When I first arrived in Tunisia, I would wander around the spice stalls, poking my fingers into mounds of colorful powder, trying to decide whether they were cumin or coriander. Other shoppers would swarm around the same stalls, shouting orders while giving me angry glances for being in the way. Some shopkeepers found me amusing, while others sent me scurrying away.
Happily those days are over. Spices that used to be completely foreign to me, like turmeric, caraway and tabil, are now among those I can’t imagine cooking without. Recipes that I’ve been doing for years have been reborn with the addition of these Tunisian staples. Here are a few of my favorite spices and some of the recipes in which they can be used.
Tabil used to be the word for coriander, but now it refers to a mix of ground coriander seeds, dried garlic, caraway seeds and dried red chilis, also called tabil parfumé. It is often used with chicken, fish and lamb. I tend to add a spoonful of it to almost everything I cook, from scrambled eggs to hummus. But with chicken and fish, it really shines and elevates the flavors to a higher level.
Before coming to Tunisia cooking a whole fish was very intimidating, but now I buy one every week for a quick and healthy dinner. I rub my dorade or sea bass with salt, pepper and a tablespoon of tabil before coating it in vegetable oil and pan-frying for about four minutes on each side. Tabil brings out the sweet, nutty flavor of these Mediterranean fish.
I also rarely cook chicken without it now, and it’s a key ingredient in my spiced chicken and lentil soup.
The English word for this spice comes from its Arabic name al karwiya. Traditionally used in Nordic and Eastern European foods, it’s most commonly associated with rye bread. Thanks to the Ottoman Empire, caraway was spread across Eastern Europe and over to North Africa. Even though it’s an ingredient in the tabil mix, I have come to love caraway on its own as well.
A cousin of the fennel and carrot family, it pairs beautifully with both ingredients. I sprinkle it on my roasted fennel, and, anytime I cook carrots in a soup or stir fry, I add a teaspoon. Caraway can also be used to treat digestive problems such as heartburn, gas and bloating.
This was a spice I had never heard of before coming to Tunisia, but now I can’t live without it. Known as curcuma in Arabic, this vibrant yellow cousin to ginger has been used in India and Southeast Asia as a dye and medicine for thousands of years.
It has powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties and has been used to treat stomach and liver diseases. Today they offer turmeric supplements to cancer patients, people with Alzheimer’s disease and those suffering from depression. It’s a miracle spice and much cheaper in Tunisia than in the United States or Europe.
Whenever I fry chicken wings, calamari or fish, I make a spice flour rub (see recipe below) of turmeric along with tabil and chili powder to give the dish a pop of golden color and an extra kick of peppery flavor. The spice also goes well with tomato-based soups and sauces.
This spice has been beloved and used all over the world and throughout history. Highly prized during the Roman Empire and found buried next to Egyptian Pharaohs, cumin is also mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and was brought to the Americas by the Spanish and Portuguese.
In the States I always kept a jar of cumin in my cupboard, but it wasn’t until I came to Tunisia and had my first taste of the freshly ground version that I experienced the true power and smoky flavor of this spice. I now buy cumin only in seed-form and grind it myself. The difference in flavor is remarkable.
The spice is also the star and namesake of one of my favorite Tunisian dishes, kamounia.
When I had this dish for the first time, it made me feel like I had never really tasted cumin before. Sweet, earthy and smoky. The trick in making kamounia is not to add the cumin until the very end. If you add it too early the spice will burn and lose its complex flavor. My favorite version is made with octopus.
There are more spices to be found and enjoyed in Tunisia but these are the four I find myself using again and again. Try adding a pinch of tabil or freshly ground cumin to your scrambled eggs, and your life will never be the same.
Spiced Flour Rub recipe
2 cups plain flour
3tbs tabil mix
1tbs chili powder
(I salt and pepper the meat or fish directly)
Makes enough mixtures to coat 2 kilos of wings, fish or calamari.