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.)