One of the things I love the most about living in Tunisia is the seafood. Fresh, abundant and affordable, it’s not just for special occasions and expensive restaurants as it is in many Western countries. Here it’s a part of everyday life. Since I first came to Tunisia, seafood has gone from a rarely used piece of my repertoire to a weekly staple.
And now is the season for it. The markets are teeming with amazingly affordable catches. My personal favorites—swordfish, monkfish, skate and eel—may not be the prettiest fish in the market but they are some of the cheapest and most delicious. So if you’re looking to add a little deep-sea flavor to your cuisine, head down to the Marché Central to pay a visit to the fishmongers. Then take a look at these tips and recipes to see the range of possibilities when it comes to preparing Tunisian seafood.
Swordfish, called espadon in French, is meaty and can hold its own when paired with bold flavors. The fact that it isn’t delicate or flaky means it’s excellent for grilling or barbecuing and a great accompaniment to pasta dishes and soups.
Swordfish will cost you less per steak than beef and provides that same savory umami flavor. I love to rub it with spices and grill it or put it in a pungent tomato sauce. One great option is to include it in the classic Italian dish puttanesca.
You can also cook it like you would a steak: Sear the outside on a high heat and then reduce the temperature. To avoid over-cooking and drying out the fish, take it off the heat while it is still slightly translucent in the center; it will finish cooking as it sits.
Monkfish, or la lotte, is quite possibly the ugliest fish in the sea. It used to be called “poor man’s lobster” in some locales. Once a cheap alternative to the clawed delicacy, it provides a similar texture and sweet nutty flavor. But nowadays in Europe and the United States it can be just as expensive as its red crustaceous neighbor.
Luckily for those of us who live in Tunisia, however, monkfish is still quite affordable. On top of that, it’s incredibly easy to cook. Its sweetness pairs well with the briny and citrusy flavors of olives and lemons, and it’s the perfect fish for soups and stews because it retains its shape and is difficult to overcook. In fact, it can be even better reheated the next day, which is a very rare quality for fish.
Skate, known here as rajidae, is a member of the ray family but is smaller than many of its cousins. Skate wings are tender and have a delicate, nutty flavor. A great substitute for mild fish like sole and flounder, this is another one that’s difficult to overcook, so it’s perfect for those just starting out in the kitchen.
Some say the best way to prepare it is simply in a pan with a little flour and brown butter. I love it roasted with capers and cherry tomatoes, then topped with a light dijon sauce. For a simple but elegant dish, try covering it with crushed fennel seeds and white peppercorns and then searing it in a hot pan to give it a fragrant and delicious crust.
Eel, which goes by anguille, is not for everyone. Its slick, serpentine appearance can be off-putting. But it’s worth trying to get past any misgivings you might have, because it’s very easy to cook and has a wonderful smoky flavor. Like swordfish, this is another one that’s excellent on the barbecue or grill. The meat is firm and oily, so it won’t dry out easily.
Popular all over Asia, it features in many Thai and Vietnamese dishes. If you enjoy those cuisines, you can marinate it with turmeric and a lemongrass paste, which you can get in the Asian food sections of Carrefour and Monoprix; then throw it on the grill. Alternatively, cook it in a saffron and coconut milk broth.
In Italy, eel is part of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a longstanding Christmas Eve tradition, and is baked in a tomato sauce with olives and capers. Have your local fishmonger remove the skin for you and either fillet it or cook it with the bones still in it.
Finally, I couldn’t possibly write about fish without including my secret-weapon sauce: chermoula. This is a famous Moroccan marinade that is often used with seafood. The ingredients vary from village to village, but the standard sauce is made with fresh coriander, parsley, garlic, lemon and freshly ground cumin. So it’s also a great opportunity to make use of Tunisia’s abundant store of spices and produce.
Chermoula packs a powerful flavor punch and goes great with grilled swordfish or eel. You can also marinade your skate or monkfish in it before baking. In fact, I haven’t found a fish (or a chicken wing, for that matter) that this citrusy and herbaceous sauce doesn’t go great with.
Don’t let bones, guts and slimy snake-like creatures intimidate you. Fish is often easier, faster, cheaper and healthier to cook than meat. Add a little high-seas adventure to your life and take advantage of the great (and budget-friendly) seafood that Tunisia has to offer.