Virtual Trip to Tunisia: Lahma bi Betignan & Cheikh el Afrit
Eats: Lahma bi Betignan, Tunisian Style
Tunes: Old Tunisian Jazz & A Mini Study of “A Night in Tunisia”
Cultural Fun: Or A Virtual Trip To Tunisia (unless you are the person we want to hear from? See below…)
When I asked dear husband what he wanted me to make for his birthday dinner, after an apparently detailed mental scan of 16 years of cooking (his birthday is also marks 16 years of being together), he requested a dish I hadn’t made in years: Lahma bi Betignan from Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food. I had completely forgotten about it! Not being too familiar with the music in that part of the world, I consulted a talented musician friend who’s knowledge is wide and deep, and of course he had a great suggestion.
Today’s playlist is a combo. First, I reached out to an Accordion-playing musician of the world for Tunisian tunes. He introduced me to Cheikh el Afrit, whose music were actually pretty transporting. And it lead to interesting conversation about migration patterns when our 6 year old daughter commented on similarities to some Indian music. You can also find “videos” of his music on YouTube, but it’s just music w/ a photo.
I’ve also added a few versions of “A Night in Tunisia,” originally written by Dizzy Gillespie in 1941-2 (when he was with the Benny Carter band), and now a jazz standard recorded by many a musician since then. From Ella Fitzgerald to Arturo O’Farrill, and Lamberts, Hendrix and Ross to Miles Davis, it’s so fun to listen to the unique takes, all in a row. It reminds me of the lazy weekends before kids, when I would listen to the Jonathan Schwartz show, and loved when he would play several versions of a particular song. I loved that show so much that I looked into interning when I was looking for a career change. In light of recent revelations of his behavior in the studio, I’m glad I didn’t seek that path.
Let’s call this incomplete for now. For the project, we want the culture/traditions component to come from a real person, not an online search.
In the meantime, you can do what we did: a simple virtual trip type, which is easy for you to repeat, and on your own terms. See what resonates with you and yours after a quick skim of Wikipedia, etc.
Starting simply, we pointed out Tunisia on a map, and mentioned that French is spoken there (though there is no official status) which drew some wide eyes from our petit etudiants francais (beginning to learn french in school). Our daughter drew comparisons of the music of Cheikh El Afrit to old Indian music she’s heard, and that launched us into a discussion about migration.
Adapted from the Tunisian variation of Lahma bi Betignan from Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.
Lahma bi Betignan
- a dutch oven or other heavy bottomed pot
- 2 onions, very finely chopped
- 3 tomatoes, very finely chopped
- 5 large cloves of garlic, minced
- 6 tbsp olive oil (3+3)
- 2 1/2 lbs of bone-in lamb shoulder in 2-3 inch chunks
- 1 tsp salt
- juice of half a lemon
- 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon (plus more to dust the eggplant slices)
- 1 1/2 tsp cumin
- 1/2 tsp nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp chili powder
- 2 large eggplants (Traditionally salting the eggplant is necessary, but we never do.)
- 1 can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
- yogurt (optional)
- Chop the onions and tomatoes and mince the garlic.
- In a dutch oven or other heavy bottomed pot, on medium heat, fry the onions in 3 tbsp of olive foil until golden
- Add the garlic and stir until fragrant, then add the lamb and fry until well-browned on all sides.
- Add the tomatoes and a tad of water, just enough to be able to see the bottom and scrape up the browned bits of frond.
- When the bottom of the pan is free from frond, add the salt, lemon juice, cinnamon, cumin, chili and nutmeg and stir
- Add water just until the meat is barely covered and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer gently, covered for about 1.5 hours, or until the meat is very tender.
- Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375 and slice the eggplants into 1/2 inch-thick rounds.
- Place the eggplant rounds on a greased cookie sheet and brush them generously with oil. Sprinkle them with salt and cinnamon, and flip, doing the same to the other side. Cook for 8 minutes, flip and cook for another 8 minutes, or until the eggplant is very soft and begins to brown. When done, remove from oven and cover to keep warm and stay soft/moist. Cut into 1 inch chunks before adding to the stew.
- Once the meat has been stewing for at least an hour, add the eggplant and cook for 5-10 minutes until it begins to come together. Then add the can of chickpeas and continue cooking until it has thickened and meat is fully cooked. Taste and add salt or spices if necessary.
- Serve with bread or rice, and stir in plain yogurt if your kids think it’s spicy.