Monday, March 1, 2010

Late Night Multilinguisitics

The Good Doctor

Reading: Usages et Rites Alimentaires des Tunisiens (Food Uses and Rites of Tunisiens) by Erneste-Gustave Gobert.

Words that I understand perfectly well in the reading are elusive in translation. Words like palais are slippery when I try to pinch them between linguistic fingers.

When translating I am, in a sense, talking out of Gobert's lips (if I am doing it right, and I hope I can do it right). I hope I do not delete any of his crustiness. I hope that I do not censor any of the institutional cultural chauvinism that was rampant in 1930s colonies. In translating a wonderful passage (read: rant) on the lack of food writing in existing ethnographies, I had the joy of translating these sentences:

"In Bertholon and Chantre (Anthropological Research in the Oriental Berbery, Lyon, 1913) out of 267 pages consecrated to Berber ethnography only 6 pages are reserved for food, of which 2 are on the eating of dogs and 2 are on the eating of earth! Nothing on perfumes."

What a marvelous crispness. What a sparkling outrage.

The only words that are concrete, the only words that pass like stones from one language to the other, are the foods themselves. Most of these I get in three languages.

A'icha is bouillie, is porridge. A stone for a stone for a stone. Farine, sucre, poivrons, tomates, thon, are flour, sugar, peppers, tomatoes, tuna. Prunes are plums, raisins are grapes. Bricks, these words. Reliable.

But then there is poetry, despite my occasional frustration, in the the sly prismatic meaning in most words.

Palais, n. palace, court of justice.

Palais, n. a discerning taste, palate.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Oeuf: Volume I.

Fancy egg. Glory egg.

On the road to Mezel Bouzelfa (where oranges hang plump and heavy from the trees. Also where I mis-stomped on a mandarin cutting and abruptly ended its life.):

We stopped in Grombalia at a nondescript roadside place for lunch. Oh, that egg. It arrived halfway through our meal, after so much bread and salade tunisienne. The table was crowded with white beans and tomato, chickpea stew with spinach and rendered liya, a plate of mosli (halfway between braised lamb and lamb confit) apiece. The eggs were set down, one for each of us, on saucers.

"No, I couldn't." I thought. Then, "maybe just one bite." And after that bite the rest of the meal ceased to be for me.

Your yolk, creamy and golden. Your white firm, but soft.

Listen folks, on top of this egg a perfect tomato sauce glistened!

Olive oil separated ever so slightly from a deeply red tomato puree (harissa, coriander, garlic, velvet). The mosli was polite, but so small in the face of that egg.

Monday, February 1, 2010

In Praise of Violence (of a kind)

Entrées Froides et Chaudes at Azara, Tunis

One steaming plate of mussels.

Two artichokes: mountainous, glistening.

The artichoke is all danger, deception, treachery. It is all hidden spikes and spines, possesor of menacing, fibrous bits. So, I have come to believe that you cannot truly appreciate an artichoke's structure or essence until you've butchered one and relished the butchering.

Until you've torn leaf from leaf; until you've slid those tiles between your teeth and scraped all that delicate flesh from their tips; until you've pierced the heart of an artichoke with your knife, the soft-skinned petals scattered around you, and eaten one voluptuous mouthful after another, well, you may've consumed an artichoke, but you've never understood one. (And the mussels: soft and sweet, with just a hint of rubber to the bite.) We stacked a plate high with empty mussel shells on one side, naked artichoke leaves on the other.

MFK Fisher once wrote on the most perfect day of gluttony. She, her mother, and her father were wandering the south of France and stopped into a small cafe. They ordered beluga caviar and foie gras gently seared, and copious amounts of wine. They sat in the café until nightfall. Between them they consumed seven baguettes, an entire tin of caviar, three bottles of wine, the livers of two dead, but well-celebrated ducks.

At the end of my artichoke glut I felt the same words of gratitude welling up in my heart that MFK did waddling back to the inn, her hand tightly on her mother's arm to keep her from tippling into the ditch.

What glory!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Liya (All Sorts)

In which words aren't enough.

