We had come at the urging of our Tunisian friend, Sami Ouhada and his wife, Bonnie. Sami had assured us that "Tunisia is filled with fascinating contrasts, including the oldest Jewish community in Africa," and indeed we were overwhelmed.
This is a land where some of history's greatest empires have left their mark. From the great city of Carthage, once a Phoenician trading post and now a prosperous suburb, to the French who made Tunisia a colony before offering it independence in 1956.
On the island of Djerba, where it's said that Ulysses' companions, intoxicated by the mysterious lotus fruit, lost all desire to leave, Arabs and Jews live peacefully side by side.
In the countryside, Berbers tend their flocks, moving constantly to wherever the grass is greener. And Tunis is embracing the 21st century with multifaceted sophistication and all the activity of major Western cities.
Avenue Bourguiba -- the main thoroughfare named after the first president -- is modeled on the Champs élysées. Lined with stores, banks and cafes, it's the place to people-watch while sipping my favorite Tunisian beverage -- mint tea with pine nuts.
The bustling souk, or marketplace, located at the end of the Avenue is divided into different areas each selling specific items. For example there is the souk bijouterie, the perfume-makers souk and a souk where souvenirs displayed at dusty storefronts are bargained for.
In Tunis burkhas (the head-to-toe coverings worn by Muslim women) are rarely seen, and Western dress is the norm. In this country of close to 10 million, it's noted that nearly 80 percent of the population are considered middle class. Women work in the government, professional business and service areas, and Tunisians are proud of the fact that the pay scale for men and women is equal.
There has always been a Jewish presence in Tunisia. In 1948, the Jewish population was estimated at 105,000. By 1967, the population had shrunk to 20,000, most Jews immigrating to Israel and France. Today, approximately 1,500 Jews live in Tunisia, most living on the island of Djerba where it's believed that there has been a synagogue for the past 1,900 years.
The El Ghriba synagogue in the village of Hara Schira was constructed in the late 19th century on the original site. The Jewish community supports a kindergarten, primary and secondary schools, a yeshiva and a rabbi. Since most Tunisian Jews observe kashruth, in Tunis there are two kosher butchers, a shochet and the Chief Rabbi of Tunisia. There are several kosher restaurants, including Mama Lille, popular with Jews and Muslims, located in La Goulette.
Tunisia is a country where Tunisians go out of their way to be helpful and hospitable to tourists. But it was the glorious aesthetic blend of flavors, color and textures that kept my camera clicking and tantalized my taste buds.
And it was easy to indulge when dinner in Dar El Jeld, the best and most luxurious restaurant in Tunis cost less than $30 per person. At Le Café Vert, a popular fish place round the corner from the synagogue in the town of La Goulette, full-course meals include fresh, whole grilled red snapper and Tunisian tea (mint tea with pine nuts); the bill came to $15 per person.
Fresh produce, grown locally, is cheap and plentiful. Fruit salads of sun-ripened melons and strawberries spiked with mint are arranged with as much care as you'd find on an artist's palette, and pottery bowls are piled with golden apricots, dates on the stem and crunchy miniature yellow pears. (I never could find out the correct name of them.)
Tunisia is a Muslim country, so pork or alcoholic drinks are not served. Vegetables, spiked with hot peppers and herbs, top the ingredient list of every dish. Couscous made from granular semolina (coarsely ground durum wheat) is a staple in Tunisian and North African cuisine.
Enormous dishes of couscous take a prominent place on lunch and dinner tables, but the item is always served along with fish, poultry, meats and hunks of cooked vegetables, such as carrots, zucchini, turnips and sweet potatoes. The name refers to a famous North African dish where the semolina is steamed in the top part of a special pot called a couscoussiére, while a stew-like concoction of lamb or chicken chunks with chickpeas simmers in the bottom of the pot.
In Tunisia, the couscous is spiked with a fiery pepper mixture called harissa, jokingly referred to by a Tunisian friend as "Tunisian marmalade." Every Tunisian kitchen has at least one couscoussiére; home cooks would never dream of using our small portions of precooked, packaged couscous.
The street food of Tunis -- briks (pronounced "breeks") -- is so delicious that I ate one at every opportunity -- lunch, dinner and as a snack. Fortunately, we did a lot of walking to burn off calories. Briks are deep-fried savory pastry turnovers. The main ingredient is a raw egg, which goes into every one, no matter what other items are included.
In Tunisia, the dough used for making briks is called malsuqa. The thin, phyllo-like sheets are made from very fine semolina flour. Today, these sheets are available in Tunisian markets, so that all cooks need to do is to prepare a filling before frying.
For American cooks, Chinese egg-roll wrappers work perfectly, and are available in supermarkets. When assembled, briks are fried in olive oil until golden and crispy on the outside; inside, the egg yolk is runny. The whole process takes less than a minute.
If you prefer a firmer egg, the brik is cooked a few seconds longer. (As soon as I returned home and recovered from jet lag, I ran to the market, picked up a package of egg-roll wrappers, and cooked up half-a-dozen briks for lunch.) The same dough is used for "fingers of Fatima" cigar-like pastries that may be filled with sweet or savory fillings before being deep-fried.
As I ate my first brik at the Café du Theater on Avenue Bourguiba, I was instructed in the correct way to do so. "Eat with your fingers, never a knife and fork, and start in the middle so that the runny yolk spills into your mouth." The aim is not to allow any of the yolk to dribble onto your chin -- or clothes. After the first delicious mouthful (and a dab of Tide to go on my shirt), I became an expert.
