A Jewish Tunisian Dinner in Italy

By | Jul 17, 2012

by Daniela Enriquez

Tunisian couscous

What is the first thing I think about when I go back home to Sicily? A Tunisian family dinner, of course. As the daughter of a Tunisian Jew and a Sicilian Catholic, I inherited an eclectic culinary tradition, and when I go home, it’s my aunts’ couscous, my father’s briks and fricassees and my cousin’s honey cookies I look forward to the most.

Picture this: the 31 of us all together, father and mother, 4 aunts and an uncle all with their respective husbands and wives, 12 cousins with partners and offspring and Luigi, my cousins’ son and the latest addition to the family. We are all dressed in kaftans–in order to create an atmosphere, rather than a regular family tradition. Perhaps this is a way of feeling closer to those Jews who remained in Tunisia, and now live under precarious conditions. The language spoken is Italian, with some Sicilian influence. The location is definitively Mediterranean: a villa in the mountain from which you can see the sea.

The plates, authentic Tunisian ceramics, are on the table and everyone has their own glass of mint lemonade. We are all quite starving–thanks to the usual latecomer–when the first dish, the briks, arrives. This is a deep-fried triangular envelope of filo dough, stuffed with tuna fish, mashed potatoes, capers and harissa, a traditional Tunisian condiment made with peppers, garlic and spices like coriander and chili powder.

Crunching sounds start everywhere, as do attempts to save the fried crumbs from inexorably falling on the floor. The mix of potatoes and tuna fish is delicious, and melts into the mouth perfectly. But someone has already turned to the second dish, the fricassees.

This short sandwich is probably my favorite. You can stuff it with several Mediterranean ingredients: olive; home-made mayonnaise; vegetables; and spices. The Tunisian Jewish tradition in my family is to grab a warm fricassee panini, and, with bare hands, open and stuff it with a mix of tuna fish and harissa (again!), boiled potatoes and a tomato-cucumber salad. The fresh salad wakes you up and is amazing mixed with the hot ingredients. Some advice for those who want to try it? Be sure that everybody’s hands are clean before you start the stuffing part!

After this festival of Sephardi food, we all take a break. The men go smoking, my cousins and I discuss the latest scandals, the kids play with the cats, and my aunts go into the kitchen to be sure that the main entrée is turning out perfectly.

After 15 minutes, everyone is back in their chairs looking at each other with expectation. Then, it arrives: the huge couscoussiere with its contents. There are several ways to make couscous: you can stick with boiled vegetables, in the event that you have some vegetarian guests, or you can add beef or fish. You could even prepare meat, fish and vegetables, and put them on different plates so that all are free to choose.

My aunts don’t leave room for compromise. Couscous has to be made in the way my grandmother taught them, back in the days when they used to spend summers at the family house in Tunis. So it will be couscous with vegetables, chickpeas and meat.

Now the situation starts to get difficult. If you’ve ever had Tunisian couscous,  you know it’s spicy. The biggest mistake  is to drink cold water in order to cool the spices’ effect. Why? Because couscous, in contact with water, enlarges and makes your belly swell, leaving you feeling over-satiated. It seems almost like a horror movie scene. But trust me: if you can manage not to drink, it is an amazing dish, easy to prepare and suiting all tastes.

While fricassees are my favorite dish, the moment I enjoy the most is the conclusion of the dinner. While eating honey cookies and drinking hot mint tea, the older ones tell stories of their life in Tunisia and we, the young generation, are all ears in an effort to discover traces of our Jewish Tunisian origins in our Italian souls.

To read more about the Tunisian Jewish community, pick up a copy of our July/August issue, in which The Washington Post‘s Marc Fisher reports on the state of Jewish life in the North African country.

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