The people who live at the edge of the Sahara, far from the sea and the fertile plains—what do they eat? A very simple, plain diet, one might imagine, maybe a little dull, dependent on the meager fare this arid land has to offer: dates, camel’s milk, mutton and lamb, the odd wild plant. But it’s only by delving below the surface that one discovers the hidden side of things—in the case in point, the family cooking of southern Tunisia. It may not be served in restaurants, but it’s a cuisine that amazes for its richness and originality. Who knows the extravagance and excess that punctuate the lives of the people of the desert?
Once over, man dominated the desert and its tracks. He built the fairytale cities that appear like mirages as you approach the oases, just like the ‘Treni di Tozeur’, the trains of Tozeur the Italian singer-songwriter imagines he can see crossing the desert. The small town of Tozeur was a compulsory stopping point on the old pilgrimage route for the faithful from Morocco and central Algeria. Commercial and cultural exchanges flourished before colonial frontiers were established. Tozeur, capital of the Tunisian oasis region, known as Bilad el Djerid, ‘the land of palms’, boasts the largest palm grove of all those scattered round three chott, or salt lakes, the largest of which is Chott el Djerid.
I remember crossing this chott one year at the start of August, following a track that, on account of sandstorms, had already become impassable as of July 25. There was no sign anywhere to warn of the danger. Thus, right at the center of the chott, the track vanished, as if gobbled up by the sand, and my hired car ended up getting stuck! A menacing sun made mirages flicker on the horizon of salt—no point of reference anywhere to be seen. Then, all of a sudden, as if by sheer miracle, an old camel-driver with a wry smile came to the rescue. After that narrow escape, I continued my excursion round the chott—Tozeur and Nefta to the north-west, Kébili e Douz (famous for its 500 springs) to the south)—with the utmost caution.
The desert stops being desert when it’s crossed by man. The Sahara area of Tunisia is dotted with small domed buildings with white walls. These are the so-called zaouias , mausoleums that guard the remains of local sages and sufi, immortalized by their disciples to whom they have handed down their learning and teachings. There are hundreds of these buildings. They rise up all around the oases, even on the most isolated sand dunes. They are the destination for ritual visits; for meditation on the tombs of the saints and for prayer— but also for enjoyment. The zaouias are extraordinary places, at once sacred and profane, where families and sometimes the populations of whole villages from far off in the various regions of the south meet and get together.
On such occasions religious ceremonies are organized and great meals prepared and served to the members of the confraternity of the saint to whom the mausoleum is dedicated, to pilgrims and to anyone else who happens to enter. After a procession, the sacrificial meal is shared and food exchanged. The meals prepared inside the mausoleum take on a sacred hence beneficial connotation, and the reciprocal tasting of dishes is compulsory.
Travellers, merchants and pilgrims bring the most wild and wonderful food with them in their bags. The various recipes thus ‘get around’.
Returning to the question of the plain culinary culture imposed by the semi-desert environment, it’s worth pointing out that ‘simple cooking’ doesn’t necessarily mean poor, unimaginative food. The use of spices and aromatic plants imported from the Far East and Africa south of the Sahara turns even the blandest foodstuff into a dish with an exotic flavor.
Offah is an essential condiment in the cooking of the inhabitants of the oases. Women prepare this ingenious blend of spices once a year.
The most traditional recipe contains 12 ingredients and to make 5 kilos it takes 2.5 kilos of coriander seeds and another 2.5 kilos of a variety of ingredients—caraway, cumin, green aniseed, cinnamon, gallnut (just 10 g), rose buds, curcuma, dried chili (about 1kg!), dried garlic, cloves and black pepper — in variable portions.
This ‘bomb’ of a mixture is capable of livening up the blandness of the cooking of the poor! Two spoonfuls of the condiment are sufficient to heighten the flavor of the daily couscous, the thin stock for which is made without meat and with no other vegetables than onions—and, on occasion, wild cabbage—with a little olive oil.
But when the holidays come, people let it rip. One of the traditional dishes of the inhabitants of the Tunisian oases is barkoukich, a recipe that perfectly reflects the intense exchanges that take place between this region and the coast and wheat-growing areas. The dish is an original combination of dried fish and octopus steamed with the coarse couscous from which it takes its name. The basic stock is very rich and thick and contains: broad beans, chickpeas (in the other areas of Tunisia only one of the two pulses is used at a time), lentils, fenugreek seeds, chard and dried apricots!
Revelry and plenty! Lentils, broad beans and fenugreek are grown in the area of the plateaus north of the oases. Fenugreek (trigonella foenum graecum) is a plant that originated in the Middle East and is a common ingredient in southern Tunisian cooking.
Exceptionally antioxidant, it also possesses many other properties. It stimulates the appetite and lactation and it regulates glycemia levels; most important of all, the people of the oases because “it purifies the blood”.
The dried fish and octopus arrive from Gabès, the southern coastal city closest to the oases. Before the invention of the icebox, fresh fish couldn’t reach the inland regions of Tunisia ‘in good condition’, since these are areas in which the temperature is very high all year round. Hence the populations of the oases had to make do with dried fish.
For a long time the city of Gabès specialized in drying fish and octopus to export to the Saharan populations of Tunisia and Tripolitania, and the tradition of eating these foodstuffs wasn’t lost even with the advent of the icebox. So it would appear that flavors and eating habits are perfectly capable of surviving modernity.
* Mohamed Kouki, La cuisine tunisienne d’Ommok Sannafa, Tunis 1989
Lilia Zaouali a lecturer in ‘Anthropology of the Islamic World’ at the University of Jussieu, Paris.
Adapted by John Irving