WORLD FOOD – Pasta In The Country Of Couscous

08 May 2003

Strange but true: Tunisians are great lovers of spaghetti and various other types of pasta! Once an everyday dish, couscous has now become a special Sunday and holiday treat, leaving the privilege of ‘everydayness’ to pasta—spaghetti, tagliolini, penne, fusilli, farfalle, and so on—while traditional homemade Tunisian pasta is almost on the verge of extinction.

The industrial pasta boom is a relatively recent phenomenon in Tunisia, though semi-industrial fresh pasta and spaghetti workshops began to appear in the main towns and cities at the start of the twentieth century, most of them run by immigrant Italian artisans. The fact is that, today, the industrial production of pasta in Tunisia is as important as that of couscous.

Pasta owes its success to two factors—it’s relatively cheap and it doesn’t take long to prepare. Now that women work more and more away from home, they obviously have less time to spend in the kitchen. By marketing packages of pasta and cans of tomato paste, agribusiness has made it easier to cook meals quickly . Twenty minutes and lunch is ready (ten if the pasta were al dente!). This incredible time saving has triggered a veritable revolution in eating habits.

Traditional Tunisian pasta is steamed in the same manner as couscous. The best known variety is called nuwaser, a dish prepared by the inhabitants of Tunis especially for the Sunnite religious feast of Ashura, the equivalent of the Catholic All Souls’ Day. Nuwaser are small, wafer-thin squares, cut by hand from a dough made of semolina, water and salt (the method is reminiscent of the one used for lasagne). The pasta is then dried in the sun and steamed in a double couscous pan, with the lower section pierced to gather the steam from the sauce cooking in the lower. This cooking method requires much more time and care than the Italian one, but it is widespread throughout North Africa, among Berbers and Arabs, in the coastal cities and in the interior on the edge of the Sahara. A number of types of dry pasta also exist in Tunisia—tlitlu, characteristic of Biserta, for example, rishta, which can be baked in the oven or in stock with vegetables and legumes, and gritfa typical of the South, which is steamed with dried fish or octopus—but since they are regional specialties, they are little known nationwide.

Pasta has come to Tunisia with modernity. A sign of the evolution of taste? Not exactly, since after familiarizing themselves with Italian pasta—especially the Italian method of cooking it—Tunisian have, to some extent, taken it over.

One problem is that of terminology. Irrespective of shape, almost all industrially made pasta is referred to by the generic term of maqruna or makaruna (the pronunciation varies according to region), while the type is specified as follows: maqruna spaghetti are spaghetti, maqruna fill are ditali (n°1 for small, n°2 for medium, n°3 for large), fartattu are farfalle, and so on … Fedelini and mafaldine, instead, have taken pre-existing names—dwida and rishta— probably because they are similar in shape to old types of Tunisian artisan pasta.
Tunisians haven’t adopted the recipes of Italian sauces, but have invented new ones more in keeping with local taste. The commonest recipe, though, is maqruna bil salsa, pasta with tomato sauce, the word ‘salsa’ now being integrated into Tunisian vocabulary as if it had always been there.

Pasta al dente is taboo; it has to be overcooked! Sauces are thick, sometimes very piquant, and the variety of recipes is truly incredible. Cooking time (much longer) and ingredients and condiments are now to all intents and purposes ‘Tunisian’. We have pasta with fresh tomato or tomato purée, with garlic, with pepper or with hot chili, with sauce (with or without meat), with meatballs or mutton sausages, with chicken sauce, with fish, or with squid. In some recipes chickpeas are used, in others carrots or potatoes. Hot chili peppers are sometimes thrown whole into the cooked sauce. Sauces made with ground veal are flavored with bay leaves and orange peel, fish and octopus sauces with crushed coriander seeds. Baked pasta may be enhanced with saffron, meatballs with cinnamon. In Mohamed Kouki’s La cuisine Tunisienne, I counted as many as 20 pasta recipes (only the classics are cited), in 17 of which macaronis are used (the shape isn’t specified, but since in some recipes the author suggests breaking the pasta before cooking it, I imagine he’s referring to spaghetti) and in three fedelini. Some Tunisian artisan pasta recipes are presented apart, others in a chapter dedicated to recettes régionales.

Recently, with the diffusion of foreign cookbooks and, even more so, RAI cookery programs (satellite dishes bring Italian TV to most Tunisian homes), Tunisians have begun to learn the authentic Italian recipes, and many are now attempting to reproduce them without adding local touches.

A new vision of the western world? The acceptance of the food of others without modifying it in order to make it ‘ours’? The desire to do so is certainly there and attempts have been made.

Yet when I visited the website of one of Tunisia’s biggest pasta factories, Diari of Sfax, I discovered an entirely different reality. The site, in fact, presents a whole series of recipes completely unknown to me—new creations that are a mixture of Tunisian cuisine and Italian. I haven’t tried them yet, but I have to say I find this new development interesting insofar as it shows how Tunisian cuisine can adapt, hence transform Italian recipes by replacing given ingredients, either because they aren’t readily available or because they are forbidden for religious reasons. In Pasta alla carbonara, to cite one example, ‘turkey ham’ is used as a substitute for bacon!

Lilia Zaouali a lecturer in ‘Anthropology of the Islamic World’ at the University of Jussieu, Paris.

Adapted by John Irving

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