Couscous, the national dish of Tunisia, can be prepared in many ways, and is considered to be the best couscous of North Africa. It is cooked in a special kind of double boiler called a couscoussière in French, resembling a Chinese steamer atop a Mongolian pot.
Meats, vegetables and spices are cooked in the lower pot. Cooking steam rises through vents into the container above. It is layered with whole herbs such as bay leaves and covered with a fine-grain couscous. The couscous pasta is therefore cooked with aromatic steam. During the cooking process, the couscous needs to be regularly stirred with a fork to prevent lumping, as risotto is cooked.
Preferred meats include lamb (kousksi bil ghalmi) or chicken (kousksi bil djaj) but regional substitutes red snapper, grouper (kousksi bil mannani), sea bass (kousksi bil warqua), hare (kousksi bil arnab) or quail (kousksi bil hjall).
Although there are many ways to prepare and compose the dish, a classic recipe would call for the following ingredients: salted butter, capsicums (bell peppers), shallots, Spanish onions, garlic, potatoes, tomatoes, chickpeas, chilli pepper, harissa, celery, cinnamon, black peppercorn, carrots, turnips and squash. The idea is for the dish to contain many vegetables and a variety of Mediterranean ingredients.
The first layer consists of a mound of couscous, then a layer of vegetables follows, and finally the meat is positioned on top. The presentation is finished with a drizzle of sauce and a sprinkle of fresh parsley, basil or mint (for lamb and mutton couscous).
Substituting orzo, rice, Israeli couscous or barley for fine-grain couscous is not acceptable. In some regions, a medium-grain couscous is seldom used.
Typical Tunisian dishes are Brik (a fried Malsouka dough stuffed with tuna and an egg), tajin (like a frittata or a quiche), shorba (soups), slata (salads), marqua (stews), rishta (pastas), samsa (a popular pastry), kifta (ground meat), kaak (pastries), gnawiya (gombos), Merguez (lamb sausage) and Shakshouka (ratatouille).
Unlike Moroccan tajines, a tajine in Tunisia usually refers to a kind of “quiche”, without a crust, made with beaten eggs, grated cheese, meat and various vegetable fillings, and baked like a large cake.
A popular seafood speciality is the ‘poisson complet’ or the whole fish. The entire fish, excluding internal organs, is prepared and fire-grilled, but it can also be fried, grilled or sautéed. It is accompanied with potato chips and either mild or spicy tastira. The peppers are grilled with a little tomato, a lot of onion and a little garlic, all of which is finely chopped and served with an egg poached or sunny side up. Finely chopped fresh parsley is sprinkled on top; a drizzle of lemon juice and a pinch of sea salt complete the recipe.