About 500 Jews live in Tunis, which has several synagogues. Daniel Cohen, who grew up in Djerba, moved to La Goulette with his wife and seven children. We joined 15 or so worshippers for Minchah services at the tiny synagogue where he is rabbi.
At the end of services, instead of a spice box, a vase of fragrant geranium-like leaves was passed round. In keeping with the hospitality found everywhere, congregants Evelyn and Rolaand Saada invited us to their home for dinner on Shavuot.
This is where we savored a host of Tunisian Jewish dishes, like a tagine with artichokes and cheese, chicken with apricots and prunes, and trays of cookies, including mini-briks stuffed with ground almonds scented with rose water and glazed with honey.
If you can't manage a visit to Tunisia, try the next best thing -- typical recipes from this marvelous country, some from the Jewish community. They come just in time for the holidays.
Potato, Artichoke and Parsley Tagine
(Pareve)In Morocco, a tagine is a stew cooked in an earthenware dish. In Tunisia, a tagine is an egg dish similar to a frittata, and baked in a round dish. Use cayenne pepper judiciously!
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 bunch parsley, coarsely chopped (about 11/4 cups packed)
6 canned artichokes, drained and quartered
11/2 cups mashed potatoes
1 cup soft white breadcrumbs
6 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp. bottled minced garlic
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper or to taste
salt to taste
Preheat oven to 350°.
Spray a deep 8- or 9-inch ovenproof casserole with nonstick cooking spray. You can grease with olive oil instead.
Heat oil in a small saucepan over medium heat.
Add the onion and parsley. Sauté until onion is translucent. Add the artichokes; heat through.
In a bowl, combine the potatoes, breadcrumbs, eggs and garlic. Stir in onion mixture, cayenne and salt to taste. Transfer to casserole dish.
Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until golden-brown and center is firm to the touch.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 275; protein, 8 g; carbohydrates, 36 g; fat, 11 g; cholesterol, 159 mg; sodium, 113 mg.
Chicken With Apricots and Prunes
2 Tbsps. olive oil
1 kosher chicken (31/2 lbs.), cut in 8 pieces
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 Tbsp. grated ginger root
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 cup kosher chicken broth or water
salt and freshly ground pepper
10 to 12 dried apricots
6-8 pitted prunes
2-3 Tbsps. pine nuts
Heat the oil in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat.
Add the chicken and cook, turning, until golden-brown on all sides.
Add the onion, ginger root, cinnamon, chicken broth or water, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Cover and simmer for 45 minutes. Baste often.
If needed, add a little more broth or water. Add the apricots and prunes. Cover and simmer 15 minutes longer, or until cooked.
Adjust seasoning. Serve garnished with pine nuts.
Serves 4 to 6.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 261; protein, 6 g; carbohydrates, 28 g; fat, 15 g; cholesterol, 29 mg; sodium, 36 mg.
Sweet Almond 'Briks'
(Pareve)A mixture of nuts may be substituted for almonds. One tablespoon of plain yogurt may be substituted for the egg yolk, making the dish dairy.
1 cup finely ground almonds
2 Tbsps. sugar
1 tsp. rose water
1 egg, divided
1 Tbsp. pareve margarine, melted
5-6 Chinese egg-roll wrappers
oil for frying
2 Tbsps. honey, warmed*
2 tsps. lemon juice
*may substitute 1 Tbsp. confectioners' sugar
In a small bowl, combine the nuts, sugar, rose water, egg yolk and melted margarine. Set aside.
Cut each egg-roll wrapper diagonally in half. Place 1 tablespoon of the almond mixture on the center of each triangle.
Brush the edges with the egg white, lightly beaten. Cover as in a triangular turnover and press the edges to seal.
Heat 2 cups olive or vegetable oil in a deep heavy saucepan or skillet to 375°. Test by tossing in a small bread cube, which should brown in 60 seconds.
Carefully slide the briks into the hot oil, two or three at a time.
Fry the briks, turning once, 20 to 25 seconds, or until golden-brown. Remove with a slotted spoon. Drain on paper towels.
Combine the honey and lemon juice. Brush over briks, or just dust with confectioners' sugar.
Makes 10 to 12.
Approximate nutrients per brik: calories, 198; protein, 3 g; carbohydrates, 8 g; fat, 18 g; cholesterol, 19 mg; sodium, 18 mg.
(Pareve)Tunisian tea is served in very small glasses (4 oz. to 6 oz. each). Often, instead of pine nuts, the mint tea is served with a bowl of white, silky almonds alongside.
3 cups boiling water
2 tea bags, such as Darjeeling or English Breakfast
4-5 sprigs fresh mint
1 Tbsp. sugar
4 Tbsps. pine nuts
In a heat-proof pitcher, pour the boiling water over the tea bags. Squeeze the mint sprigs between your fingers to help extract the flavor. Stir into the tea.
Add the sugar and stir to dissolve. Let stand at room temperature 3 to 4 hours, stirring occasionally. Strain.
If desired, add more sugar or sweetener to taste. Reheat the tea in the microwave.
Place 1 tablespoon of pine nuts into each of four heat-proof glasses. Pour the hot tea over.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 60; protein, 2 g; carbohydrates, 4 g; fat, 4 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 0 mg.