Tunisian cuisine is heavily influenced by Mediterranean and Berber food cultures, which is why it is particularly spicy (even for North Africa) and diverse. Here are some of the Tunisian spices used in this country’s favorite dishes.
The harissa spice blend is used throughout the Maghreb region and is just as important in Tunisian cuisine. Harissa’s flavor profile revolves around heat from chili peppers combined with savory notes from garlic and cumin. It can have sweeter elements as well from caraway and coriander seeds. There is no single flavor profile for harissa since cooks make their own versions with their preferred ingredients, but most iterations emphasize heat from hot peppers.
Harissa may be used in powdered form, or powder may be made into a paste with olive oil. You will see harissa used in a range of classic Tunisian recipes, including those for shakshuka, the bean stew known as loubia, and merguez sausages.
Ras el hanout
The translation of ras el hanout is head of the shop or king of the shop. Ras means “king”. The spice blend is supposed to represent the very best of a spice merchant’s inventory. Ras el hanout blends are popular all over North Africa and are used in various Tunisian dishes. Keep in mind that this blend is highly variable and can differ from spice merchant to spice merchant. Some blends contain dozens of spices.
The ingredients can be adjusted to your preference; however, most blends contain a few staple spices. Popular ingredients for ras el hanout include cardamom, cumin, and cinnamon, but you can see allspice and grains of paradise in many versions. Ras el hanout brings a complex, aromatic character to dishes like roasted lamb shanks and the chicken soup known as shorba.
A common ingredient in a range of Maghrebi dishes, parsley is used to enhance both appearance and flavor. This bright, grassy-tasting member of the carrot family is typically added at the end of the cooking time and is used in shakshuka and Tunisian tagines. Parsley is also the green element in brik, a popular pastry filled with eggs and cheese.
As in other Mediterranean countries, Tunisian cuisine relies heavily on olive oil. The flavor profiles of Tunisian dishes are influenced as much by olive oil as by seasonings, so much so that it could be considered a spice. Olive oil is used in everything from harissa paste to magret jelbana, a pea stew. It is used in desserts like olive oil cakes as well.
Tunisian food is considerably spicier than cuisine from other parts of North Africa. Tunisians are fond of chili peppers both in their intensely flavored harissa and on their own. Hot chilies are used in dishes like shakshuka, where the tomato sauce component is seasoned with them. Other preparations like merguez sausages also benefit from the heat of cayenne and other peppers.
Ground coriander is a popular spice all over the Middle East, and the Maghreb region is no exception. Whether it is used on its own or shows up in ras el hanout and other spice blends, coriander brings a nutty citrus note to dishes like Tunisian tagines.
Cumin is one of the key ingredients in harissa and is also essential for classic Tunisian dishes like batata bel’kammun and ful bel’kammun. Its earthiness and warmth make it one of the primary flavors in most ras el hanout mixes as well.