In celebration of African Heritage and Health Week we are exploring the powerful flavors of the North African country that for millennia has been a crossroads between Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Because of its strategic location on the Mediterranean Sea, the land that now comprises the country of Tunisia was highly desirable and sought after by many groups. The Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Spaniards, Turks, and French, as well as the native Berbers, have all left their cultural imprint on the land and heritage of Tunisia. The country's history as a melting pot in the central Mediterranean has led to a rich, multilayered culinary heritage.
Since the early 1930s the Mahjoub Family has owned and operated an orchard and olive press in Tebourba in northern Tunisia. Today four brothers operate Les Moulins Mahjoub, where they use traditional methods to produce a range of Tunisian products, including olive oil, harissa, and preserved lemons. While most Americans recognize and use olive oil, the less familiar preserved lemons and harissa generally remain in the "exotic foods" category for most American home cooks. Abdelmajid Mahjoub, General Manager of Les Moulins Mahjoub, says, "Harissa and preserved lemon are, in Tunisian cooking, like emotional shocks. Traveling from one product to the other is an opportunity to experience the feelings of excess, and the secrets of overflowing expressionism of the passionate embrace!"
The Mahjoub Family graciously offers us a virtual taste of these powerful--almost magical--foods:
The history of olives and olive oil in Tunisia reaches back at least as far as the 5th century BCE. Today Tunisia is the largest olive oil producer outside of the European Union. Using traditional methods to create olive oil is a labor of love: small quantities of olives are crushed without heat under slow, gentle pressure within 48 hours of harvesting. The olive paste is spread by hand into handmade straw filters, which are piled on vertical hydraulic presses. The impurities in the oil are allowed to settle to the bottom and an "Oil Chief" carefully skims the pure oil into a decantation tank before it is moved to wooden barrels, then to tiled basins, to rest for several weeks to achieve the desirable green cloudiness and fruity taste with the aroma of fresh olives. Abdelmajid explains, "The olive oil's texture gives an impression of softness, grace, fervor, and fluidity with a sharp delicacy. Mixed up with other ingredients, the oil still controls the situation, without allowing other ingredients to feel its authority."
While Sriracha sauce has become trendy in the United States, harissa--a red pepper paste--has long been a standard favorite in Tunisian cuisine and occupies a storied place in Tunisian culture. The exact formulation of harissa varies from region to region (even family to family), but throughout Tunisia and North Africa, harissa is embraced as a condiment for sandwiches and street foods, a flavoring for soups and stews, and a seasoning for seafood and meats.
Traditionally homes were laid out around a central yard. During the summer harvest, red peppers were collected and dried in those central yards before being processed into harissa, making the very heart of the large residences the place where women cultivated their culinary heritage. Abdelmajid describes the complex flavor of harissa as being seductively ambiguous. He explains that the Tunisian cook must tame harissa, attempting to bring its overflowing taste of fire under control.
Originally preserving lemons (pickling them in salt and their own juice) was a means of allowing them to be used in culinary applications well past harvest season. Despite the very short ingredients list--at the simplest just lemons, salt, and lemon juice--preserved lemons pack a powerful punch of flavor. According to Abdelmajid, preserved lemons beautifully compliment grilled or oven-cooked fish, chicken, rice, or a simple sandwich of grilled bread with tuna and harissa. He vividly describes the lemon's force, likening it to a daughter of the sun, "The preserved lemon likes to inflict its dormant power onto every product, shaking us into a world of excitement. Harissa is not the sun's only daughter. To tell the truth, preserved lemon is also capable of producing power. Its taste is associated in my mind with that of the orchards in blossom, full of freshness and perfumes."
So consider this your invitation to extend African Health and Heritage Week by another day or two, and to expand your Mediterranean cooking repertoire south from Spain, Italy, and Greece into the complex and sophisticated flavors of North Africa.
Click on a photo or recipe title below to link to the full recipe: