The Bird’s Word Blog
The Glorious Food and Hosts of Tunisia
When the news only gives you the negatives of a destination, it can be easy to forget that there are normal, gracious people living normal, gracious lives in those very same places. Here, our traveler Hilary C. shares her recent experiences meeting the lovely people of Tunisia—while enjoying their tasty food!
Traveling in Tunisia not only meant eating extremely well but also experiencing the culture and the people through food: the way it’s grown, how it’s displayed in stands and markets, and how it’s prepared, served, and shared.
On my first day with my guide Mohamed, I learned an important lesson. We had been strolling down the winding streets of a village when he bought a sugar donut straight out of the fryer from a stand and asked if I would like to share it. This gesture showed me that I was being welcomed into a culture where people shared food as a matter of course, whether it was platters placed communally on a table or a snack broken in half amongst friends. Mohamed carried the donut to the terrace of a café ringed with orange trees, where he ordered me a glass of strong mint tea with pine nuts floating on top. As we sipped our tea in the waning afternoon light and ate the donut, I was pretty sure I was in for a special time.
And I was right. Here are a few of the (food) highlights from my trip:
Local cooking: We were staying at a guest house in the countryside outside Mahdia, near the sea on the eastern coast of Tunisia. The house was set in an orchard with fruit and olive trees and lovely stands of fennel. When I told Mohamed I would love to spend a little time cooking with our hosts, he arranged it with the very gracious family with whom we were staying.
Sharing bread: Turning a corner from one narrow lane to another, we discovered this tiny bakery, hardly bigger than a closet where a man was baking small round loaves in a portable oven like a metal tub. He kindly gave us permission to take these photographs. Mohamed and I shared one of the loaves, covered with poppy seeds, piping hot, crusty on the outside, soft and delicious on the inside.
Fresh fish: We stopped at the small fish market in Bizerta, and Mohamed said, “Oh, good, it’s still open. Let’s see if we can find something for lunch.” I didn’t understand what he was talking about. All the fish, though sparklingly fresh, was raw. Mohamed chose 2 small red fish and said, “Lets find someone to cook these for us.” We walked down to the jetty going out to the sea, lined with ramshackle little cafes, each with grills outside. In short order, our “catch” went to the kitchen of one of these cafes for further cleaning and then was brought back outside to be grilled alongside dozens of other fish being tended by a pair of obviously experienced grill chefs.
True Tunisia: But the true character of Tunisia shone through when, after our fish was prepared, we were sitting outside eating it with salad, merguez (a warm relish of peppers and onions), lemon and harissa. A vendor selling trinkets passed by, and Mohamed invited him to eat with us. Quietly and in English, he told me that he thought the vendor looked hungry and that we had more than we could eat. That is the Tunisia I will always remember.