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I’VE BEEN ENJOYING harissa, the traditional Tunisian hot sauce. My jar of this condiment comes from Trader Joe’s, though it is made in Tunisia. Thus, I feel compelled to learn more about this Northern African country and its cuisine. There has to be a Tunisian guidebook around here somewhere.
Yes, this Cook’s should do just fine. As it observes first off, “Among the several countries that attract the traveller desirous of exchanging the rigours of our English winter for sunshine and health, Algeria and Tunisia easily occupy the first rank.”
Unlike my harissa jar label, there’s no immediate mention of a “Hot Chili Pepper Paste with Herbs & Spices.” On the other hand, I suspect harissa was popular among Tunisians even before 1908.
According to Cook’s, “Tunisia, originally called Lybia, was already in a fairly civilized state when the Phœnicians landed on its shores about twelve hundred years B.C.” The 1908 Cook’s map shows Tunisia as a northern jut of Africa into the Mediterranean. The land to its southeast, today’s Libya, has its classic name of Tripoli. Note also the proximity to Sicily, just to the northeast.
A highpoint in local history occurred around 400 B.C. when, according to Virgil and Cook’s, Princess Dido had opportunity to buy “as much land as could be covered by a bull’s hide, then cunningly cut the hide into the narrowest possible strips, and thus enclosed sufficient space on which to build her city, at first called Bysra (meaning bull’s hide), and afterward Carthage.”
Carthage scans better, don’t you think?
Then followed the First, Second and Third Punic Wars, the first time to my knowledge that mankind numbered its conflicts so carefully.
Fast forward to 1908 Cook’s: “The Regency of Tunisia may now be considered an informally annexed dependency of France, nominally under the dominion of the Bey [a hereditary leader], but in reality under the control of a French Resident…. By treaty, the occupation is to cease when the French and Tunisian authorities recognise by common accord that the local government is capable of maintaining order.”
Such “accord” came in 1957. What colonialism?
Cook’s gives a non-PC assessment of the various peoples comprising the Tunisian population. One of its more kind examples: “The Maltese, although bigoted and superstitious, are industrious and peaceful. They are very frugal, with a view of saving enough to enable them to return to Malta.”
Tunis was entered through five gates or babs. There was a new quarter and an old quarter, the latter “labyrinths of souks or bazaars” offering the tourist “a motley crowd of nationalities and races–Tunisians, Algerians, Moroccans, Negroes, Bedouins, Moors and Jews.”
Cook’s continues, “In the Faubourg of Bab Souika, to the north of the city, the native quarter of Halfaouine conveys a vivid impression of the everyday out-of-door Arab life…. peep into the Café Maure, where groups of listless Arabs are playing draughts, sipping excellent coffee at a ruinous price of a half-penny a cup, or inhaling opium from diminutive pipes, regardless of the noise and crowd without.”
Surely some of these guys are enjoying a dab of harissa on their grilled meat or fritters. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016