Shabbat, African-style

Tunisian dishes tend to take a long time to cook, but they are worth the wait

By Simon Round, November 12, 2009
Slow-cooked chicken with preserved lemon and olives is a Tunisian-Jewish speciality

Slow-cooked chicken with preserved lemon and olives is a Tunisian-Jewish speciality

Jewish food — bland, stodgy, comforting and ultimately a little boring? Not if you are Tunisian.

North African Jews have a cuisine every bit as traditional and defined as that of the Eastern European shtetl, but that is about all it has in common. It is defined by its fragrant spices, heat from the fiery harissa paste, herbs, vegetables and meats.

If you sit down for a Tunisian Shabbat dinner, you will recognise the chicken — but that is about all. Tunisian Jewish food expert Fabienne Viner-Luzzato, who is running a workshop on Tunisian Jewish food at the JCC next week, explains that if you are invited to Tunisian Shabbat meal, it is best to arrive hungry — not only is there a large range of dishes, but they tend to be rich. She explains: “The starter would be the Tunisian version of a Greek meze, known as a kemia, which consists of a number of salads, usually cooked. Typical would be an aubergine, tomato and garlic salad and mermouma — a salad of peppers, garlic and tomato. We might have a potato salad with lemon juice and carrots, with cumin and harissa.”

The vegetables are cooked slowly in what, by modern standards, are large amounts of oil, so that the peppers soften to the consistency of a jam. The dishes are also characterised by the use of spices — turmeric, cumin and a sweet pepper powder similar to paprika.

The dishes have been adapted to suit modern British tastes, Viner-Luzzato acknowledges. “You have to modernise this kind of cooking, using less fat. But the oil is a vital part of the process. ”

The centrepiece of a Friday-night meal would be couscous — usually with chicken but also with lamb or beef. “Our cuisine is rich in meats and vegetables.” In fact, the Tunisian love of meat dishes means that there are relatively few dairy products used, even in sweets and cakes,” says Viner-Luzzato.

The Tunisian equivalent of cholent is a dish called Tfina, a variant of the Moroccan Dafina. It is based on barley wheat and is cooked long and slow.

There are specialities for the festivals too. For example, on Rosh Hashanah, the traditional starter would be a chicken soup (although you will look in vain for kneidlach), followed by chicken with preserved lemon, olives and onions.

And for Pesach, there is soki, a Tunisian version of the French jardinière de legumes. Much to Viner-Luzzato’s dismay, this dish is not regarded as kosher for Passover by her Ashkenazi husband as it contains peas and green beans.

The one thing Tunisian-Jewish cuisine has in common with all others is the Jewish mother. Viner-Luzzato explains: “These dishes are not difficult to make but you need three or four hours, as most of the dishes are slow-cooked. Traditionally, Tunisian mothers tended to be at home so they had the time.”

Tunisian tfina

Serves eight


● 1.5kg of stewing beef, washed and cut in cubes. If you can find it, 1 calve’s foot (this will enhance the flavour)
● 500g barley wheat
● 3 medium-size tomatoes or a tin of chopped tomatoes
● 2½ dessert spoons concentrated tomato puree
● 2 tbsp sugar
● 2 medium onions sliced
● 1 whole garlic head washed but with skin on
● Generous shake sweet pepper powder or paprika
● Generous shake turmeric
● 1 teasp harissa
● Sunflower oil
● Salt, pepper
● 8 eggs, washed

● In a large pan (preferably a pressure cooker), fry the onions with some sunflower oil, adding the sugar to caramelise the onions.
● Add the meat to the onions.
● Once the meat has browned, add the spices, salt, pepper, and the harissa.
● Stir well, and add enough water to recover completely the meat.
● Add the calve’s foot if you have it.
● Cook at medium high heat for about 30 minutes.
● Add the barley wheat,
the eggs in their shells
and the garlic head.
● Refill the pot with water to cover all the ingredients and let it cook at low heat
for several hours (at least two). Stir regularly.
● To serve, peel eggs and break them into the dish.

The Jewish Community Centre for London holds regular cookery workshops with Fabienne Viner-Luzzato. Details on

    Last updated: 11:33am, November 12 2009