Lilia Zaouali: the Italian flavours of Tunisian cuisine

Lilia Zaouali: the Italian flavours of Tunisian cuisine

Lilia Zaouali

The narrow channel of sea that separates Tunisia from Sicily does not suffice to change the territory: flavours, perfumes, and traditions are tightly interwoven here more than anywhere in the Mediterranean.

We met with Lilia Zaouali, a Tunisian writer, who lives in Italy, anthropologist and historian, about her return from Tunis where, in the Kram quarter, she was recently on a mission with the Italian-Arab Chamber of Commerce last week for the International Agriculture and Fishing Fair.

«I was pleased to notice – she told us – a strong presence of Italian operators, a sign that the cooperation is continuing even during a moment when tensions are running high. Above all, I would like to emphasise a considerable Sicilian presence, as this territory is actually near Tunisia and we have strong historical bonds. It should suffice to note that the star of the Fair is the cheese called ‘Le sicilien de Béja’, made with raw sheep’s milk from a Sardinian breed introduced during the XVIII century and today bears PDO certification, thanks to the training of Tunisian students at the CoRFiLac in Ragusa».

Lilia Zaouali«Another element that I would like to emphasise – notes Lilia – is a high presence of women and the comeback of women farmers as a guarantee of quality in foods and in the transmission of this heritage with a process of ‘rewriting’ in conformity with European standards and regulations, like in beekeeping and the production of dried tomatoes. In this sense, the interest of young people in biological olive-growing is important.»

Certainly the cultural exchange on various levels is strong between Tunisia and Sicily, but not only. Pizza and lasagne are among the favourite dishes of young Tunisians, admits Zaouali. For her instead, a childhood memory is the pecorino cheese that Sicilians made on the island of La Galite. In fact, although France was present for a long time in Tunisia and has a great cheese tradition, it is to Italy that this country in the Greater Maghreb relates when it comes to taste.»

In terms of tradition, France is not such a strong presence as one might think at first glance.

«The fact is that Italians were present long before the French arrived. Italian immigrants were here during the Middle Ages. I think it is important to emphasise the attention paid to typical products like dates, figs, and pomegranates, which make up the new frontier of the preserves industry: honey and sugar extracted from dates, liqueurs and grappa made from figs, jam made from pomegranates with almonds and sesame. On the other hand, the agricultural food industry is always more interested in the production of traditional dishes like mechouia salad, with roasted peppers and tomatoes and local spices.»

Mercato TunisiDuring its history, Tunisia has always been a crossroads, as you write about in your book published in 2004 entitled L’Islam a tavola dal medioevo a oggi (Laterza). What has it absorbed from the surrounding Mediterranean nations.

«Its taste is perhaps more Roman than Arabian, even if it looked around, and inherited from Turkey for example a taste for fillings, stuffed courgettes and eggplants, and from the Middle East the use of rice, although we prepare it differently, as it is steamed according to Tunisian tradition. In Tunisia we continue eating cous-cous, bread and pasta – the country in the world that eats the most pasta following Italy and the United States – and definitely an enormous amount of pizza. Bread, for example, has a variety of origins combined: there is the so-called ‘Italian bread’ of my childhood, leavened with white inside and a hard crust reminds me of the bread of Ragusa; the French baguette, and traditional Arabian bread which is round and flat. Our traditional pasta is made at home and generally steamed, while industrial pasta, spaghetti, and all the other forms were introduced during the early 20th century by the Italian community in Tunis.

Chermoula tagineIf you had to mention a dish typical of Greek-Roman tradition that has been absorbed by Tunisia, what would come to mind?

«Chermoula, a sauce with raisins, onions, spices, vinegar, and sugar. This is a must for fish prepared for the holiday that follows the end of Ramađan. This preparation derives from the term ‘salmoriglio’ and recalls the sweet-and-sour sauce described by Apicius in his De Re Coquinaria. This extraordinary dish popular in all the coastal cities that were Phoenician trading cities before becoming Carthaginian and then part of the Roman Empire, from Sfax to the Kerkennah Islands, to the island of Djerba, and then Bizerte. But the curious thing about sweet-and-sour sauce is that in Italy this flavour disappeared and was then reintroduced by the Arabs in Sicily with the name scapece, which comes from Sikbadj (a Moroccan stew with aubergines, dried dates, and dried apricots flavoured with cinnamon and allspice), which was very popular during the Abbasid Caliphate.

Lilia Zaouali is a Tunisian writer born in Sfax. After earning her doctorate at the University of the Sorbonne – Paris IV, she taught at the Department of Ethnology and Science of Religion at the University of Jussieu (Paris VII), at the Sarah Lawrence American Academy of Paris, and has collaborated with the Professorship of Comparative Law at the University of Eastern Piedmont. As a scholar of food history, she has collaborated with Slow Food.

Ilaria Guidantoni