We were in the Dar el Jeld, but we could have been in a jewel box for all you knew. The most iconic restaurant in Tunisia filled up an entire mansion, with a plethora of rooms that led out one from another over two floors. Each room had walls that were decorated, in the Tunisian fashion, from floor to ceiling with glazed tiles, each with geometric patterns. Dar el Jeld was a family run restaurant, widely considered to be the best in all of Tunisia. The cooks were largely women – in the Maghreb, women are generally considered to be the better cooks – the oldest one being in her seventies.
Dar el Jeld was a masterpiece of over-the-top colour and chaos. The entire place was buzzing with lively chatter on the evening of our visit: not a table was empty. The in-house musician played his fiddle and the unfamiliar music just added to a sense of the exotic. It was the grand finale of a ten day trip in that magnificent country. We were guests of the International Olive Council, and they wanted to give us – a dozen journalists from all parts of the world – a memorable send-off.
When we sat at the longest table in the restaurant, we were floored by the variety of dishes that were served: it was a kind of culmination of what we had enjoyed all the previous days, but in a far more refined avatar. There are a few favourite dishes in Tunisian cuisine, and we soon got to recognize them during our trips from the North of the country to the centre.
First among equals is couscous. It was the staple at every meal we ate. One of our hosts, Amina explained how it was made. The slightly moistened grains of semolina are alternately dried and moistened till they attain the requisite size. This is then stored in bulk – a family of four would consume around fifty kilos per annum. The annual couscous-making ritual does not find favour with modern nuclear families, claimed Amina, but the drop in quality is enormous. “You just need a few days hard work each year,” she dimpled, making it clear which side she was on.
The start of the meal would be heralded by a grilled salad, which Indian restaurateurs would do well to learn. Chopped bell peppers and tomatoes were grilled to varying degrees, a dash of the fiery chilli paste harissa added and the salad was ready to be topped with some tuna or a few grains of chick peas. Poured over with a shot of the best Tunisian olive oil, it was healthy as well as delicious. Grilled lamb made its way into most of the meals on our trip. Threaded with thyme branches, chunks of lamb were charcoal grilled, the faint smokiness of the charcoal adding immeasurably to the experience.
No account of the cuisine of Tunisia would be complete without a reference to the olive oil grown in the country. Of course, olives grow in all parts of the Mediterranean region. The magic is that each micro-climate and specific soil condition yields a different type of olive species. The varieties of olives that grow in Tunisia grow nowhere else, just as Kalamata only grows in Greece. Further, there are varieties of olives that are suitable only for table olives and others only for oil.
Then too, if you are cooking with olive oil, you need to choose an oil that will match with Indian food. This is by no means easy or obvious. Oils with a very light, grassy flavour will be no match at all for Indian spices. On the other hand, oils with big, bold flavours such as some of the Spanish ones, would overpower Indian food and would sit ill with Indian flavours. Out of all the oils that I myself have tried, and there are at least a couple of dozen olive-producing countries worldwide, I’d say that the Tunisian varieties come closest to our palates. This is also because they cook with exactly the same spices that we do: turmeric, chilli, cumin and coriander.
But there’s much to see around the country, especially along the Mediterranean coast.
The heart of Tunisia is undoubtedly Tunis, its capital, and the heart of Tunis is its unparalleled medina, with labyrinthine souks leading in seemingly chaotic directions. It is easy to get lost in the souks: the Olive Mosque was in the very centre of the medina, with covered alleyways leading to the lane of the perfumers, which in turn leads to the souk of the jewelers and so on. Bargaining is part of the fun. And when the purchase is a trifle more weighty, say jewellery, you will be solicitously offered coffee of your choice. The shopkeeper bristled when I told him I’d like Turkish coffee. “What’s wrong with Tunisian coffee?” he demanded, and indeed I received an elegant thimble of the most delicious black sweetened coffee a few moments later.
One last word of warning: choose your shopping with care. I got carried away and brought up half the souks, but when I got back, my family didn’t believe I had gone away in the first place. For every souvenir I bought in Tunis has a strong parallel with our Indian handicrafts. Talk about twins living apart!