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.)