We ate lunch at a small place in the Souk. We had come on an Ujja search (oh, just some lovely egg dish) but were too late, so we waited for platters of fried fish and spiced turkey breast. I noticed liya on the menu, and had read the word already in the Ommok Sannafa, and asked Soufian to tell me, please, what is liya?

Soufian paused. You find it at the bottom of the sheep. Rump? I asked. No, no, no. He said. It's only for flavor, it isn't really meat. Okay, I said. Alright, he said, rounding his shoulders, you know how you get to the bottom of a sheep and there's something there that isn't the rump? A tail. I said, trying to help. No. He passed his hand over his face. Not a tail... but like a tail, sort of.

We all paused. Our fish and turkeys arrived. Soufian took a bite and geared up again. He opened his mouth to speak and giggled nervously.

Okay, Sarah, you know how there are different kinds of sheep? Some have nothing at the bottom on the other side of the tail, and some have something? He giggled again.

Ah. Genetalia? We used the clinical term. Yes! He laughed in relief. We cut it into small bits and use it for flavor. Very tender.

A few days later, driving through mountains lined with olive groves and vineyards, we spotted a flock of sheep in a field beside the road. Soufian stopped the car. You see? He asked. Do you see the liya? Amos and I peered hard at the sheep. I'm not sure, I said. We got out and marched into the field, greeted the toothless shepard. Soufian pointed at the sheep's backside. Do you see it now? We weren't sure. The shephard wrangled a small sheep and grabbed her rump. He lifted. And suddenly, liya we saw.

Desert sheep, it turns out, have a strange, square flap of fat over their rumps. Their tails mark the top of the liya, which hangs like a pillow over their legs so that you can't see it until it is lifted. The liya almost looks prehensile, like a flat, wide, trunk. It is entirely fat and keeps sheep alive during the days without water or food. A camel hump of sorts. And suddenly it all made sense. You know? How there are two kinds of sheep, some with nothing on the other side of the tail, and some with something?

One Man's Meat

Reading: Ommok Sannafa

In the lovely introduction to this book we read:

"It behooves us first to preserve from national forgetting this part of our national heritage, the fruit of long experience transmitted from generation to generation through the centuries. The culinary art of a nation forms a part of the history of its inhabitants, and our cuisine, at the same level as traditional art, music, or folk dance, affirms our national personality."

Speeches like this puff up the soul, eh, eh?

So let us preserve from forgetting Quadid Ghanmi (Confit de Mouton, or Lamb Confit,), joy of the Berber, perhaps first on my list of things to cook when I return.

Fine Salt
Fat Salt (which means large grained, but the phrase fat salt is so beautiful I think.)
Olive oil
Dried Garlic
Dried Mint (menthe sechée, also a lovely phrase. Try it out loud or something.)

Cut two large branches of dried mint, pull the leaves, rub them between your hands and then pulverise the leaves with a mortar and pestle. Pass them through a fine seive. Top and tail the garlic and crush them in a mortar and pestle with large pinches of fat salt. Mix mint and salted garlic well.

With two very sharp knives cut the meat in long strips, without the fat, and annoint them generously with half of the fine salt and the ground condiments. Take care that the spices penetrate all of the small crevasses of the meat to give the Quadid the best possible taste, and also to ensure preservation. Place the meat in a large basin and sprinkle well with cool water. Leave it to macerate for at least 24 hours, without forgetting to moisten from time to time.

Two days later remove the meat from the basin and massage generously with harissa and the rest of the fine salt and ground condiments. Leave them in the sun, tied with cord in one long line, for many days. Once the outside has dried sufficiently, but the inside is still tender and moist, cut the meat in pieces and leave to the side.

Cut the liya* in small pieces. Heat oil over a fire in an enormous pot, and add pieces of liya. Once the liya has melted pass the oil and fats through a sieve and place again over the fire. Plunge the bits of meat into boiling oil for about twenty minutes. Take from the fire. Pour everything into a clay pot and cover.

Quadid, well prepared, can last for many months.

*to know more about liya look for a post on liya. Right now it must remain a mystery to you, as it was a mystery to me. For a long, uncomfortable while.

Also, I reserved the right to translate literally when I loved the phrases to much to do otherwise, and to translate the essence of the phrase when it seemed right to me. There is some (occasionally violent) romance in literally translated language, particularly when it comes to food, and I can never bring myself to entirely give that up.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Sidi Bou Saïd

Sidi Bou Said
In which we consume fried glory.

