The food of Tunisia, is a mix of Mediterranean and desert dweller's culinary traditions. Its distinctive spicy fieriness comes from neighbouring Mediterranean countries and the countless civilizations who have ruled Tunisian land: Phoenician, Roman, Arab, Turkish, French, as well as the native Berber people. Many of the cooking styles and utensils began to take shape when the ancient tribes were nomads. Nomadic people were limited in their cooking by what locally made pots and pans they may carry with them. A tagine is really the name of a conical-lidded pot, although today the same word is applied to what is cooked in it.
Like all countries in the Mediterranean basin, Tunisia offers a "sun cuisine," dependent chiefly on olive oil, spices, tomatoes, seafood (an extensive range of fish) and meat from rearing (lamb). Couscous is the national dish of Tunisia which can be prepared in many ways, and known as the best couscous of North Africa. It's cooked in a special kind of double boiler, resembling a Chinese steamer atop a Mongolian pot. Meats, vegetables and spices are cooked in the lower pot. Cooking steam rises through the vents in the next stage. It's layered with whole herbs such as bay leaves and covered with fine grain couscous. The couscous pasta is therefore cooked with aromatic steam. During the cooking process, the couscous must be regularly stirred with a fork to avoid lumping in the manner of the risotto. Choice meats are traditionally lamb (kousksi bil ghalmi) or chicken (kousksi bil djaj). But with regional flair, one can substitute either meat with red snapper, grouper (kousksi bil mannani), sea bass (kousksi bil warqua), hare (kousksi bil arnab) or quail (kousksi bil hjall). And although there are various ways to prepare and compose the dish, a classic recipe would incorporate the following ingredients: salted butter, bell peppers, shallots, Spanish onions, garlic, potatoes, tomatoes, chick peas, chilli pepper, hrissa, celery, cinnamon, black peppercorn, carrots, turnips and squash. The concept is that the dish contains many vegetables, as long as you use various Mediterranean ingredients, you are doing alright.
For the dish presentation, first layer the couscous in a mound, then layer the vegetables and finally position the meat. Finish the presentation with a drizzle from the sauce and sprinkle some fresh parsley, basil or mint (for lamb and mutton). Substituting the fine grain couscous for orzo, rice, Israeli couscous or barley is not acceptable. In some regions, a medium grain couscous is seldom used.
A short list of typical Tunisian dishes would include: brik (a fried phyllo dough stuffed with tuna and an egg), tajin (like a frittata or a quiche), shorba (soups), slata (salads), marqua (stews), rishta (pastas), samsa (a popular pastry), kifta (ground meat), kaak (pastries), gnawiya (gombos), merguez (lamb sausage) and shakshouka (ratatouille).
Unlike Moroccan tajines, a tajine in Tunisia usually refers to a type of "quiche", without a crust, made with beaten eggs, grated cheese, meat and various vegetable fillings and baked like a sizable cake.
A popular seafood speciality is the 'poisson complet' or the complete fish. The entire fish, excluding internal organs, is prepared and fire-grilled but, it may be fried, grilled or sautéed. It's accompanied with potato chips and, either mild or spicy, tastira. The peppers are grilled with a little tomato, lots of onion and a little garlic, all of which is finely chopped and served with an egg poached or sunny side up. Sprinkle with fresh parsley finely chopped, a drizzle of lemon juice plus a pinch of sea salt.
Tunisian food combines Arabic, Berber, European and Middle Eastern elements. Dishes are cooked with olive oil, spiced with aniseed, coriander, cumin, caraway, cinnamon or saffron and flavoured with mint, orange blossom or rose water; many are accompanied by harissa, a spicy chilli and garlic condiment. On the coast you'll find fresh seafood, while in the southern Sahara region menus often feature Berber specialties, most notably rustic, wholesome stews. Roast chicken and baked lamb dishes are popular throughout the country, as are dishes featuring couscous. Salads form an integral part of the diet all year-round, are simple and lightly dressed.
If you've a sweet tooth, you won't be disappointed in Tunisia. There is a dizzying array of Middle Eastern-style sweets and cakes to choose from, often containing plenty of nuts and drenched in honey or syrup. There are also delicious pastries left over from the years of French rule, so expect plenty of melt-in-the-mouth croissants and pains au chocolat.
Couscous: Ground semolina served with meat, fish or vegetable sauce.
Harissa: A hot paste derived from chillies, tomatoes, spices and olive oil.
Salade mechouia: Roasted vegetable salad, particularly peppers, sometimes topped with boiled eggs slices.
Tajine: A kind of spiced quiche, served cold, not to be confused with the Moroccan dish of the same name.
Brik: The Tunisian version of Turkish borek, a deep-fried filled pastry. Common ingredients include tuna, egg, onions, capers and parsley.
Merguez: A heavily spiced beef sausage.
Filfilmahshi: Peppers stuffed with beef and harissa.
Lablabi: Chickpea soup with lashings of garlic and cumin.
Marqa: A slow-cooked stew of meat and vegetables, particularly tomatoes and olives.
Ojja: Tunisian scrambled eggs, usually spiced with harissa, as well as tomatoes, peppers and sometimes meat.