The best cooking is found in the home and, apart from in a few upmarket establishments in Tunis, most menus include only a small repertoire of Tunisian/North African specialities. As well as couscous (a meat or poultry and vegetable stew served on a bed of steamed semolina grains), look out for the specifically Tunisian brik a I’oeuf (a warm, deep-fried envelope of maslouqua [tissue-thin] pastry filled with runny egg, cumin, flat-leaf parsley, sometimes tuna or potato, and sprinkled with lemon juice), salad mechouia (a delicious puree of tomatoes, onions, roasted peppers and olive oil, served as a starter) and kamounia, a slow-cooked lamb, chicken or beef stew. All these are invariably accompanied by a small saucer of haryssa, a fiery pepper-based condiment that could blow an unsuspecting person’s head off.
More basic fare includes kefta (spicy meatballs), liver and lamb kebabs, chorba (a thick vegetable soup, augmented by morsels of lamb, rice or pasta), merguez (beef sausages enlivened with sweet and hot red peppers) and tajine, which in Tunisia is similar to a Spanish omelette and not a ragout as it is in Morocco. Working-men’s restaurants (gargottes) usually offer a range of these staples, plus one or two stews.
You may encounter sheep’s head stew. This can be mouthwatering off the bone and with proper attention to refinements. Alas, the rough and ready version served in gargottes is not for ouscous, the faint-hearted: a distinctly ovine skull, teeth still intact, rising out of an oily, tomato-based sauce.
Upmarket restaurants concentrate on Mediterranean and French cuisine. Fish, often displayed with aplomb at the front of restaurants, is usually excellent, especially in Tunis and La Goulette (Tu-nis’s port); but remember that its price is normally determined by weight, so it can work out to be expensive. Common types include rouget (red mullet), merlan (whiting), loup de mer (perch) and thon (tuna). A plate of erevettes aioli (prawns sauteed with garlic), crusty French bread and a glass of Celtia beer can be superb; also look out for fish couscous, especially on Jerba.
Sampling the varied produce of roadside vendors is one of the pleasures of touring by car. Verges are made more interesting by stalls and individuals selling fruit, freshly baked bread and occasional) crumbly curd cheese. Major routes, notably Medenine to Libya, are punctuated by grill restaurants, flagged by suspended legs of lamb and smoking braziers. A supper of salad mechouia. grilled lamb cutlets and tabouna (the flat, Tunisian bread), washed down with Safia mineral water, costs no more than 5d per head.
Alcohol, discouraged by the Koran, is available in licensed restaurants, some hotels and a few bars. The latter tend to be seedy outside the main resorts. Dependable wines (costing about 8d a bottle) include Coteaux de Carthage and Haut Mornag, both in red, white and rose; Sidi Rais, a popular light rose; and Muscat de Kelibi, a delicious golden-colored wine. The Tunisian beer is Celtia and the local eau-de-vie is a palatable fig-based distilled wine called Boukha. Many hotel bars and restaurants do not serve alcohol during Ramadan; indeed, some close for the duration of the month-long daily fast. Spirits are comparatively expensive. A gin and Boga bitter lemon (invariably concertinaed to ‘gin bugger’ by bar staff) costs at least 5D.
Tea comes in a variety of guises, usually dark sweet and stewed but more delightfully with mint or sprinkled with pine kernels (the aut pignons). Coffee, too, is sometimes laced with orange flowers, cinnamon or cardamon, and occasionally blended with chocolate. Cafe Turc is Turkish coffee: sweet, black and silky in tiny cups. Italian espresso and cappuccino are also widely available in the resorts.
If you want your tea or coffee unsweetened, be sure to specify sans sucre. However, even the sternest denouncer of sugar may be tempted by Tunisia’s sticky pastries: baklawa (a confection of almonds, honey and maslouqua pastry) and makrouth (a type of date or fig roll), popular in Ramadan and a speciality of Kairouan.