Tunisia Day 1: Where have I landed?
I arrived at the top of Africa on a cool and blustery Friday. The Med was roiling dark and blue. A flock of sheep grazed in the open areas of the airport and then scattered as the plane landed. Right away I sensed the nearness of a vast desert. The acrid smell and dust of the Sahara permeated the wind. It’s no wonder the custom here is to bundle up in scarves.
The city of Tunis is bright with pastels and has a Mediterranean glow despite the grumbling overcast. It must be blinding in the summer months. Passing through the town there is evidence of great buildings left partially finished as though an army of builders began something and then abandoned it all together. Was there a boom and bust? The city feels festive and also somewhat disheveled. As in many countries, there are great piles of plastic garbage in abandoned areas. This monument of water bottles is the legacy of our modern age.
My hotel is beautiful and sits adjacent to a salt water lake, strewn with some amount of plastics. In the middle are hundreds of pink flamingoes, almost a mirage of pink chenille that blankets the lake. Alas I am discouraged from walking outside the compound of the hotel; it isn’t safe for one such as me to venture alone.
Well at least, my bathroom is very French! I will go out tomorrow with my friend and mission leader to explore more.
Day 2: under (culinary) construction
It turns out that all the unfinished structures are not abandoned, but are currently under aggressive construction. Since the “revolution” and overthrow of the dictator, things have become a bit chaotic in Tunisia. Not only is construction booming with no regulations, but the garbage isn’t being collected. Violence, robbery and general hoodlum behavior has run amok as a result. Some would say the average person in Tunisia was better before the current “democratic regime”. The dictator was benevolent and created a certain amount of order, they say. The political freedom of the people has translated into a certain amount of anarchy and disarray for now. C’est la vie for the world of politics.
Unemployment is high and staggeringly so in some areas at 20+% of the population. Fortunately, the average person here has a bounty of food options so no one goes hungry, as I soon to found out. The Mediterranean Sea surrounds the capitol city, Tunis, and indeed was instrumental in the ancient city of Carthage rising to great power and influence.
I visited the local fish market, which presented a lively treat of voracious householders and feisty fishmongers selling their catch. The sea provides its abundance and Tunisians make fabulous cuisine combining seafood, herbs, olive oil and a spicy concoction called Harrisa. A Tunisian specialty, Harissa’s main ingredients are vegetable or olive oil, red roasted peppers, serrano peppers, other hot chili peppers and spices and herbs, such as garlic paste, coriander seed, red chili powder and caraway. It adds exotic flavor and spice to many dishes. I found a delectable recipe that includes all these ingredients on a website called Waitrose. You can enjoy a recipe for Tunisian Fish Stew here.
Sheep, like the ones that scattered as my plane landed, are also a special part of the local fare. Mutton is highly valued as part of the native gastronomy. I was lucky enough to visit one of the local street restaurants and tasted a delicious mutton and cheese tangine called Tadjine Jben. Quite like a meat quiche, this traditional Tunisian pie includes stewed mutton, onion and tomato in a base flavored with cinnamon and rose buds that’s thickened with a cheese and breadcrumb blend, topped with eggs and finished by baking. The full recipe is presented here. My lunch was accompanied by crusty French bread and of a cup of sweet hot tea topped with buttery pine nuts afloat.
I waddled away from the table through ancient arched markets that looked almost unchanged from 1000 years ago. Everything from hand spun rugs to Arabic lamps to sandalwood and shoes were all for sale. As I grasped my purse beside me (for fear of a pickpocket), I was carried along by throngs of humanity, and I found myself in front of a store selling dates. Tunisia is among the top 10 date exporting countries in the world. The delectable “Deglet Nour” variety is the most popular here and known for its characteristic soft touch, translucent blond color and a soft caramel-like savor. These three characteristics distinguish it from all other dates. In this store I was presented with dates stuffed with fresh walnuts, pistachio and rolled in sesame. The taste was sublime and exotic at the same time. Dates for everyone for Christmas, I decided!
I must not forget the olive vendors I visited and the variety I tasted today. Massive mountains of black and green globes rolled in harissa, garlic spices and herbs. I witnessed dried black- as- night olives wrinkled and pungent along with crisp, young nubile orbs of happiness in every size. My head was spinning with culinary ecstasy. I tasted many and bought a few.
The end of my first full day was rich, constructing new culinary habits I know I will bring home to my friends and family. Now for dinner, zut!