Thursday, August 05, 2010

Tunisian Wedding, Tunisian Fooood!

My brother married his Tunisian bride in the seaside town of Kelibia. It was a week of festivities and ceremonies, and a week of fantastic food and drink adventures.

I arrived at Tunis airport exhausted after a couple of days' travel and delays. It was hot and windy outside and I was relieved to be out of air conditioning and in warmth. There were several hours to wait before the rest of my family arrived, but my brother was there to meet me and take me out to lunch in the capital. We sped through the chaotic traffic and drove to a calmer part of town, by the sea. Our destination was a little place I had heard lots about - all good.

We got to the rather strong-smelling fishmonger's just before they closed but there were still piles of fantastic-looking seafood in crates on the counters. We bought loads of small red mullet, baby cuttlefish and fat prawns for about £2.

Then my brother sat down at the restaurant next door, where they were going to cook our seafood and supply us with salad, bread and drinks to go with it - all for about £3. No wine or beer - my first experience as an adult of a culture that discourages alcohol consumption.

I went into the kitchen to watch the seafood being grilled over a huge barbecue.

Feeling revived after gorging on that delicious lunch, we went back to the airport to collect the rest of the family. Then we had a three hour journey through towns and prairie, past prickly pears and shepherds, to our seaside destination.

Each day of the rest of the week followed the rough timetable of: greek coffee in bedouin tent café for breakfast; mint tea with pinenuts floating in it or fruit juice and shisha in lovely café overlooking the sea; lunch of harissa dip and olives followed by seafood next to the sea; a tourist trip (e.g. amazingly intact pre-roman ruins) or time on a white sand beach; family feast at Haifa's house in the evening.

Evening meals included baked fish, brick (deep-fried parcel of filo pastry filled with goodies like tuna, prawns and egg), salads, cous-cous with tripe, loads of salata mechouia (spicy green pepper salad, see pic above), and a wonderful cous-cous and lamb dish with hard-boiled eggs, sultanas, almonds, hazelnuts and chick peas.

Me and my brothers :)

Special cakes and blue minty fizzy drinks were served at the female-only henna party. All that, along with the tattoos, the mound of henna studded sugared almonds, the traditional clothes, incense and the rounds of "ayayeayayayayaye" calls made everything seem mystical and magical.

...We also stopped for mutton barbecued at the roadside - mechoui. We chose the joint according to weight and the man hacked it up. His son cooked the meat, and his daughter and wife served the meal. It was soooo good and we did very well in finishing the huge amount of food.

Back in Tunis at the end of the week, we had trouble finding open restaurants, especially as many look like private residences and lots had closed due to it (late July!) being their low season. Eventually, we happened upon one of those Islamic-tiled merchant house restaurants that you read about in any travel literature on North Africa; Dar Hamouda Pacha, 56 Rue Sidi Ben Arous in the souk.

The food was excellent and so reasonably priced - cheap, in fact. The service and attention to detail was superb, there were musicians playing local music ...and we pretty much had the enormous place to ourselves. My brother and I shared fish cous-cous and veal with tuna sauce - a very Italian dish (vitello tonato), but for much of the trip we were in sight of Italian islands, so the cuisine of each country must have mingled since time began. The veal was served with a delightful rice and pistachio dish. Dessert was a kind of pinenut blancmange, with plenty of mint tea to wash it down.

On my last day I was in Tunis alone, so spent hours exploring the souk. I came away with rose water, the special fragrant and floatable pinenuts for adding to mint tea (also delish with natural yogurt and honey), and ground smokey hot peppers for making harissa. I couldn't fit any more in my case, sadly.

My last meal was half a an extremely tasty herb-stuffed rotisserie chicken with salad and bread. I ate it in a local café and my dinner cost less than £2 - far cheaper than the touristy restaurants I'd been to with my family, and just as good. But tourist restaurants do serve beer and the fabulous Muscat de Kelibia wine...

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