Tunisia has a Mediterranean cuisine. Couscous is the national dish, and harissa (spicy chilli paste) is the national condiment, swirled in to every meal and commonly served as an appetiser with bread and canned tuna – Tunisia's other gastronomic obsession.
Eating options range from quick street-food stalls to upmarket restaurants. Only the latter are likely to serve alcohol.
Staples & Specialities
Breakfast traditionally consists of milk, coffee, eggs, assida (a belly-filling pudding made with flour or semolina, oil and dates), fritters, sohlob (sorghum, sugar, cinnamon and ginger), or, in winter, hsou (spicy semolina and caper-based soup). The French influence, however, means that you’ll more likely find people tucking into coffee and a perfect pain au chocolat.
For lunch and dinner, starters include soups, salads, vegetables, tajine (unlike its Moroccan namesake, a frittata-like egg dish with various meat, fish or vegetable fillings) or fish, followed by a plain dish of couscous or pasta.
Tunisian cooking revolves around harissa, a fire-red concoction made from crushed dried chilli, garlic, salt and caraway seeds. It’s also served neat with a pool of olive oil – you dip your bread into the mix – as an appetiser.
It was the Spanish who introduced hot peppers to Tunisia. The word 'harissa' comes from the Arabic, meaning ‘break into pieces’, as the paste is traditionally made by pounding red chillies in a mortar. An old tale says that a man can judge his wife’s affections by the spice in his food – if it’s bland, then the love is dead.
Bread is eaten with every meal – ideally still warm from the local boulangerie (bakery). It’s frequently a baguette (long, crusty French loaf), but often, particularly in the countryside, it’s tabouna. This traditional Berber bread is flat, round and heavy, subtly flavoured with hab hlaoua (aniseed), and named after the traditional clay-domed ovens in which it’s baked.
Kemia are small tasty dishes, usually served as appetisers. As well as nibbles such as nuts, olives, poutargue (mullet roe), dried fish and spiced octopus, particular delights are the crushed vegetable dishes that tingle on the tongue, such as carrots, pumpkin or courgette, mixed with spices and imalah (pickled carrots and cauliflower).
Perhaps Tunisia’s most prolific starter is the smoky-tasting salade mechouia, a delicious blend of roasted peppers, garlic and harissa (spicy chilli paste). It’s a coolly refreshing way to start a meal, mopped up with crusty white bread. Salade Tunisienne is another hit: comprising finely chopped tomatoes, onion and peppers, seasoned with lemon juice, olive oil and mint, and topped with canned tuna. Omni houria (cooked carrots mashed with garlic and olive oil) is also a quenching, lightly spiced taste, served cold. A winter favourite is chorba, a punchy, oily, tomato-based soup.
The brik, a Tunisian curiosity of Middle Eastern origin, is a delicate deep-fried envelope of pastry that’s usually filled with a satisfying slurp of egg (skilfully rendered so that the white is cooked and the yolk is runny). It might be stuffed with onions, parsley, potato, capers, tuna, egg, seafood, chicken or meat, though briks can be sticky-sweet too, filled with almond or sesame paste and drenched in honey.
With 1400km of coastline, Tunisia has excellent fresh seafood, including sole, red mullet, mackerel, grouper, perch, octopus and squid. Favoured seasonings are garlic, saffron, cumin, paprika, turmeric or dried rosebuds (providing a subtle musky flavour), though often fish is simply grilled with lemon and olive oil, or baked or fried in olive oil. The traditional accompaniment for fried fish is tastira, a delicate mixture of chopped fried tomatoes and eggs, seasoned with caraway seeds, salt and olive oil.
Look out for kabkabou, an aromatic, tangy baked dish with saffron, preserved lemons, tomatoes and capers, and simple, tasty fish brochettes (kebabs), alternating between chunky fish and fresh vegetables. Another favourite is calamari farçi – squid stuffed with rice, greens and chilli.
