February 2, 2009

Tunisia 03: Food

We quickly found that there is a wide range of Tunisian food, as one might expect. Most tourist restaurants offered bland, overcooked interpretations of Western "hotel food" or, more frequently, mounds of flavourless couscous with bits of mutton bones. This stand-by plagued us from one end of the country to the other as the backbone of the cheap-as-dirt tourist service. But by asking and following the locals one could find new, unexpected dishes that were well-made and delicious.
One that we found on the first day in Tunis quickly became a favourite: ojja with merguez (above, beside good old fried chicken and chips). The ojja is tomato sauce with egg either on top or cooked in, and it is best when served with merguez, which are fragrant sausage-shaped meatballs. Fantastic and cheap, and could be found reliably across the country, unless we were in a tourist hotel, where they would never serve anything so flavourful...

We love restaurants where we can look through the pots on the stove and discuss their contents with the chef, and Mahdaoui was a perfect example, not too far into the Tunis souk and very busy. Above is a large pan of omelet-like tajine and behind it a very savoury fish stew, which was a bit too fishy for us.
And then there was the large pot of sheep heads, halved and stewing in a turmeric-yellow sauce. The chefs enjoyed tempting us with it, knowing we weren't quite ready for it. But during our meal we realized that our squeamishness had put us in the "vast minority" of the customers. We were the only ones in the place without half a sheep's face on our plate, and those who did have one were clearly enjoying themselves, with jaws being torn away and chewed on with great enthusiasm. We came back to Mahdaoui a few days later and I was determined not to miss out on this local specialty.
Eating a sheep's head, or half of one, is an experience of textures more than flavours. The flavour was "tasty Mediterranean mutton stew", but the textures were extraordinary to me. This is the list of things you get to eat (that I could find) on a sheep's head, and their associated textures:
  1. Tongue: dense, firm
  2. Jaw muscle: tender, fibrous like a chicken thigh
  3. Eyeball: soft, gelatinous (mind the lens inside, like a soft fingernail)
  4. Brains: very soft, somewhat like marshmallow
  5. Teeth: you don't eat them, but they clack against yours when you are going for the tongue
  6. Other fleshy protuberances: varied, with surprising bits of cartilage
I don't know that I'd be in a rush to order it again, but it was well worth it, and not only for the story.

Dessert was found deeper in the souk, with a very friendly pastry chef deep-frying date-stuffed cookie-things and coating them in honey and sesame seeds. Fantastic.
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