WORLDFOOD – La cuisine de ma mère

02 Apr 2004

Tunisie, la cuisine de ma mère (Tunisia, My Mother’s Cooking) opens with a white flower of the jasmin, the mythical scent of Tunisia. Odile’s words flow through images of her Tunisian childhood and take us to the sea, veiled by a hazy sky, while standing out on the horizon is the Bou Garnine, the two-horned mountain. The book was published posthumously by the authoress’s children and is based on her notes—an important part of the work—and recipes for family dishes that she learned to make from an aunt of hers. On the cover a black-and-white portrait of Odile Touitou with distant, oblique gaze suggests an accomplished past. The book covers a chunk of Tunisian history through the story of a Jewish family that emigrated to France in the 1960s. As in a life story or personal diary, Odile recounts meals and everything to do with them: the kitchen, the market, fishing, drying boutargue, aperitifs, sandwiches, ‘Boccara’ fries at 50 centimes, fritters, glibettes (sunflower seeds) at the pictures, lunch at grandma’s, food rationing during the German occupation in the winter of 1942 – 43. It’s a very personal story that tells national history through the ties and relationships of Odile’s family with people of different social levels: with Muslims, Sicilians, Maltese and French (colonizers who addressed us with the ‘toi’ form)). You’d think Odile never stoppd eating except when she was swimming or when she went to bed and fell asleep listening to The Arabian Nights read by her governess, Halouma.

Odile Touitou’s cookery is representative of one Tunisian Jewish community that stood out from another, Spanish in origin, that stopped off in Livorno at the end of the sixteenth century before settling in Tunisia in the second half of the seventeenth. Despite having many things in common, the two communities had somewhat different eating habitus. The members of the first are called twansa, native Tunisians, whereas the second are grana, an Arab adaptation of the livornese, ‘from Livorno’ … Things aren’t actually as simple as that; it’s necessary to remember that in the Tunisian Jewish community differences exist—regional differences—whereby the cooking of the Jews of Tunis isn’t the same as that of the Jews of the island of Djerba.

Let’s take a look at the cookery that this lovely book by Odile Touitou has to offer. Its selection of daily dishes and holiday dishes is largely part of the Tunisian national culinary heritage, without distinction of religion or origin. I refer to veal couscous, which the authoress calls couscous de vendredi (‘Friday couscous’), brik (fried pastry ennvelopes stufed with potatoes, eggs and meat, kifta, fish- or meatballs, breaded and fried like Turkish kofta or Greek keftedes. Then there are special vegetable stews, vegetable stews with veal and offal, soups such as sorba of fresh broad beans or chickpeas, and salads the most famous of which is meshwiyya (made with grilled fresh summer vegetables).
The typically Jewish dishes are often linked to religious rituals, but not always. Odile Touitou cites a few of them. Msoki, prepared for Easter, consists of unleavened bread broken into bits and soaked with vegetable or beef stock, a dish reminiscent of thrid or tharid (the pronunciation varies), or ftat, which Muslims make according to the same recipe but with unleavened bran biscuits. According to historical documents, tharid made with mutton and dry cheese or milk was the prophet Mohamed’s favourite dish. Then comes nikitoush (nikaytus according to the most common pronunciation), egg pasta balls cooked in stock, which resembles barkoukish, well known throughout North Africa. Yabrak is made with leaves of romaine lettuce stuffed with rice, spinach, and bits of beef, the name deriving from the Turkish yabrak dolmasi, stuffed vine leaves. Meatballs scented with aniseed and bil yada fish cooked in tomato sauce flavored with lemon, are also typical of Jewish cuisine, like many other tripe and offal dishes—akod scented with cumin, for example. Speaking about tripe, what about shmenka, which Odile Touitou fails to mention but which is very common in Jewish cuisine (Muslims call it marquit kirsha), and which in Turkey is a tripe soup.
In almost all her dishes, Odile Touitou uses harissa, the ‘infernal’ condiment—a very piquant red pepprer paste—typical of Tunisian cuisine.

Eating regulations dictated by religion have conspicous impact on choice of food and the formation of the culinary heritage. The few prohibitions imposed by Islam concern mainly pork and blood. The Jews, instead, have to respect endless prohibtions and can’t even eat dishes that combine meat and milk and its by-products—such as cheese and ham pies, lamb couscus with butter or fermented milk—snails, rabbit and all the other fish and animals banned by their religion. In so far as kosher meat is analogous to halal meat Jewish cookery is totally legitimate for a Muslim. Contrariwise, a practising Tunisian Jew, or at least one who respects the family culinary tradition, cannot share a meal with a Tunisian Muslim. But sharing takes place, nonetheless.

Odile Touitou, Tunisie. La cuisine de ma mère. Fotografie di Isabelle Rozenbaum, Minerva, Genève, 2003.
35 Euro (distributed by www.lamartinière.fr)

Adapted by John Irving

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