If the late, great Anthony Bourdain taught us anything, it’s that the best food a country has to offer is often found not in fancy restaurants, but in the humble hole-in-the-walls where average people go for lunch. Tunisia has plenty of fine dining options, but the heart and soul of Tunisian cuisine can be experienced at roadside stalls with enormous vats of frying oil and mom-and-pop restaurants tucked deep in the medinas.
There are countless varieties of traditional Tunisian street food, but there are a handful of classics you’ll find in just about every city in the country. Ready to embark on a Tunisian food adventure? Here are some suggestions to get you started:
Lablabi is the quintessential Tunisian street food. Historically speaking, lablebi was the food of the poor and working class. It was a way to use up day-old baguettes and fill your belly cheaply and quickly. When you order lablebi, someone will hand you half a stale baguette and a bowl, and it’s your job to shred it into little pieces. The bread crumbs will be topped with steaming hot broth flavored with garlic and cumin, as well as chickpeas, poached egg, capers, parsley, and as much harissa as you can handle. (Harissa is a spicy chile and garlic paste, as ubiquitous in Tunisia as ketchup in the U.S.) You’ll get two spoons to mix it together into bready, spicy, stew-y perfection. At lunchtime on a cold winter day, the sound of clanking spoons mixing bowls of lablabi echoes throughout the restaurants. Eat it quickly, before the bread gets soggy. But be warned — it’s filling!
I never feel more like Mr. Bourdain than when I order brik for lunch at a tiny restaurant in my neighborhood. The best ones in our town are sold right next to the butcher shop, where there are usually a few cow heads hanging out front to advertise the day’s offerings. Brik is made by taking a square of filo-type dough, filling it with mashed potato, parsley, a little tuna and an egg, folding it into a triangle (or sometimes rolling it) and deep-frying it. You can order it with the egg mrowba, runny, or tayba, cooked. It’s often served with a wedge of lemon and a handful of tiny olives. It’s crispy, salty, hot, messy — and incredibly satisfying.
Fricasse sakhoun! (Hot fricasse!) You can often hear vendors advertising this cheap but filling mini-sandwich in the souk on the weekends. Fricasse’s ingredients are similar to brik — mashed potato, tuna (optional), and chopped boiled egg — but the ingredients are stuffed inside a fluffy, deep-fried dough ball, which is sliced open and usually slathered with a spoonful of harissa. Healthy? Probably not. Delicious? Absolutely.
Ojja (age-[like garAGE]-uh)
Oh ojja, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways … Ojja is another great dish for a cold winter day, but my best ojja experience was on a sweltering August day in downtown Tunis. My friends and I wiped sweat from our foreheads while we ate, because it was just. so. good. Called shakshuka in some parts of the world, Tunisian ojja consists of eggs cooked in a spicy tomato-based stew, usually eaten with a baguette. The stew often includes peppers and onions and is spiced with cumin, coriander and caraway — the Tunisian spice trifecta. You can order it with a variety of meats, including the classic merguez (sausage spiced with harissa) or fruits de mer, mixed seafood. I’m convinced it’s the best medicine for a cold or sinus infection.
Sandwiches … So Many Sandwiches
Chapati. Shawarma. Libanais. Makloub. Baguette farcie. How many ways can you contain meat, cheese and veggies in bread? Tunisia is still deciding. Sandwich shops are everywhere in Tunisia, and everything is usually made-to-order. Most sandwiches come with a side of fries, ketchup and mayo. Your filling options are likely to include:
- Protein: tuna (thon), eggs (oeuf, boiled or flat like an omelette) grilled chicken (escalope grillé), breaded chicken (escalope pané), kebab, chich taouk, ground beef (viande hache), shawarma, cheese (fromage)
- Vegetables: Lettuce, tomato, onion, olives, pickled vegetables
- Sauce: slata mechouia (spicy green paste made of charred hot peppers, garlic and spices), mayonnaise, garlic sauce (sauce a l’ail), harissa
If you’re from the Midwestern United States, you’re probably familiar with the classic carnival food called “elephant ears.” Bambalouni is Tunisia’s elephant ear, except it has a hole in the middle. It’s like a giant, deep-fried donut coated in sugar. Seriously, what’s not to love? Bambalouni is often sold from a cart on the beach — make sure you get it hot out of the fryer — although my personal favorite is sold at the top of the hill in Sidi Bou Said, next to the fricasse stand. Other snack foods typically sold beach-side (or sometimes at the tollbooth) include shoosh, or popcorn, and kaki, crunchy breadsticks reminiscent of the ones served in old-fashioned Italian restaurants in the U.S.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of Tunisian street food, and I’m sure to have missed someone’s favorite. But if you can manage to fit all of these food experiences into one visit, you’ll basically be a Tunisian street food expert.
Pro Tip: Tunisian menus are often written in French or transliterated Arabic. Many Tunisians speak English and can help translate the menu for you. But if all else fails, just point at whatever looks good!
Ready to plan your own Tunisian street food tour? We can help you create a custom itinerary today!