Mussels, clams, calamari, prawns and oysters also feature widely, as does crayfish and lobster (particularly around Tabarka), which are boiled and often served with a roux (white sauce made from butter and flour) and mayonnaise. Succulent large prawns are grilled, sautéd with garlic and parsley, or simmered in a gargoulette (clay cooking pot).
Merguez (spicy lamb or goat sausages) are hard to beat, but some cheap joints sell delicious roast chicken – best when piping hot, with a pile of hot fries. Camel meat is a southern novelty.
Particularly interesting are dishes combining meat, fruit and spices. Tunisians like maraqa, a slow-cooked stew (normally lamb) in versions such as koucha, with chilli, tomatoes and potatoes; klaya, with paprika; or kamounia, cooked in cumin.
The national dish, couscous is the pride of the Maghreb, eaten by rich and poor alike. There are more than 300 ways of serving up this grainy, soft cereal. It’s the dish to eat at celebrations, usually communally, with people delving into a single, large, deep bowl, and this is when it’s at its best.
Couscous is prepared by steaming wet grains in a couscoussière (two-piece pot). The sieve-lined upper part holds the couscous, while the sauce (vegetables, chickpeas, beef, chicken, lamb or fish) cooks slowly underneath. The scented steam rises to cook the grains, which expand up to three times their original size.
Fruit, Nuts & Sweets
Tunisia has wonderful, sun-ripened fruit. The intense, subtle flavours are an extraordinary surprise to those accustomed to industrially cropped supermarket produce.
In May try juicy bousa’a (medlar fruit), which is orange in colour and plumlike in taste. All Tunisian peaches are mouth-wateringly good, but at the end of June look out for boutabguia (aka pêche de vigne), a ruby-fleshed variety with an unusual, compact texture. Grapes are finest at the end of August – there’s fragrant white muscats from around Kelibia, or razzegoui, a large white grape, shaded pink. Summer sees roadside stalls stacked with succulent della (melon).
Mishmish are extraordinarily delicate apricots; you might want to couple them with some crunchy, sweet inzas bouguidma (meaning ‘bite-sized’; miniature pears). From September, blush-red pomegranates join the dessert menu; specify if you want them sans sucre (unsugared). Fresh almandes (almonds) in their green suede-y pods appear in July and August – crack them open to find a gleaming pale kernel.
Tunisian cakes are sweet, nutty and delectable, with the influences of Ottoman tastes and the pastry arts of Sicily both making their presence felt. Look out for pastries such as bite-sized baklava, densely nut-stacked bjeouia, and orange-blossom-scented nut-paste boules. Makhroud (small date-stuffed, honey-soaked wheat cakes) are a speciality of sugar-loving Kairouan. Although French desserts dominate restaurant menus, you may be lucky enough to come across bouza (a mousse-y hazelnut cream).
Prickly Pears & Dates
Figuier d’Inde (barbary figs or prickly pears) are the jewel-coloured cactus fruits you’ll see piled high from October to December. Introduced by the Spanish in the 16th century, these are covered in fine but treacherous spines. Ask the vendor to peel it for you.
There are more than 100 varieties of date, the finest of which is the near-translucent deglat ennour (finger of light). October is date-harvest time in Douz, and the dates are at their succulent best. Don’t miss out on the delight of a date milkshake – no sugar required!
Vegetarians & Vegans
Vegetarians may have difficulty finding meat-free dishes, as the idea of not eating meat, especially fish, is anathema to many Tunisians. Tuna is often added to dishes whether or not it’s mentioned on the menu – you’ll need to firmly state that you want your food without it.
Fruit, vegetables, grains and nuts are staples here. Your best bet will be starters: salade Tunisienne or salade mechouia are delicious and ubiquitous. The brik is sometimes meat-free, and ojja (fresh tomatoes and chillies blended into a spicy sauce – be aware that prawns, merguez or brains are often added, and eggs stirred in at the last minute), shakshouka, lablabi and tajine are other options if you eat eggs. Just ask to hold the meat additions and check that meat stock hasn’t been used. Vegans will find eating out difficult, but self-catering with local produce will be a pleasure.