Strategically located in the vast horizontal stretch of North Africa, Tunisia is a country steeped in history and stunning natural landscapes. Known for its moderate weather and ribboned by a sand hemmed Meditteranean coastline, its food history dates back to more than three thousand years with influences from the Ottoman rule, the colonial French rule and the neighbouring cultures. The Romans, Arabs, Turks, Spaniards, Italians and the French occupied this little nation at some point in history and each culture has left an indelible imprint on the food of the ethnic Berber group and seafaring Carthaginians. Today the Tunisian cuisine has impressions from the French, Arabic, Mediterranean and Mid-Eastern cuisines.
With the melting of cultures around the world, there is an exchange of recipes, ingredients, cuisines all over. Even though India’s spice packed, flavour and fragrance rich food can be found in its regional cuisines, it’s predominantly Thai, Chinese and Italian cuisines that have been accepted in our country and slowly found their way on our plates. However, not much is known about Tunisian food. The ongoing Tunisian food festival at The Capital Kitchen in Taj Palace, New Delhi offers an opportunity to experience the different flavours and dishes from Tunisia specially curated by Chefs Mounir Arem and Mohamed Ali Abouda. On a special invite from His Excellency Nejmeddine Lakhal, Ambassador, Embassy of the Republic of Tunisia, New Delhi and Mr Samrat Datta, General Manager, Taj Palace, New Delhi I had an opportunity to savour the different delicacies from Tunisia yesterday.
THE TUNISIAN FEAST AT THE CAPITAL KITCHEN
Tunisia’s most prolific starter is the Mechouia Salad which is a refreshing blend of grilled vegetables, tomatoes, peppers, garlic and the spicy chilly paste, harissa. For the salad, the vegetables are crushed and pureed while retaining some texture. A perfect accompaniment to grilled meat, I had mine on a piece of bread and relished it just as much.
The Tunisian Salad makes an impressive presentation at the buffet replete with the crunchiness of fresh vegetables, olives and capers and seasoned with a vinaigrette to pep up the taste. The Houria Salad has an interesting story to it. The salad is also called “Your mother Angel” and there is a reason why carrots are used. According to the tale, the lady who first made this dish was called “Angel” and since she dyed her hair with henna, it was the colour of carrots. It’s a strange reasoning with no source of validation but the Houria at the festival was served with finely chopped, boiled carrots with light spices and lemon juice creating a perfect balance between sweet and acidity.
The Mosaic Salad is a fun summer salad in colours red, white and green. This pretty salad combines garden fresh vegetables like carrots, boiled peas and potatoes to make it look cheerful. Kalamata olives and boiled eggs make up for the garnishing.
The Tunisians are known for their hospitality and one got a glimpse of it with Chef Mounir. He walked around seeing that all the guests were comfortable and to answer any question about the cuisine. I loved this gesture. For any new cuisine that one is getting acquainted with, it helps if there is someone who can connect the culture and emotions behind it.
“The original Tunisian food is Couscous because it’s Berber and it has more than five thousand years of history. Earlier it was made just to survive but we changed it for special occasions like weddings because it’s a hard preparation.” – Chef Mounir
There’s a reason why the Chef said this. The method is lengthy and laborious. Taking a container with a perforated bottom, it is filled with the Mediterranean grain, couscous and set above a pot of boiling stew. The hot vapours from the stew fluff the granules with the flavours from the stew. Couscous Khodra (A vegetarian version with peppers, potatoes and carrots on top) and Couscous Fish (non-vegetarian sauce) are served in the festival. I have always had my couscous as a salad, to have it drenched in sauce with chunks of fish and chunky peppers did seem new to the palate. Interesting! It’s grainy, simple and soothing. Chef Mounir tells me that in North Africa, making couscous by hand is a tradition handed down from one generation to the other and the method and the ingredients used in North Africa is far different from that used to make it in the South.
Tunisia is mostly defined by its coasts so there is enough seafood to satiate the non-vegetarian in the menu. Dishes like Kabkabou Hout (Fish stew), Klaya Alouch (Lamb) and Tchich Karnit (Octopus) are placed centre stage. The Klaya Alouch is a hearty stew with soft lamb pieces. Every bite released the juices and the soaked up flavours. I loved it. Mildly spiced and more tomatoey in taste, the Tchich Karnit is popular in Tunisia. Octopus or Karnit is cooked with crushed barley semolina, tomatoes, harissa, garlic and onions.
The Tunisian tagine is like a frittata. It reminded me more of a Spanish omelette with a few extra levels. Tunisian tagine is a dish made with lots of eggs, meat and vegetables. This is a typical homestyle comfort food – nicely spiced and baked in the oven.
An assortment of Tunisian sweets like the Kaak Wark, Makrouds and a pyramid of Baklawa make up for the dessert table.
It’s not possible for one to travel to far away places to enjoy their food. And that’s why I love the concept of food festivals. It provides an insight into the culinary window of a place whose photos I may probably have seen only in magazines. It provides an opportunity to taste and learn more about a cuisine through interactions with the chefs. If you want to know about Tunisian food this time, head straight to The Capital Kitchen, Taj Palace. The Tunisian festival offers a good and tasty variety of flavours offering the Mediterranean and North African culinary traditions and closes on the 9th December 2018.
(Pic. Courtesy: Taj Palace)