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‘We constantly think about food’: a chef’s tour of Tunis | Tunisia holidays

‘We constantly think about food’: a chef’s tour of Tunis | Tunisia holidays

The sun is bouncing off whitewashed houses in the bohemian Tunis seaside suburb of La Marsa. It’s Friday lunchtime and I am waiting for Malek Labidi at a smart cafe called Boulevard des Capucines. The rush is building, everyone scurrying around clutching paper-wrapped sandwiches packed full of meat, eggs and fiery harissa. These transportable meals are sold out of hole-in-the-wall establishments and eaten on the go – a practical option in a city where people are so often in a rush.

When Malek arrives, she is greeted by practically everyone in the cafe. A Tunisian chef who trained at the Institut Paul Bocuse in Paris and cut her teeth with Alain Ducasse before returning home, Malek recently released her first cook book, La Table du Nord. Focused on preserving the culinary culture of north Tunisia, it has been lauded for putting the country’s food scene on the map. (It’s available in French only, but see here for a taste of her recipes.) This is particularly important given the tourist drought that hit after the 2011 revolution and the wave of terrorist attacks in the following years. Visitors have started to return though, arriving on ferries from Marseille and Palermo. As we walk down towards the sea, I catch occasional glimpses of flashy cameras and sunburnt limbs – both silent promises to the local economy.

The seafront at La Marsa. Photograph: Alamy

My culinary education begins at Gourmandise La Marsa, a glittering patisserie with shelves lined with cocoa-dusted French gateaux, though we overlook these in favour of the local kaak warka. These miniature doughnut-shaped desserts are made from wild rose water and a soft almond paste. Malek tells me that during the Spanish reconquista of Andalucía, people would make palm-sized kaak warka in order to stuff them with gold. The desserts were smuggled into north Africa, allowing refugees to afford land and build a new home here.

After our snack, we follow the curling road along the seafront. The affluent La Marsa neighbourhood is dotted with artisanal boutiques, coffee shops and upmarket restaurants, and a skatepark further along the coast. At chic clothing store Lyoum, we discover items emblazoned with quirky drawings of harissa tubes and brik – the triangular pastries stuffed with runny egg, potatoes, cheese and tuna. Laughing, Malek says, “We all constantly think…

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