms of this healthy regional cuisine, but with so many cultures and countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, I reasoned that other foods could be just as healthy and sampling them would broaden my culinary repertoire.

This is my only visit thus far to Tunisia, but I would love to return, for the landscape and foodscape both resonated powerfully with me and—surprisingly—my life in New Mexico. After dozing off on a bus crossing the region of Sahel, I awoke to a vision of low adobe houses festooned with long chains of red chile peppers. For a moment, I didn't know where I was—was I back home? There, each fall, such ristras of drying peppers hang from adobe houses, especially in the agricultural areas. Later, when I had a chance to see the chiles drying on a wire screen on a street in Tunis, the capital city, I thought that they looked a lot like our northern New Mexico chiles, being roughly the same size and slightly twisted rather than straight. Whether or not they have the same flavor, instead of appearing in a chile colorado, these chiles are used to make the ubiquitous condiment harissa, which lends its fire and flavor to a great many dishes.

My traveling companion Clifford A. Wright (author of many books, including A Mediterranean Feast) writes of harissa, "Make this recipe and keep it in the refrigerator before attempting any other Tunisian recipe." Harissa is as good to eat here as it is in Tunisia, and since that trip, I've made it regularly using molido (powder) from New Mexico native chiles or dried chiles.

The Mediterranean climate makes growing many foods possible; in addition to chiles, Tunisia is a significant producer of olives, for oil and brined for eating. Lemons, pomegranates, quinces, and other fruits somewhat exotic to us are commonplace. Many varieties of dates, for example, are abundant; date-filled semolina cakes and dates stuffed with almonds are popular sweetmeats. Our group had the pleasure of eating dates and tangerines in an oasis of date palms, the fruits set out on large trays offered by Bedouins clad in traditional indigo-dyed robes.

In common with most Mediterranean diets, vegetables are plentiful and eaten at most meals in Tunisia. Fennel is a particular favorite, and I've never seen it growing as I saw it growing there— plentifully in large fields, as we might grow cabbages. Other widely used vegetables are the same types that we grow, including sweet peppers as well as hot ones, onions, tomatoes, squash (both winter and summer varieties), eggplants and potatoes, turnips, carrots, radishes, and beets. These vegetables, more so than lettuce, formed the basis of the daily salads we enjoyed, seasoned with olive oil and lemon. The same vegetables along with harissa also appeared in the many kinds of couscous dishes we tasted.

Though it is clearly the national seasoning, harissa is not the only flavoring Tunisian cooks employ: Frequently used herbs and spices include cumin, caraway, and parsley, while garlic, black and green olives, and fresh or preserved lemons are also used to vary the salad composition.

One of the signatures of the healthful Mediterranean diet is the use of meat as a condiment or side dish rather than as the main focus of a meal. Clifford and I ate in a working-class cafe, sharing a delicious and satisfying lunch that consisted of a large russet potato and strips of green pepper in a lamb broth, topped with a small piece of roasted lamb. It physically represented the food pyramid: the lamb morsel on top, supported by a base of vegetables. Couscous dishes also reflect this restrained use of meat protein, with the grain festooned with legumes and vegetables, and the meat present, but in much smaller amounts than we're used to serving.

Chickpeas, a popular legume, are eaten daily in what might be thought of as the universal breakfast dish: leblebi. Here the chickpeas are served in a broth seasoned with harissa, garlic, cumin, and lemon, then augmented with all kinds of additions, from pickled turnips to chopped tomatoes to scallions to coddled eggs. Leblebi provides a fortifying and savory start for the day.