Sausages and strips of meat drying out in the sun on washing lines, the skin of a lamb spread out on the ground, secured by large stones. This is the scene that meets you on rooftop terraces and balconies in Tunisian cities on the day after the Feast of the Sacrifice.
To commemorate the prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, once a year, on the tenth day of the month of Dhu-l-Higgia (the last month of the year of the Egira), which corresponds to the tenth day of the pilgrimage to the Mecca, Muslims sacrifice an animal, usually a sheep. One part is used as a gift and has to be given to the recipient—either a poor family or a family in mourning—on the day itself. One or more than one living sheep may be offered, according to availability.
From head to foot
The meat to be eaten in the family is divided into two parts: one to be eaten fresh on the day of the Feast of the Sacrifice and the days afterwards, the other to be saved for the New Year’s lunch and other meals without any religious connotation in the course of subsequent months.
The first day select pieces—cutlets, chunks cut from the leg and skewered on kebabs, pieces of liver, spleen and sweetbreads—are roast over a coal fire. A few days later, a shoulder is cooked, either whole in the oven or cubed and stewed with peas or other vegetables. The trotters are used to make hargma, while the head is roast in the oven by itself or cooked with the trotters to make hargma grighiyya, literally hargma Greek-style. The brain is stewed with peppers, tomatoes and eggs and the tongue is stuffed. Then come the innards, the lungs, the stomach (rumen), the honeycomb tripe, the intestines and so on. Cleaning these parts is the most bothersome job the first day before Aid el-Kebir: they have to be washed with plenty of water, scraped, rinsed several times, and impregnated with salt, then left to rest for a night before a final soaking. Some of the innards—pieces of lung, heart, liver, kidney, sweetbreads, meat, tail fat—are cooked together with olive oil, a drop of water, and curcuma (or saffron, when available) to make qlaya. The ingredients are cooked gently over a very low flame for hours until the sauce is well reduced. It is served sprinkled with finely chopped parsley and onion. The rest of the innards, including the tripe, are used to make osban, ‘pockets’ made of pieces cut from the abdominal wall, filled with bits of heart, liver, stomach, chopped chard, parsley, rice and so on, sewn together and cooked in the couscous stock. The innards are the first part of the animal to be eaten since, after the sheep is slaughtered, the meat is still very tough and has to rest a few days to tenderize.
Muslim ‘cured meats’
The best cuts are sun-dried for long conservation. The procedure is very straightforward: the meat is marinated in salt and garlic, dried in the sun, then cooked in olive oil and mutton fat. Three types of cured meat are prepared: qaddid, dry osban and merghez. Gaddid are made simply from finely sliced meat marinated in salt, spices and dry mint overnight, then dried. Osban are like faggots, small parcels bound up in fine sheep’s casing; more delicate to prepare, they consist of pre-dried bits of stomach and intestine stuffed with bits of poached and dried liver, heart and lung. The stuffing ingredients are also soaked in brine following the same procedure used for qaddid. The small pockets are then left to dry in the sun for a few days. Merghez are simply spicy sausages sun-dried together with the qaddid and the osban. After drying, these three forms of cured mutton are fried in abundant olive oil and liyya, mutton tail fat (not always available since some sheep breeds—those in the north of Tunisia, for example—have no fat deposits in their tails) and preserved in glass jars. Dhane, the fat that oozes out during the cooking process, is impregnated with the flavor of the meat and the aroma of the mint, coriander and caraway and is used to dress vegetable fishes and makes them deliciously succulent. It’s a hundred times better than a stock cube and much better for you. After all, the meat is halal (permitted by Islamic law) and sacred as well!
The cuscus of the New Year of the Egira
The Tunisians also preserve cuts of meat they used to prepare the traditional couscous of the New Year of the Egira, celebrated twenty days after the Feast of the Sacrifice, in the evening since the new lunar month starts at moonrise (whereas the day after they eat mlukhiyya for lunch: cfr. Lilia Zaouali, Mlukhiyya and the Old New Year, 23/01/2004). The main piece is the lower jaw of the sacrificed animal, but other pieces are also added, cut from the fleshiest part of the sheep, the shoulder. These pieces of qaddid aren’t fried in oil after drying, but keep well preserved in oil for 20 days or so. The stock for the couscous is made with preserved mutton fat, pieces of qaddid, dried, unfried osban and dry butter beans. This is the only Tunisian couscous recipe that doesn’t feature tomato and pepper. This testifies to the ancientness of a dish whose sacred character has prevented it from being transformed or supplemented by foodstuffs introduced after the discovery of America.
Since Muslim feasts have taken place in the winter, every year the question is, “Will the weather be fine?”. The sequence of the feasts is established in relation to the moon’s motion round the earth; hence for some years the Feast of the Sacrifice has taken place in the middle of winter and will continue to do so for another ten or so. This is a benefit for pilgrims (this year the temperature at the Mecca varied from 17 to 30°C), but creates a number of problems when it comes to drying meat in the northern parts of the Maghreb countries.
<Adapted by John Irving