Christmas in Tunisia
Anyone have any recs for eating in Tunis, Carthage, Salammbo, or Hammamet? My partner and I will be there over the Christmas holidays (Dec 24-31st). We're expecting cuisine similar to Turkish or Moroccan, but don't really have a sense of whether this is accurate.
So excited to munch in Tunisian markets! Thanks in advance for any advice.
Yes, the cuisine is similar to Moroccan, but with a greater emphasis on seafood, and also with French influences (as you might expect, not that Moroccan food doesn't have French influence). Grilled or fried whole fish is ubiquitous, and was always very good to excellent everywhere we had it. Most places will bring the fish out to show you before either grilling or frying (they do this even in small, lower end spots) so that you can inspect it and verify its freshness. Octopus, oysters and other seafood is also very popular
I was there last Christmas, but much of our eating was in private homes and at parties, and because our friends/family there manage a hotel, we ate at that hotel a fair amount, so will have to drag out the notes in order to give you some more specifics, which may take a bit since I am pretty busy the next few weeks. Not to worry though, Christmas is very much the slow season, and you won't have any problems at all getting in to eat anywhere you want without reservations (a much bigger issue will be that some of the restaurants will be closed, particularly in resort areas (such as Hammamet). (things pick up a bit in the week after Christmas, but not much at all).
Will post more soon.
One piece of advice you can start working on now: heed the CDC's vaccination advice for the region.
Ok, here are my Tunisian tips.
As I said, seafood is lovely everywhere: really lovely. The fish was always really nicely cooked, especially when we ordered it grilled, (never overcooked, always well-seasoned with herbs, usually garlic and lemon, and fresh and delicious). Even at little low-end places they would usually bring the fish out for us to inspect before cooking; and I am sure it was caught the same day. Usually they serve sea bream or sea bass, or sometimes tuna. You can’t go wrong with grilled fish and couscous. The fish is usually served whole, head and all. We also had lovely oysters, squid, prawns….
Fruit was also excellent, especially citrus and grapes, grown locally. We had some nice tropical fruits there also (presumably imported?). Nuts are great also. The dates are fabulous, best I’ve ever eaten, and will be in season when you are there. Don't miss them! Olive oil is also very lovely, and Turkish coffee is great. And of course, they put harissa on everything: ask for it if they don’t bring it (they may think you don’t want hot/spicy food). Salads are very good, with fresh greens (we had arugula more than once) though they have this thing about canned tuna on salads, which is a bit odd given the emphasis otherwise on fresh seafood. The tomatoes were also very good, even in winter. Bread is always very good. French fries (frites) are always good. Try to find a gelato stand too: remember they are close to Italy, and the gelato is excellent.
If you want to drink, try Tunisian wine. Pretty decent, especially the pricier bottles, but even those will be a lot cheaper than the French or Italian imports. Alcohol is very expensive, as I have found it to be in other Muslim countries.
The national dish, other than couscous, is something called a briq: sort of a pastry filled with a runny egg and perhaps vegetables or cheese or meat. A lot of people love it, I think it is an acquired taste..:-)
Breakfast may well be at your hotel, buffet style, and will probably be very good. At the very least you can expect excellent croissants and coffee. Look for a semolina pudding called assida, often served at breakfast. Yum!
Ok, now for some specific tips:
Tunis: can’t give you many recommendations, as we ate almost all our meals either in private homes or at the Marriott Renaissance Hotel, (where we stayed) and where my daughter’s Father in Law is General Manager. (Big Disclaimer). The Marriott is actually in a suburb of Tunis, on the Mediterranean and is a sort of business type place, and is near Hammamet.
The Thai restaurant in the Marriott is actually quite decent (though not great) with a Thai chef (expensive by Tunisian standards). But see disclaimer above; we got special treatment at the Marriott. Still, if you are staying nearby, and it sounds like you are, and get tired of fish and couscous, it is worth checking out. I remember some nice appetizers and squid dishes (squid in basil maybe?). I suspect that the Italian restaurant at the Marriott is good but it was closed when we were there (off season) and probably will be when you are there as well. Very good breakfast buffet at the Marriott.
In Tunis proper, don’t miss the Medina (souk). I loved the candy and cookie stands….you can just buy a whole bag of whatever goodies look good of pastries and candy (I tried baklava, marzipan, really delicious little cookies, and more), and snack as you wander: they were delicious (and cheap!). Lots of places in the Medina to have tea as well.
Near Tunis: The town of Sidi Bou Said is somewhat touristy, but you should go anyway. In Sidi Bou Said there is a great stand making Tunisian donuts (bonbalouni); just walk around; you will find it. Also, we had a very nice lunch at Dar Zarroukh, the restaurant in the pricey but lovely Dar Said hotel: more couscous, more great grilled fish, and though it was too cold when we were there they have a beautiful terrace with Mediterranean views…
The town of Bizerte was well worth a trip, about an hour from Tunis or maybe a little more. It is a beautiful port town that reminded those in our group who had been there of Venice (canals, little boats)…since I haven’t been to Venice I can’t comment, but it was really pretty. We toured the semi-outdoor fish and vegetable markets there, which was great fun, and had lunch at a touristy place in a boat; I think it is called The Phoenician, but in any event you can’t miss it: right in the middle of town near the market and in a replica of an old boat. The food there was very good, including an incredible fruit de mers plate (raw oysters, prawns, langoustines), and fresh grilled fish. However, another Caveat and BIG disclaimer: we were guests at the lunch of a local businessman who is another in-law, so I have no idea what the meal cost and I am sure we got special treatment. Despite the special treatment, service was very slow, but I suspect that is the norm for a special meal such as this one was (celebrating my daughter's marriage to the nephew of our host) ...it was four or five courses, way too much food (we were full after the first course) and lasted almost three hours, with a different Tunisian wine for each course).
Though it is about a two and a half or three hour drive from Tunis, do try and go to the coliseum at El Jem. A don’t miss! Perhapd the most impressive of many Roman ruins you can see in Tunisia. I’ve never been to Rome, but hubby, who has, says that the amphitheater at El Jem is in better condition (though smaller, about two thirds the size) than the Coliseum in Rome…besides, you are much freer to wander wherever, sit in the ‘stands’ etc. The place to eat in El Jem is Restaurant Bonheur. This was a low-key and inexpensive spot, very clean and simple, sort of across the street and catty-corner to the Coliseum entrance. Just ask, and anyone can point you to it. (There is another Restaurant Bonheur, which I presume is related, in town down the same street as the museum). Among our group of six we had great fresh fish (again :-)) grilled and fried, couscous, a very tasty spicy lentil soup, some of the most delicious hand cut Belgian style French fries ever, really delicious salads, and a delicious and very spicy lamb stew. You really can’t go wrong here.(note how many times I say things we ate there were delicious :-))
Well, that is about it. I hope these tips help, that you have a wonderful time,and please do report back on your findings. Tunisia is a beautiful, friendly country!
Susan: the boat restaurant in Bizerte was called the Phoenician, and special treatment or not, I think the fruits du mer plate was a standard offering of the restaurant...I saw it on several tables. I also saw the tanks where they keep the (live) langoustines waiting their fate...so you know they are fresh.
Ditto on the recommendation to try and make it to El Jem. Hire a car and driver for a day trip if you must....We did and it was not outrageously expensive. My DH has been to Rome as well, and he pointed out another advantage to the coliseum at El Jem: Far fewer crowds, especially in December! (On Christmas Day I think our party were the only ones there!). And ditto on the Restaurant Bonheur.