After gorging myself on the lard-dripping food of Eastern Europe, I was looking forward to the lighter olive oil infused food of Mediterranean Tunisia. On our first day in the country we followed the advice of our Rough Guide and went to a nice cafeteria/pizza joint near the entrance to the medina. We looked at the food they had on display and everyone agreed it looked tasty. Anne took the kids to find a seat and I ordered two different pizzas with the fewest ingredients on them, chocolate pancakes, a Tunisian chicken dish for Anne, and sandwiches for me and Dax. They rang me up and the cost of the meal including drinks was under $15. Tunisia was shaping up to be another good, cheap place to eat.
After paying, I ran the sandwiches and pancakes to the family and went back to wait for the pizzas. In our family, pizza is a common meal. At home the feuds over whether to order Domino’s or Pizza Hut have almost turned bloody. But one thing they all agree on is they like their pizzas plain. I can occasionally slip a pepperoni or a ham topping in the mix to keep it interesting and Anne might spring for a barbeque chicken version, but the kids will always go with cheese, extra cheese, or extra extra cheese if they need to choose three toppings. I picked up the first pizza, and it appeared to be plain with the exception of a few olives. The second however was completely covered with tuna. I looked back at the menu and saw some variation of the word neptune in the description. That half a semester of french in college really wasn’t helping me on our first day in a French speaking country, but I should have recognized the Roman god of the sea and steered clear of this pizza. I told the woman behind the counter, “Merci,” and slinked away to the family. I dropped the pizza in the center of the table and waited for everyone’s response. I knew what would happen, but I did it anyway. “Yuck.” “What is that?” “Something stinks!” “What’s that fish smell?” I picked the pizza up and set it on a bench behind us and let everyone eat their other food. It was not a very good start to eating in Tunisia, and unfortunately it didn’t get much better.
Everywhere we went in Tunisia we struggled to find a food we liked. I had very high hopes for their chicken and couscous dishes but each time we ordered them we found the chicken to be overcooked and the couscous dishes to be covered in a plain tomato sauce. We tried both local and tourist places in Tunis, Hammamet, Kairouan, Tozeur, and Matmata. In each case we failed to make any converts to Tunisian food or even find something we wanted to order a second time. I looked around at what the locals were eating and our tuna pizza was not an aberration. Almost all their dishes can be covered in canned tuna. As I looked at what they were ordering and tried to copy them the next time there was only one thing I found I liked and would go out of my way to eat again, giant legumes. These light green giant beans were the size of my thumbs. I’m not sure if these were fava beans. The locals just called them “legumes,” and they where a tasty addition to an otherwise bland meal. And they were my one highlight
I can assure you I tried to find others. The one food I had heard about before we arrived in Tunisia was a local concoction called a “brik.” The brik sounded like my kind of thing, a fried pastry the size of your hand filled with egg, cheese, and tuna. Unfortunately I had a hard time with the briks. I don’t know if it was the pastry or the way they cooked them, but usually they tasted like a grease sandwich without a strong flavor to overcome the grease. I am sure there are restaurants that do them in a way I would have liked, but we didn’t ever find one.
Tunisia was only the second place where everyone in the family struggled with food; the first was Cambodia. Perhaps we were missing something. Perhaps we are just too spoiled or perhaps we were not adventurous enough. We passed on camel steaks and as I am the only real seafood eater we didn’t enjoy any of the fruites de mare. (Now the French is kicking in.) After the first week of struggling to find a local dish or fast food we liked, I finally gave in and started ordering the same food each day from a local cafe. Each day I would walk into the same little cafe and order six paninis and six chocolate crepes. Some days I would do it twice. If I had a scale, I it would be nice to see how much weight I lost in Tunisia. I promise to gain it all back in Argentina.