Our weekly “À Table”dinner series gets its name from the mealtime call to the dining table. Since 2018, we have invited friends new and old to share a meal focusing on food, music and traditions from various places in the Francophone world. It has proved a fun way to connect with friends and practice our spoken French. Here, we share portraits of some of our favorite meals so that you can do the same. Bon Appétit!
All the delicious details of a trés grande, home-cooked Tunisian feast, prepared by our friend Asma in March 2020, our last gathering before the pandemic.
Asma’s Story + Menu
To this day, the scents of lemon, lime, orange blossom and jasmine transport Asma back to her childhood summers in Tunisia. She can almost taste the memories, sitting against the Jasmine tree in her grandmother’s yard in Tunis, and sipping lemonade perfumed by orange blossom or jasmine.
Born and raised in France and trés français, ties with her family’s homeland were also strong. Asma grew up eating mainly Arabic and Tunisian dishes in their Paris home, and Sundays were always couscous. She absorbed so many recipes, techniques and family stories in the kitchen with her mother, and over time also began noting the subtle differences in how her mother prepared her grandmother’s recipes.
Until the age of 16, each summer she found herself back in Tunisia. She relished helping her grandmother peel carrots, potatoes and garlic cloves, and stir tomato sauce. Along with the time in her mother’s kitchen in Paris, these times alongside her grandmother cemented her belief in food as a way of showing love. Out of that, came her love of entertaining and sharing food with friends and family. How lucky were we to be on the receiving end of that delicious love, gathered around her cozy Brooklyn kitchen table, in early March 2020.
Two steps into Asma’s home, before we even made it to the kitchen, I learned my first lesson: never to put my purse or backpack on the floor, lest I lose all my money!
“No! You don’t want to keep your bags on the floor. My grandmother always told me you would lose your money. Even at a restaurant if there is no place for my bag on a hook or over the side of the chair, I’ll keep it on my lap. Better safe than sorry!”
Below we have captured the recipes for the dishes she prepared for us, which have have been passed down through three generations. Delicious as they may be, they are not overly difficult! Here was the full menu:
- Boulettes Viande
- Slata Mechouyia
- Slata Tounsia
- Tagine Poulet
Here is your game plan summary to make this impressive home-cooked Tunisian feast. You will want at least 5 hours for these 7 dishes if it is your first time and will need to keep checking the recipes. An extra pair of hands also helps!
Five hours prior:
- Boil chicken. When cooked, remove from bone and refrigerate until ready to use. This can also be done the day before.
- Set eggs to boil and keep aside when cooked.
- Wash/chop veggies. Dry roast the ones for the Mechouia in your broiler or charcoal grill if you have one), and with oil in a hot oven for the Keftaji.
- Prep the Boulettes Viande.
- Fry the cooked chicken for the Tagine and keep aside.
- Combine and season the veggies for the Keftaji.
- Combine, chop and season the veggies for the Mechouia/.
- Prep the Tagine for cooking, put it in the oven.
- While Tagine cooks, make the Bouza, and put it in its serving glasses to begin to cool. This can also be done before the chicken or the day before to get it out o the way.
- Somewhere in there pop open the wine and toast to yourself for this delicious endeavor.
- Fry the Boulettes Viande and keep aside.
- Chop/prep the Slata Tounisian.
- Prep ingredients for Bricks.
- Chop bread and set table, and put out all dishes and do not forget the Slata Tounisian if you made it early and put it in the fridge (like I once did).
- Fry the Bricks and when they are on the table with the rest of your fest, call out “À Table” to your hungry guests. Enjoy!
More commonly known simply as as Emel, her protest song “Kelmti Hora (My Word is Free)” became the anthem for the Tunisian revolution and then later the Arab Spring. Give her a listen and you’ll be able to feel how her powerful sound helped empowered people to fight for their freedoms.
2022 update: Emel has released a lot more music since we created this playlist so we had to add more. One can’t-miss is her spine-tingling cover of Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” and another is “Naci en Palestina,” her haunting version of a Greek folk song which she transformed into a dedication to the long-suffering Palestinians.
A lover of lyric and a sucker for translations, we also were happy to find that her website provides her lyrics in English and Arabic for her most recent Album, and in English and French for Emsel.
… also don’t miss the bonus at the end of this post: more about Emel, thanks to the Duolingo French Podcast!
Asma says her preparation of this dish has evolved over generations. While her grandmother would make it the traditionally Tunisian way with spicy green peppers, Asma makes it more as her own mother would, with a less-spicy green pepper. Long, skinny green peppers are preferred, but green bell pepper can be used in a pinch (though never yellow or red bell peppers!).
The most authentic taste will come from two things not easily accessible to many of us: roasting the vegetables over a charcoal grill, and processing the vegetables through a “moulin à legume” [(wind)mill for vegetables] on the large hole setting.
Thankfully, roasting in broilers or super hot ovens (sans olive oil!), and using a food processor (or good old knifes and muscles) will work just fine.
This dish came about as a way to use leftover chicken. It’s name may make you think of the Moroccan dish and cooking pot, but it is actually more like a frittata or crust-less quiche. To further distinguish it as it’s own incarnation however, note that it is always made in a loaf pan (unlike its rounded frittata/quiche counterparts).
A filling dish that is good for a crowd, it is often served at funerals in Tunisia. Asma has memories of the family of the deceased making enough to feed the whole village as a way or memorializing the deceased at the time of their burial.
This could be described as a Tunisian ratatouille. It is delicious fresh and warm, or even the next day, cold or warm.
A very typical and traditional Tunisian salad that is a wonderful compliment to the rest of this home-cooked Tunisian feast.
When her kids were young, Asma dubbed a “Tunisian taco.” It was the sort of temporary rebrand that savvy parents often engage in order to tempt kids into something they aren’t sure will be as appetizing to the kids as they are to the parents.
Whether it was the rebrand or just the knowledge that it was fried dough filled with deliciousness, my kids also fell for the deliciousness that is the Tunisian Brick.
A crispy fried outer shell, with a unique combo of flavors inside, including a bit of runny yolk, this is quite a treat. Below is a video of Asma making it for us the first time we enjoyed it in early 2020.
Asma also uses these bricks (the name both for the paper-thin, round dough that you can find in the freezer of Middle Eastern stores, and the recipe below), to make “cigars.” I’ll have to look into the story with that rebrand (which likely wasn’t for children!), but you may recognize the term as the long, (and admittedly “cigar-like) skinny meat-filled pastries available in many North-African restaurants. She bakes her cigars to be a bit more healthy and also easier than standing over the hot oil frying them in batches. That’s a recipe for a different day!
Bouza aux Noisettes
A dessert originally served to royalty, this hazelnut mousse is a delicious way to wrap up your Tunisian feast.
Note that you may need to plan ahead because hazelnut paste can be hard to find (all the usual go-to spots in Brooklyn have been out for years), but Amazon has it. You can also make your own paste, but we didn’t this time.
Listen to Emel’s Story, in French
Thanks to Duolingo, you can listen to Emel Mathlouthi speak about how her music came into the world and what impact it had, near and far, all while practicing your French listening skills.
The always inspiring and fascinating Duolingo French Podcast has an episode which features Emel Mathlouthi: Episode 22: Une chanson révolutionnaire (A Song of Revolution).
For another portrait to pair with an episode, head to the “Poulet en Soupiere + Jacques Brel.”