“The Tunisian Cookbook, a Celebration of Healthy Red Cuisine, From Carthage to Kairouan“, is expected to hit the shelves next month..
- Tales from the Past | Part I
- Tales from the Past | Part II
- Tales from the Past | Part III
- Our Ons Jabeur, the Pride Giver
Its title casts a net widely over the nation’s diet by suggesting that it gives us much to be grateful for. It supports the health of our citizens, keeps the family strong, and adds memorably to all our most important festivities. The distinctive odours coming from today’s Tunisian kitchen make our mouths water and bring laughter to the family table.
The title also reminds us that the journey from Carthage to Kairouan (and to Tunis, too), has taken a long long time. But what riches it has brought to change our nation’s tables. In writing about it, I have learnt much about the new dishes introduced by visitors to our shores. But, rest assured – the real heroes of this book are the women of Tunisia. It was they who shaped what we eat today, by making sure their daughters learnt about the good imports and binned the rest.
No matter how hard I try, a short article cannot provide all the answers to a story with many wonderful attributes, that stretches back two millennia to Queen Dido (Elissa). But keep on reading and you will at least get some of the picture. It will, I hope to tempt you to follow it a bit more closely.
My book aims to bring the past, present and future together in a glorious reminder of the wealth of nourishment that thrives in our land, of the dedication of the women of Tunisia, who developed and preserved so many ways to prepare food for our table, and hopefully, to encourage everyone to keep strengthening these life-enriching traditions in the years to come. It must also be said that cookery books have not yet contributed much to the success achieved by Tunisian mothers down the generations. They unfailingly taught their daughters with a combination of oral instruction, and demonstrations of the necessary skills.
I wanted to write a book to introduce our wonderful cuisine to the World outside Tunisia, with three different audiences in mind: The first category are English speaking tourists and visitors to our country, who enjoy delicious food in our hotels and restaurants, and would like to replicate the experience back home. At the moment there is no such book for this purpose. A second larger category is the growing number of people whose passion for good food does not need the stimulus of travel.
People who are interested in World cuisine and novel dishes from around the World are permanently in search of new eating experiences. They may well be familiar with Turkish, Lebanese and Moroccan dishes, but have so far been unable to explore what Dr Simon Poole has called “one of the greatest undiscovered treasures of Mediterranean Cuisine”. Dr Poole is the author of ‘The real Mediterranean Diet‘ and articles on nutrition and public health, who wrote the introduction to my book.
The final category is the Tunisian abroad and at home who grew up enjoying many of the 80 recipes in the book, and who may want to know more about the potential health benefits, or the varied history of their favourite dishes. Of course we are all a reflection of what we eat, and so Tunisian cuisine strengthens bonds with family and friends, helps us to keep fit and active, and now makes an important contribution to our sense of identity, even of our DNA. We should take pride in the fact that our cuisine is now ready to compete in an International market.
The book does its best to demonstrate the essentially Mediterranean nature of Tunisian cuisine. Couscous is well known as a very early Berber inspiration, so early that history cannot tell us precisely who, where or when it first blessed our tables. It lent itself to domestic production, to be easily transported, and to providing a balanced plateful for whole families, much healthier than other national dishes.
What can be said is that the forebears of our Berber Tunisian Mothers made all of us shareholders in the couscous adventure. Olive oil used to provide lighting as well as food and it probably reached us in the Western Mediterranean before the great Egyptian pyramids had been built. It was of course brought from Tyre, by the founders of Carthage, with its now proven health benefits to embellish a wide range of salads and vegetables.
At an early stage in our history Tunisia was beginning to gather together a surprisingly varied cuisine, with eggs that have earned the title of ‘the original superfood’, proteins, vitamins and minerals of high quality, which, science now tells us, have added omega-3, fatty acids and antioxidants. Tunisia, consumes tons of soups that hydrate and a great variety of salads to “lower blood pressure, and this has a positive effect upon blood sugar which helps to keep appetite in check”, as the Harvard Public Health Review confirms.
With 1,400 km of coastline Tunisia has abundant fish and seafood, our consumption of which is high. We have better lamb than I have ever eaten in any of the 62 countries I have visited. At home our tables are loaded with fresh produce, and the healthiest oil, olive oil, is in constant use. We cook with it and drizzle it on salads and sandwiches. It even has cosmetic uses. The one pot wonder of couscous offers so many essential nutrients, and then helps to save the planet by using less energy.
Tunisians have always felt secure in their identity, as Empires came and went. Some treated us well; others not so well, but nobody seemed to bother much, perhaps because we had our own special cuisine to comfort us. Other nations can say what they want about us, but what they can never honestly say is that we are not an open and hospitable people. We are among the most hospitable people on Earth, ready to share what we have with relative strangers sitting around our family table.
Let me tell you about an event which happened in 1954, when I was 10 years old. The previous year I had met a couple of Dutch Ladies on the train and, being young, had forgotten all about it. I had promised to show them the rooftops of Kairouan, which ladies used in preference to the streets below, perhaps because they were forbidden to men. Clearly they had found this idea exotic and exciting. I was of course showing off. They suddenly appeared a year later accompanied by six other ladies and knocked at our door, waving the piece of paper I had written on the train with our address on it.
When Grandmother was told there were no men accompanying them, she decided that no visitors from afar should be left on the doorstep. I was ordered to invite them in. It was her first encounter with foreigners. Filled with curiosity, the eight Dutch Ladies entered our house. They marvelled at Grandmother’s Futa and Blusa. They admired the architecture of the house with its courtyard. They praised the wood-carved ceiling in the bedroom and obviously loved the coloured glass that decorated it.
Grandmother longed to play the hostess. So she sent me to fetch coca-cola, then again to do a bigger shop so that she could invite all of them to lunch. She demonstrated how to make lamb couscous, and then egg briks. She added the usual makroudh, Ghraiba and Samsa she always kept in her store, just in case a visitor happened to stop by. She apologised for not having time to prepare her signature pudding dish of krima bil zgougou, instructing me to invite them to come back so that they could sample this wonderful sweet. She completed her hostessing duties with pride. Her visitors could hardly believe their luck. They begged me to tell Grandmother that although great travellers, they had never met anyone like her.
They also mentioned that, the day before in Tunis, someone they didn’t know paid for their tea with pine nuts in a café, and handed them bouquets of jasmine flowers. Nothing like that had ever happened in other countries they visited. Why, they asked, are Tunisian people like that? Grandmother shrugged her shoulders and replied: “Why aren’t other countries like us? Hospitality is a gift from Allah”. That was what my family learnt from Grandmother and her firm belief that happiness comes from sitting around the table.
My aim in writing on this subject was to find out how, in Tunisia, the daily meal had managed to turn into a National Treasure. I found that yes! There was a lot of geography, and some good fortune involved in explaining how it all came about. What good luck that the first foreign offerings from Carthage and Rome, of Olive oil and durum wheat, were such ideal foundation materials! But the key elements that produced the modern diet, began with the sense that hospitality was indeed a gift from Allah and was built upon by the persistence and determination of the women of Tunisia.
So please allow me to conclude with two requests for help. First of all, please give some thought to how you might join my campaign to tell the world about the strengths of our culinary heritage and then act. Secondly when the time comes, say for special events such as birthdays or weddings, to give presents to your loved ones don’t forget to give them this book because it is giving the best of you, better than a bunch of flowers or a box of chocolates, both of which do not last and are not personal.
And most importantly, when the next occasion arises, would both ladies and gentlemen reading this article, please give their mothers and grandmothers a big thank-you hug for the great job they have done. I hope you feel as proud with our cuisine as I am.
Thank you for reading to the end.
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