Tunisian cuisine, the cuisine of Tunisia, is a blend of Mediterranean and Berber cuisines. Its distinctive spiciness comes from the many civilizations which have ruled the land now known as Tunisia: Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Spanish, Turkish, Italians (Sicilians), French, and the native Punics-Berber people. Many of the cooking styles and utensils began to take shape when the ancient tribes were nomads. Nomadic people were limited in their cooking implements by what pots and pans they could carry with them. The Tunisian tagine, is very different from the Algerian or Moroccan dish. It is a type of a pie dish, made out of eggs, meat and vegetables, similar to the Italian frittata or the eggah.
Tunisian cuisine developed from ancient Carthage, Rome, the Arab conquest of the Maghreb, and the Ottoman Empire. The cuisine has been strongly influenced by French and Italian (especially Sicilian) cooking.
Unlike other North African cuisines, Tunisian food is quite spicy. A popular condiment and ingredient which is used extensively in Tunisian cooking, harissa, is a mix of spices commonly sold together as a paste. It is usually the most important ingredient in different sauces and gravies. Westernised harissa mostly contains red chilies to replace "black cumin" which is significantly different from standard cumin. Black cumin is readily available in the Mediterranean and middle east and there are many people that say harissa is only "real" if it contains black cumin rather than chilies, which are not native to the region. Other common spices include cumin or cumin seeds, garlic, caraway seeds, coriander seeds, and paprika or smoked paprika. A recipe for the sauce includes red chili peppers and garlic, flavoured with coriander, cumin, olive oil and often tomatoes. There is an old wives' tale that says a husband can judge his wife's affections by the amount of hot peppers she uses when preparing his food. If the food becomes bland then a man may believe that his wife no longer loves him. However, when the food is prepared for guests the hot peppers are often toned down to suit the possibly more delicate palate of the visitor. Like harissa or chili peppers, the tomato is also an ingredient integral to the cuisine of Tunisia. Tuna, eggs, olives and various varieties of pasta, cereals, herbs and spices are also ingredients which are prominently used in Tunisian cooking.
Tunisian culinary ingredients include the following typical elements:
Tunisians also produce grapes, wheat, barley and orchard fruits, once fermented they become wines, as in Chateau Mornag which is a staple Tunisian wine, beers (Celtia, Berber or the Stella brand - now owned by Heineken of the Netherlands), brandy (Boukha - fig liqueur, Thibarine - herbal date liqueur, or other liqueurs made from pomegranates, dates, lotos (jujube), carobs or prickly pears), and apple ciders. Scented waters with dark rose or blossom petals, similar to aguas frescas with flowers, have been called "scents from heaven".
Tabil, pronounced "tebel," is a word in Tunisian Arabic meaning "seasoning" (similar to 'adobo' in Spanish) and now refers to a particular Tunisian spice mix, although earlier it only meant ground coriander. Paula Wolfert makes the plausible claim that tabil is one of the spice mixes brought to Tunisia by Muslims coming from Andalusia in 1492 after the fall of Granada. Today, tabil, closely associated with the cooking of Tunisia, features garlic, cayenne pepper, caraway seeds and coriander pounded in a mortar, then dried in the sun. It is often used in cooking beef, veal and game.
Due to the long coastline and numerous fishing ports, seafood has a prominent place in Tunisian cuisine. Fish can also be grilled, baked, fried in olive oil, or stuffed and seasoned with cumin (kamoun). Squid, cuttlefish, and octopus are served in hot crispy batter with slices of lemon, in a cooked salad, or stuffed and served with couscous.
Tunisia has different regional aspects. Tunisian cuisine varies from north to south, from the coast to the Atlas Mountains, from urban areas to the countryside, and along religious affiliations.
For instance, the original inhabitants of Tunis (the Beldiya), do not use harissa much; they prefer milder food, and have also developed their own breads and desserts.
Closer to the Atlas mountain range, game is favoured. A diet may be composed of quail, pigeons, squabs, partridge, rabbits and hare. In the Cap Bon, people enjoy tuna, anchovies, sardines, sea bass and mackerels. On the island of Djerba, where there is a dense Maghrebim population, only Kosher food is consumed. In Hammamet, snails are enjoyed. Organs are traditionally staples of Tunisian cooking, such as tripe, lamb brains, beef liver and fish heads.
Despite the strong presence of fast food and restaurants in Sfax, people from the city enjoy their traditional dishes more than anything else. Sfaxians tend to add their own touch to the Tunisian cuisine. They have staple regional dishes such as "The Marka" which is a fish soup to which Sfaxians usually add vermicelli or couscous. The soup can also be eaten with barley bread or croutons. "The Charmoula" is also another Sfaxian dish made out mainly of baked raisins and onions and spices and it is traditionally eaten with salted fish on the First day of Eid al-Fitr. Sfax is also famed for its pastries which rank first in the country. There are two kinds of Sfaxian pastries: daily pastry (locally called "hlou Arbi") like Makrouth, Doria, and Ghraiba, and high-range pastry for weddings and special ceremonies (like Baklawa, mlabbes and Ka'ak warka').
Couscous, called "Kosksi", is the national dish of Tunisia, and can be prepared in many ways. It is cooked in a special kind of double boiler called a kiska:s in Arabic or couscoussière in French. The couscous used is typically fine-grained.
Meats, vegetables and spices are cooked in the lower pot. Cooking steam rises through vents into the container above. It is layered with whole herbs such as bay leaves and covered with a fine-grain couscous. The couscous pasta is therefore cooked with aromatic steam. During the cooking process, the couscous needs to be regularly stirred with a fork to prevent lumping, much as risotto is cooked.
Preferred meats include lamb (kosksi bil ghalmi) or chicken (kosksi bil djaj), but regional substitutes red snapper, grouper (kousksi bil mannani), sea bass (kosksi bil warqua), hare (kosksi bil arnab) or quail (kosksi bil hjall).
Unlike Moroccan tajines, a tajine in Tunisia usually refers to a kind of "quiche", without a crust, made with beaten eggs, grated cheese, meat and various vegetable fillings, and baked like a large cake.
A popular seafood specialty is the 'poisson complet' or the whole fish. The entire fish, excluding internal organs, is prepared and fire-grilled, but it can also be fried, grilled or sautéed. It is accompanied with potato chips and either mild or spicy tastira. The peppers are grilled with a little tomato, a lot of onion and a little garlic, all of which is finely chopped and served with an egg poached or sunny side up. Finely chopped fresh parsley is sprinkled on top; a drizzle of lemon juice and a pinch of sea salt complete the recipe.
Tunisian sauces, which are closer to spicy broths, are an integral part of dishes. Otherwise olive oils are often used as sauces.
This said, harissa or hrissa is often said to be a Tunisian sauce, but it is better described as an ingredient of Tunisian cooking or a seasoning. Harissa is made of red chili, garlic, salt, cumin, coriander, olive oil, and sometimes also caraway or mint.
Two Tunisian sauces deserve mentioning: the Kerkennaise sauce and the Mloukhia. The first is made of capers, olive oil, tomato, scallions, coriander, caraway, cumin, parsley, garlic, white vinegar and paprika. The latter is a dark green sauce served with shredded lamb or beef.