Updated: Jul 9, 2021
I spent the month of April in Tunisia for work. Our family had actually already visited 7 years before, taking advantage of being stationed in Egypt and having our friend Claire doing advanced Arabic language training in Tunis (as the State Department used to do). Tunis was the pearl of the Near East bureau for the foreign affairs agencies. It’s definitely Arab, but with a wonderfully European feel. You get the best of all worlds in Tunisia, a fascinating culture, food with Arab, Berber and French flair, beautiful Mediterranean beaches, unbelievable Roman ruins, the list goes on. Oh, and then there is Star Wars. Many desert scenes in the Star Wars series were filmed here. Tatouine exists!
But then, chaos erupted in the streets of Northern Africa. Tunisia is the birthplace of the Arab Spring. In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after the police confiscated his vegetable cart. Since that day, thanks to 24 hour cable news, we’ve all been witness to the events in the middle east. Tunisia has had some rough times since its revolution, which included an attack on the U.S. Embassy and American school in September 2012. After successful elections in January 2015, things were looking up in Tunisia until a small group of extremists attacked the Bardo. The Bardo is easily one of humankind’s most amazing museums, housing unbelievable mosiacs from the Roman era. Ornate mosaics used to line the floors of Roman villas throughout what is now Tunisia, and the finest works were brought to the Bardo. On March 18, 2015, militants took aim at Tunisia’s fragile economy, and killed 20 tourists who were visiting the Bardo that day. My heart sank. Tunisia is the hope for the Arab Spring. Hope for democracy, hope for transparency, hope for economic success that reaches to the poorest citizens. Tourism is a very large part of their economy, and the Bardo attack will hurt Tunisia. Some tour operators say that bookings are down 60% from last year’s dismal numbers.
This blog post is about food, yes, but also about travel. So I want to emphasize that Tunisia is a wonderful place to visit. Although it is plagued by violence on its borders with Algeria and Libya, as well as a tendency for her young men to leave Tunisia and join ISIS, the people that I encountered are incredibly warm and friendly, and they have a great optimism for the future of their country. Tunisia deserves better, and I hope they can overcome the security situation and return to being an amazing tourist destination. Because, you will find great food here!
Because of the security situation, the U.S. Embassy has been what we in the diplomatic service call “unaccompanied” meaning that officers cannot bring their spouses and children with them. We have more and more unaccompanied posts, not just Iraq and Afghanistan, which is a sad reflection of the state of affairs these days. The Embassy also has a good number of “TDYers”, or people on temporary duty, like me in this instance. A group of us TDYers decided to venture down to El Djem, 2 1/2 hours south of Tunis, to visit a beautiful Roman colosseum. I had heard of El Djem before, and it’s been on my to-do list for a while. It did not disappoint. While it’s smaller than the colosseum in Rome, the underground caverns are wonderfully well preserved, as is a good part of the seating area on one side. Before we got to the colosseum, though, we went to the museum in El Djem, which is a mini version of the Bardo. When you venture out behind the museum, you can actually walk into the ruins of the Roman town and see some of the less detailed mosaics in situ. They have even reconstructed one Roman villa to give you an idea of the layout. It’s really amazing.
After wandering around and touching 1800 years of history, our tour guide asked us if we would like lamb for lunch on our way home. Why not? About 15 minutes just on the outskirts of town we stop at an intersection. I had seen this intersection on the way in. It was disturbing. They were killing the sheep, basically on the side of the road. Guess what? This was lunch. We walked up to the restaurant as they were letting the blood of a sheep. I got to watch them skin the sheep while we waited for lunch. They had 3 or 4 carcuses hanging from the wooden structure providing shade to the butcher and the man working the grill. The only decision we had to make was how much to order. The tour guide decided on 2 kilos. We also got some typical Tunisian bread which is a thick and dense disk and can have cumin seeds – it’s pretty darn tasty. We also ordered some mechouia – a kind of Middle Eastern mezze, made from a green pepper that has been grilled and peeled, then made into a paste with other spices. Find the recipes below. The mechouia I’ve had in Tunisia doesn’t have tuna on it, but I have learned that the Tunisians love their tuna, and it frequently makes it on to a lot of dishes.
The grilled meat came, hacked into many boney pieces. We were eating Berber style (Berbers are the bedouins of North Africa). There are no utensils, you just need to dig into everything with your hands. They threw some onions and parsley on the meat, along with a squeeze of lemon. It was the freshest meat I will probably ever eat. I also couldn’t eat a whole lot because I’ve never actually watched my food being slaughtered, and it’s disturbing. I have to say though, the experience did’t turn me into a vegetarian. We did ask, and apparently they go through about 8 sheep a day. It’s a popular place.