Muslim Wire

Bit of Tunisia in every bite

Posted in Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 21, 2009

To understand the foods of Tunisia, start with a jar of the hot chili paste known as harissa. It’s the “soul” of this North African country, says Tunisian farmer and business owner Majid Mahjoub.

Mahjoub’s family company, Les Moulins Mahjoub, makes and sells harissa all over the world. They call it “the communion between the sun and the fruits of earth.”

Each family and region has its own version of harissa. Generally, it’s made with hot peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and spices blended to form a thick sauce. This brick-colored condiment shows up at almost every Tunisian meal. Cooks spread it on bread, mix it in scrambled eggs, stir it into soups, blend it into salads and toss it with pasta and couscous.

Majid and Onsa Mahjoub prepare Tunisian foods during a recent visit to Utah. (Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune)

“It is both sensual and exciting,” said the 59-year-old Mahjoub who promotes the harissa and a dozen other products that his family makes. He and his wife, Onsa, were in Utah last week to demonstrate traditional recipes and educate Utahns about Tunisian culinary traditions.

Mahjoub and his 10 siblings are the fourth generation to run their family farm near Tebourba. The operation began 125 years ago when their forefathers first pressed extra virgin olive oil. Today the company sells olives, sun dried tomatoes, preserved lemons, capers and orange marmalade.

“The family is clearly passionate about food,” said Steven Rosenberg, owner of Salt Lake City’s Liberty Heights Fresh Market, the only place in Utah where Les

Moulins Mahjoub products are sold.Utahns Jess and Olivia Agraz visited Tunisia last year as part of a tour of North Africa and the Middle East. Back home, when the couple heard about the Mahjoubs’ cooking demonstration, they signed up hoping to eat traditional couscous and harissa. “When we were on our trips, we loved the spices of the Tunisian food,” Jess Agraz said.

Influenced by geography » Tunisia is Africa’s northern most country, bordered by Algeria and Libya, with a long coastline along the Mediterranean Sea. Its proximity to Italy, France, Spain, Greece and several Arab countries means “our food is a melting pot of cultures,” Mahjoub said.

Tunisia influenced those countries, as well. According to The Food Lovers Atlas of the World, hard-wheat pasta was actually invented in Tunisia around the 11th century. It “reached Italy later, in the Middle Ages by way of Sicily, Tunisia’s closest European neighbor,” writes author Martha Rose Shulman.

This first dried pasta was created by the Berbers, the ancient culture that lived in the mountains of the Maghreb and descended into the valleys to harvest what. Over time, they developed a way to grind and preserve the semolina flour. They moistened it with olive oil and water, seasoned it with salt and then rolled it between the palms of their hands to create pellets. The round orbs were then dried in the sun. The process was repeated over several days until the tiny pellets were perfectly formed and produced a toasty flavor when cooked.

Today these pasta granules come in small, medium and large sizes. The smallest is called couscous, the most familiar version to Americans, while the medium-grain is called m’hamsa .

Peasant food » Tunisia is a well-educated country with a large middle class. However, Mahjoub’s family, like many others, are still drawn to the peasant-type food of their ancestors. The meals include minimal amounts

Mhamsa Salade, or Tunisian couscous salad, prepared by Majid and Onsa Mahjoub during a recent visit to Utah. (Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune)

of meat and plenty of grains, beans and fresh vegetables.When Tunisians first wake, they will drink coffee and eat something small and light. The large morning meal occurs later, around 10 a.m., and the food is usually seasoned with some spice “to wake you up,” said Mahjoub.

Ojja, scrambled eggs seasoned with harissa, garlic, sweet peppers, is one of the most popular brunch items. So is lablabi . This simple soup is made with day old bread, stewed garbanzo beans and flavored with preserved lemons, sun dried tomatoes, capers and harissa. (See both recipes below.)

For lunch there might be m’hamsa salade , a cold pasta salad mixed with garden vegetables and seasoned with olive oil, vinegar and harissa.

Dinner will once again include m’hamsa , this time mixed with onions and merquez, seasoned ground beef or lamb. (Most Tunisians are Muslim or Jewish and abstain from pork for religious reasons.)

“No matter the time of day, we take time to prepare food and eat together,” Mahjoub said. “We never get stressed about making meals.”

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