How to Pretend You’re in Tunis Tonight
While your travel plans may be on hold, you can pretend you’re somewhere new for the night. Around the World at Home invites you to channel the spirit of a new place each week with recommendations on how to explore the culture, all from the comfort of your home.
There are worse places to be lost than the old medina of Tunis, a dizzying labyrinth of ancient alleyways. As I discovered on my visit to the Tunisian capital, there is so much to look at: the vendors doling out spices, the cats watching the afternoon pass from sun-soaked stoops, the groups of friends sitting around crowded tables and sipping mint tea. You might pass the open window of a traditional music school and hear snippets of a haunting song hundreds of years old or, out of another storefront, the thump of techno music accompanying an experimental art exhibition.
It is hard to believe that all of this exists in just one corner of a sprawling, cosmopolitan and complex city on the tip of North Africa. Elsewhere, there are nightclubs that spill out onto white-sand beaches, cafe districts that wouldn’t be out of place in southern Europe, and Roman ruins that speak to its place in history as a gateway to Africa and a center of Mediterranean commerce. It is a lot to take in over a single visit, and I am looking forward to my next one. In the meantime, I will be following these tips to make it feel as if I am back in Tunis, even if just for a night.
Cook with harissa
Tunisian cuisine is sometimes hearty, other times delicate. It can be spicy, but is not afraid of a little sweetness. It is also brimming with history. Arabs, Romans, Sicilians, Byzantines, Berbers and more have all, at one point or another, called this land on the Mediterranean home, and that is all on display come mealtime. Rafram Chaddad, an artist and food researcher, spends much of his time tracing that history, with a special interest in the food culture of Tunisian Jews like his own family. He consulted multiple old recipes to come up with this one, for a pan-fried sea bass with dried rose petals and harissa, a ubiquitous hot chile paste. Featured in Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s “Jerusalem,” a collection of recipes from around the world that converge in that city, Mr. Chaddad’s recipe highlights the importance of seafood to Tunis’s food scene.
“Fish in the Tunisian sea are special,” said Mr. Chaddad, who grew up in Jerusalem and recently returned to Tunis, pointing out that the hot temperatures and shallow depths make for a special flavor. “The seafood here is kissed by the sun.” While you might not be able to get your hands on bona fide Tunisian sea bass, the flavors — the way the spiciness of the harissa plays with the perfumes of the rose petals — are evocative enough of the city’s cuisine.
Make sure the egg is runny
For a snack, Mr. Chaddad recommends brik a l’oeuf, a deep-fried cousin to the dumpling, filled with some combination of tuna, potatoes, onions, capers, harissa (because of course), and, the star, a runny egg yolk that will drip all over your plate at the very first bite. His recipe, also included in “Jerusalem,” was featured in a write-up from the travel website Roads and Kingdoms, alongside an iteration from a Tunisian grandmother. Sarah Souli, a journalist whose associations with Tunisia’s capital are closely linked to visits with her grandmother, told me that she wouldn’t dare try it on her own, even if she encourages others who want a taste of Tunis to do so.
“I don’t cook brik at home because I think longing is an important part of loving,” Ms. Souli said. “I’ll wait till I can go back to Tunis and Memeti, my grandmother, makes me one.”
Or put in an order
If the thought of cooking up your own Tunisian pastries is too daunting and you happen to be in the United States, you can order a box of them. Layla’s Delicacies, based in New Jersey, ships boxes of pastries across the country to Tunisians who miss the taste of home.
“Traditionally made by hand at home, Tunisian pastries are made with the noblest ingredients, and take an incredible amount of time and attention to detail,” said Rim Ben Amara, the company’s founder.
While the pastries are most common at gatherings, there’s no shame in digging into a box on your own. For something that you would come across in Tunis, try kaak warka, a doughnut-shaped treat filled with almond paste and rose water, or samsa, a triangle-shaped sweet pastry encrusted with pistachios and filled with almonds and hazelnuts.
Take a museum tour
Tunis is brimming with history: the mausoleums of the medina that have remained unchanged for centuries; the Roman ruins at the original site of Carthage, in the city’s northeastern suburbs; and the Bardo Museum, a sprawling 19th-century palace that is home to one of the largest collections of Roman mosaics in the world. While there is nothing like seeing them in person, you can get a sense of the scale and craftsmanship of the ancient artwork through a virtual tour that allows you to roam the palace’s halls at your own pace.
But don’t forget the contemporary art scene
You also should get a sense of the contemporary art scene, which can be found in art galleries and pop-up events across the city. Dora Dalila Cheffi, a Finnish-Tunisian artist, paints brightly-colored tableaus, often inspired by the city she now calls home. Some of her work can be viewed online. Scenes from across the city are interspersed with more esoteric interpretations of Tunisian life.
“The slow pace of life, light and general atmosphere are great for the type of work I do,” she said, describing how her work has evolved over time. “There is less scenery now, but that doesn’t mean that the work doesn’t talk about life in Tunisia. If anything, it does so even more.”
Ms. Cheffi also recommends transporting yourself to the city through the work of a street art duo, ST4 the project. Their work can be seen not only in Tunis but also in other cities around the world, as they weave homegrown influences into their work to create connections across borders. “They use Arabic lettering and, as the work evolves, the letters transform more and more into an abstract and universal language,” Ms. Cheffi said.
While the fouta, a handwoven towel, has its roots in the hammam, or public bathhouses, and are commonplace today along Tunisia’s beaches, they’re just as useful as a cozy throw at home. Fouta Harissa works with artisans who spend hours spinning the cotton towels on looms that have been passed down through generations.
“I always pack a few when I travel — to give as gifts (along with a jar of harissa), and also as my one-and-done accessory,” said Fouta Harissa’s co-founder, Lamia Hatira. “It’s a wrap, a sarong, a beach towel or a blanket depending on my destination.” It’s a versatile accessory — even when that destination is your living room couch.
Wind down with some music
Finally, it is time to unplug with the sounds of Tunis. For an introduction to Tunisian music, check out this radio broadcast, featuring a wide survey of traditional genres and an interview with a Tunisian percussionist. If it is current sounds you are after, Emily Sarsam, a cultural programmer in Tunis and one of the hosts of the aforementioned radio show, recommends “Lila Fi Tounes” by Deena Abdelwahed, an experimental and electronic rendition of the jazz standard “A Night in Tunisia.”
Ms. Sarsam, along with Ms. Cheffi, also recommends the work of Souhayl Guesmi, a composer who releases music under the name Ratchopper. A frequent collaborator with some of Tunisia’s biggest rappers, his solo albums are ethereal and full of barely contained energy — much like the city of Tunis itself.