Soufian: vaguely 35. A round-faced bonhomme with an intimidating, stubborn precision when asking questions and a flirtatious greed when urging us to eat brik after sandwiches and fricassée. When I suggested sharing fricasée he put his hand on mine in dissappointed protest.

"Mais! Ils sont petit! A chacun son mien." (But! They're so small! To each his own.) and bought three.

Amos: sweater and boots.

Me: sticky fingers.

Soufian left us at the ancient port-turned-weekend-town Sidi Bou Saïd for biegnets, café, and ambience. In that order.

It was exactly what a seaport should be, if possible. Blue and white buildings climbed steep streets lined with orange trees. One orange, too ripe to hold on any longer, rolled down the cobblestone streets toward the sea. Tourists announced their presence by turning their heads in amazement to watch that lone, fat orange.

At the top of the hill and around a few corners: imagine a four-foot square cave hacked out of the cliffside. A counter has been built at the entrance. Inside are two men, one for frying, the other for sugaring and money. The sugarer/cashier picks beignets up, one at a time, with a long stick, tosses them in sugar and slides them into white paper pockets. We bought two (approximately a three-year-old's head in diameter?) and descended into silence. They were perfect.

Only magic can take:


and make those things into this perfect cloud of tender salty sweet. It was crisp on the outside, pillowy, almost elusive, once your teeth cracked the golden skin. A man hurled himself past us, five beignets pinched between his thumb and forefinger. We neither of us said anything, but were both envious.

The rest of the afternoon was lounging on white benches over the mediterranean, sipping mint tea with pine nuts, cafe au lait, fresh squeezed orange juice. The musty sweetness of hookah drifted up from the tables below. Hours passed with nothing much happening but the sun moving a few inches, and us turning different parts of our faces into its warmth.

The taxi door closed to take us back to Tunis as the sun set behind us. And somewhere behind us the five-beigneted man and the lone fat orange had found each other. I don't know it. I didn't see it happen. But I'd like to please take it on faith.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Reading: Agar by Albert Memmi.

In the first chapter of his novel Agar, Memmi describes his hero's family watching Marie, his young French wife, eat her first meal in Tunis. To compensate for his wife's fatigue and general lack of appetite, our Hero fills his plate to overflowing.
"Mais ce n'était pas ce qu'ils espérent; ils voulaient voir manger l'animal inconnu." But it wasn't what they'd hoped; They wanted to see the uknown animal eat.

It can be difficult to eat where there is no context. Amos and I, with no knowledge of Tunisian food, sat in a restaurant on our own and stared at a plate of M'loukia. So dark green it was almost black, the gelatinous consistancy of so many sauces I'd eaten back in Cameroon. (I would like to take this moment to thank the dry season in the Sahel. After months of nothing but the green mucilage that is Baobab leaf sauce, I can put any green, wriggling thing in my mouth). It sat on the plate, a few mountains of lamb in its center, and we were a bit unmoored.

Should we have ordered couscous on the side? Did we eat it with spoons, or dip bread? We were culinarily naked; contextless. We spooned, and we dipped. M'loukia has a deep, rich, earthy (almost soil-like) flavor. The taste of bitter spinach, or exactly like eating a bowl full of henna.
And then came the Brik, crispy, full of egg, tuna, and parsley, sprinkled with fresh squeezed lemon; the méchouia, a delicious mess of grilled green peppers, chilis, tomato, cumin. Then came the couscous, richly tomato, a hunk of coiled, perfectly tender, unidentifiable fish resting on top in a crown.


Couscous au Poisson

We are blank slates here. We are unknown animals eating unknown animals. But, unlike the family in Agar, we are getting exactly what we hoped for.

(It turns out M'loukia is actually eaten with spoons, or bread. A testament, folks, to nerve and fortitude.)

Friday, January 22, 2010

La Goulette

Dinner at Café Vert

The sea was just over the rooftops. We strolled into the kitchen and poked, prodded, and weighed the piles of Loup--Sea Bass, but translated in the menu as Grilled Wolf. We chose a gentleman, we did (silver, comely).