The best way to Fake You’re in Tunis Tonight
While your travel plans may be put on hold, you can pretend you’re somewhere new for the night. Home Around the World invites you to channel the spirit of a new place each week with recommendations on how to explore the culture from the comfort of your home.
There are worse places than the old medina of Tunis, a dizzying labyrinth of old alleys. As I found out during my visit to the Tunisian capital, there is so much to see: the vendors handing out spices, the cats watching the afternoon from sun-drenched goats, the groups of friends sitting at crowded tables and mint tea drink. You can pass the open window of a traditional music school and hear excerpts of a haunting song that is hundreds of years old, or from another shop the beat of techno music accompanying an experimental art exhibition.
It’s hard to believe that all of this exists in just one corner of a sprawling, cosmopolitan and complex city at the tip of North Africa. Elsewhere, there are nightclubs stretching out onto white sandy beaches, cafe districts that wouldn’t be out of place in southern Europe, and Roman ruins that hint at their place in history as the gateway to Africa and the center of Mediterranean trade. It is a lot to take in a single visit and I look forward to my next one. In the meantime, I’ll be following these tips to make me feel like I’m back in Tunis, even if I’m only here for one night.
Cooking with Harissa
Tunisian cuisine is sometimes hearty, sometimes delicate. It can be spicy, but not afraid of a little sweetness. It’s also full of history. Arabs, Romans, Sicilians, Byzantines, Berbers and more have at one time or another referred to this land as the Mediterranean country, and all of this is shown at meals. Rafram Chaddad, artist and food researcher, spends much of his time following this story, with a particular interest in the food culture of Tunisian Jews like his own family. He consulted several old recipes to find this one, for a fried sea bass with dried rose petals and harissa, an ubiquitous hot chili paste. Mr. Chaddad’s recipe featured in Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s “Jerusalem”, a collection of recipes from around the world converging in this city, underscores the importance of seafood to Tunis’s food scene.
“Fish in the Tunisian Sea are special,” said Chaddad, who grew up in Jerusalem and recently returned to Tunis. He pointed out that the hot temperatures and shallow depths make for a special taste. “The seafood here is kissed by the sun.” While you may not be able to get your hands on real Tunisian sea bass, the flavors – the way the pungency of the harissa plays with the scents of the rose petals – are enough for the city’s cuisine.
Make sure the egg is runny
For a snack, Mr Chaddad recommends Brik a l’oeuf, a deep-fried cousin of the dumpling, filled with a combination of tuna, potatoes, onions, capers, harissa (of course) and, the star, a liquid egg yolk that sticks over yours when you first bite Plate drips. His recipe, which is also featured in “Jerusalem”, was featured in an article on the travel website Roads and Kingdoms along with an iteration of a Tunisian grandmother. Sarah Souli, a journalist whose ties to the Tunisian capital are closely tied to visits to her grandmother, told me that she would not dare try it herself, even if she encouraged others who wanted a taste of Tunis.
“I don’t cook brik at home because I think longing is an important part of loving,” said Ms. Souli. “I will wait until I can return to Tunis and Memeti, my grandmother, makes me one.”
Or place an order
If the thought of making your own Tunisian pastries is daunting and you happen to find yourself in the US, you can order a box of them. New Jersey-based Layla’s Delicacies delivers boxes of pastries across the country to Tunisians who miss the taste of home.
“Tunisian pastries are traditionally made by hand at home and made with the finest ingredients. It takes an incredible amount of time and attention to detail, ”said Rim Ben Amara, the company’s founder.
While the pastry is the most common feature of gatherings, there’s no shame in digging into a box yourself. For something you’d come across in Tunis, try kaak warka, a donut treat filled with almond paste and rose water, or samsa, a triangular sweet pastry coated with pistachios and filled with almonds and hazelnuts.
Take a museum tour
Tunis is full of history: the mausoleums of the medina that have remained unchanged for centuries; the Roman ruins at the original Carthage site in the city’s northeastern suburbs; and the Bardo Museum, a sprawling 19th-century palace that houses one of the largest collections of Roman mosaics in the world. There’s nothing like seeing them in person, but you can get a sense of the size and craftsmanship of the ancient works of art through a virtual tour that allows you to roam the halls of the palace at your own pace.
But don’t forget the contemporary art scene
You should also get a taste of the contemporary art scene, which can be found in art galleries and pop-up events across the city. Dora Dalila Cheffi, a Finnish-Tunisian artist, paints colorful tableaus, often inspired by the city she now calls home. Some of their work can be viewed online. Scenes from across the city are interspersed with more esoteric interpretations of Tunisian life.
“The slow pace of life, the light, and the general atmosphere are great for the type of work I do,” she said, describing how her work has evolved over time. “There are fewer landscapes now, but that doesn’t mean that the work doesn’t talk about life in Tunisia. If anything, more. “
Ms. Cheffi also recommends transporting yourself to the city through the work of a street art duo, ST4. Their work can be seen not only in Tunis but other cities around the world as well as they incorporate indigenous influences into their work to create cross-border connections. “You use Arabic lettering and in the course of the work the letters transform more and more into an abstract and universal language,” said Ms. Cheffi.
Make yourself comfortable
While the fouta, a hand-woven towel, has its roots in the hammam or in public bathhouses and is now commonplace on the beaches of Tunisia, they are just as useful as a cozy throw at home. Fouta Harissa works with artisans who spend hours spinning the cotton cloths on looms that have been passed down through generations.
“I always pack a few when I’m traveling – as a gift (together with a glass of Harissa) and also as my one-off accessory,” said Lamia Hatira, co-founder of Fouta Harissa. “It’s a wrap, a sarong, a beach towel or a blanket, depending on my destination.” It’s a versatile accessory – even if that goal is your living room couch.
Relax with some music
Finally, it’s time to part with the sounds of Tunis. For an introduction to Tunisian music, check out this radio show with a comprehensive overview of traditional genres and an interview with a Tunisian drummer. Emily Sarsam, a cultural programmer in Tunis and one of the presenters of the radio show mentioned above, recommends “Lila Fi Tounes” by Deena Abdelwahed, an experimental and electronic rendition of the jazz standard “A Night” in Tunisia. “
Ms. Sarsam, along with Ms. Cheffi, also recommends the work of Souhayl Guesmi, a composer who publishes music under the name Ratchopper. Often starring some of Tunisia’s greatest rappers, his solo albums are ethereal and full of energy – much like the city of Tunis.