Monday, 30 March 2015

Food memories from Tunisia: Tunisian fish keftas

Recent terrorist attack in Tunisia made my heart sink and took my thought to the wrong side of the Mediterranean Sea. Not only was Tunisia the home of the Arab spring, once upon a time (that very time, in fact) it was also my home. And as a result will always hold a special place in my heart. The time when I lived there was rather special too, not just for the small and rather insignificant country in the corner of Africa, but also for the entire region.

That also reflects on my photos from that time - owing to the general unrest and unpredictable conditions travelling around Tunisia was unfortunately not much of an option. Most of the photos I have seem to revolve around riots in the capital and refugee camps at the Libyan border.

They do not much of tourism revival package maketh which is sad, as that is exactly what the country is in a dire need of right now. So, instead I'll take you on a tour of my foodie memories - now those are something I do have!

As I moved to Tunis, I came prepared. I had a carefully drafted list of top 10 restaurants in Tunis I was going to use as my starting point for exploring my new home. Most of them weren't up to much though and many never even seemed to be open. So, my ambitious plan was shot to pieces (much like some rioters on my doorstep...) and I ended up having my Friday night dinner every week at the same place  - Chez Nous off the main street.

Somewhat adorably stuck in a time warp (1950's Paris, I think) the walls of the tiny restaurant were decorated by portraits of the legends that once upon a time dined there, too. Edit Piaf, Humphrey Bogart and the likes. The very dignified maître d' was nothing short of a legend himself - not once did he let a careless smile or an inapproriately familial comment slip from his tightly pursed lips.

Each dinner followed the same pattern: I walked into the empty restaurant to be greeted by the maître d', who'd nod his head: a whopping 1/8 of an inch as an acknowledgment of my arrival ( I told you - he made Jeeves look sloppy!) "Notre princess", he would say as he'd bow a little, escort me to my table and silently signal the waiter to approach with the menu.

And, as each week, we'd pretend we didn't do this same thing each week: I'd glance at the menu, ponder a bit and then he'd scribble down the same order week in, week out. Escargots to start with and Filet Chez Nous (absolument pas bien cuit!) for main, washed down with a demi-bottle of local rosé.

There were evenings when I was escorted home my gendarme, there were evenings when curfew prevented me from even leaving home. At one point I realized there were evenings when they probably kept the restaurant open just for me. 

Eventually the situation cooled off and I got to explore other neighbourhoods in Tunis, locating some genuinely good restaurants, too and them you'll find over here in the Foodie t(r)ips around the world- section. For the most part the quality of the restaurants wasn't something to write home about. The trendier, more expensive (and as such, populated mostly by expats) parts of Tunis boasted restaurants offering watered-down versions of European dishes but very good local food was difficult to come by.

"Tunisians eat at home with their families, not out in restaurants!" I was told. Finances probably play a part in it, too - the price range which for me, used to Finnish prices, was cheap, was probably anything but for the locals. Due to the cheap prices average Tunisian diet is very starchy: couscous, other local grains and pasta. And, courtesy of the legacy of the French colonial era: baguettes galore.

Saturday mornings I invariably spent trawling Marché Central, the Central Market of Tunis in the search of ingredients for the Saturday lunch I'd eat in my tiny kitchen, overlooking the view of the Tunis rooftops opening from the tiny balconette. And the lunch would always be seafood - the vendors at the market quickly got to know me and would always talk me into it. "Mais madame, you always purchase our king prawns! And how about squid, alors? How many kilos shall we make it this week?"

Considering Tunisia's coastal location and availability of fresh fish it was confusing how rarely it made it onto the restaurant menus. The most commonly used one was tinned tuna (!) This was particularly painful in idyllic coastal towns such as Bizerte, where the seaside restaurants would have had potential for so much more.

Higher end restaurants would have better selection, though with equally confusing results. Mulet (mullet), dorado and merluza (hake) were all familiar from Spain but loup de mer? The wolf of the sea? Google Translate to the rescue: sea bass. 

Fish keftas are a popular dish in Tunisia however and it's impossible not to run into them. They get their golden colour and aromatic taste from turmeric and cumin. Usually the mixture contains quite a bit of flour, too, but mine get their perfectly firm consistency from boiled potato. They do require a bit of bread crumbs, but by using gluten-free variety these suit gluten-free diets, too. 

And since harissa is for Tunisia what piri-piri sauce is for Portugal and Sriracha for Thailand, that means there's no meal (or life, for that matter!) without it. So, I paired these gently spiced fish patties with harissa and yogurt dressing with a bit of kick to it. And brought out my new favourite North African plates. Oh, là là.

Makes 20 keftas

Tunisian fish keftas:

300 g white fish
1 large potato
1/2 smallish onion, finely chopped
1/ tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp ground cumin
large handful of fresh parsley (2 tbsp when finely chopped)
the zest of 1/2 lemon, finely grated
1/2 dl (30 g) bread crumbs
1 egg
salt, pepper

For frying: 1/2 litres of oil

Peel the potato and steam until cooked through. Season the fish fillets and steam them too. Let cool. 

Sauté chopped onion in a bit of oil until soft and translucent. Then add turmeric and cumin and sauté them for a couple of minutes too to allow them to release the aromas.

Mash potato using a fork, add onion, parsley, lemon zest and bread crumbs. Mix in the egg and stir into a smooth mixture. Finally add fish, incorporating in into the mixture with the fork.

Check the taste, season as needed and roll into 20 balls. Flatten them a little, deep-fry in hot oil, drain on kitchen towels and serve. With lemon wedges and/or harissa and yogurt dressing.

Harissa and yogurt dressing:

250 g Greek yogurt
1,5 tsp harissa paste
the finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/2 tsp dried mint (and/ or 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley) 
salt, pepper

Combine the ingredient apart from salt and pepper) and, if possible, let rest n the cold for half an hour before serving. Check the taste and season. 

PS. Tunisia also has a long history in wine-making. Rosé is the favourite and some of it is really good. I've even tried local kosher variety! Most of the wineries are located in Cap Bon region a couple of hours away from Tunis. The best is Kurubis, located in Korba near Nabeul, which I got the chance to tour when in Tunisia. Definitely worth a visit should you be in the region!




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