In 2006 we went to Tunisia for a month, mostly staying on the coast. Tunis, Sidi Bou Said, Sousse, Mahdia, Hammamet, Nabeul, El Jem, Dougga.
We were still in Tunis, the big city where I could count on moral corruption and vice, ie a glass of wine with supper which one can't always get in a Muslim country.
That's fine. I respect the ways of a culture. When in Rome etc. On the other hand, I knew wine was available because I saw empty bottles poked out of the trash.
That afternoon, when we were walking, I noticed a restaurant with a menu in the window that claimed to serve wine. We'd learned that this could be a ruse to get foreigners inside and sitting at a table--with wine glasses on the table--though wine was not and never served. And if there were wine, we'd be having supper in the Canadian equivalent of a smoky bar with other disreputables.
R can take or leave wine, but he agreed to return to the restaurant that evening because he was curious about the plat du jour: malfoun. We didn't know what that was.
That's the word as I have it in my journal but when I google it now, there's no result.
The glass door to the restaurant was covered with a faded poster of an urn propped on seaside rocks, the blue-green Mediterranean in soft focus background.
Inside the air was thick with smoke. Pretty unappetizing for a non-smoker but... um... yeah... I did want wine. The men--all men, of course--had their eyes trained on a TV screen under the ceiling. A soccer match.
But they weren't so intent on the game that they didn’t see the two white people who walked in. A few voices hollered and a waiter bounded into the room. A slim man with a charming smile. Black trousers and a white shirt--slightly yellowed in the thick air.
There were many verbal flourishes to welcome us in different languages. We settled on French.
R said he was interested in the malfoun. What was it?
It seemed to be a stew or soup that was very spicy.
Did we want to sit? The waiter pulled out a chair for me. As soon as we sat, he darted off.
I hoped he wasn't going to bring us two orders of malfoun because I didn’t want a spicy stew or soup. I usually order for myself too.
The other men in the bar nodded and gestured that we should make ourselves comfortable. One or two pointed at the screen to invite Robert to watch the soccer.
The waiter returned, slapping a plasticized sheet on his pant legs as if to dust it off. It was a menu but not the same one as in the window.
R said he would like to try the malfoun.
Ah. Sadly there was no malfoun that evening.
So… what is the plat du jour?
|Jahil and Shaima |
We didn't know the word the waiter said. When R asked him to describe it, he said it was very good, not too spicy and he would like it.
Okay, R said.
I’d been looking at the menu and asked for the merguez.
The waiter frowned. He said I wouldn't like them. They were extremely spicy.
I said I knew merguez. Lamb sausage. We had them where I lived.
You have merguez where you live? So we are like cousins, you and I!
There was more banter, but he still discouraged me from ordering merguez.
This was still at the beginning of our trip. I would soon learn that when the waitstaff didn't want to bring me what I ordered, I should ask for something else. Better yet--ask what they suggested.
I said that I really and truly wanted merguez. Even if they were extremely spicy. I'd been forewarned, I wouldn't blame him if they were too spicy. I wanted them anyhow. Quand même.
And wine? the waiter asked. Because he'd guessed why I was ready to have supper in a fug of smoke to the soundtrack of soccer. The menu in the window offered red, white, and rosé wine served in one quarter, one half, and full litres. We asked for a half litre of rosé. He shook his head. He had only 1 litre bottles. We said we couldn’t drink a full litre.
All the better! he smiled. We could share with him!
We agreed to get the litre bottle, which turned out to be a standard 750 ml bottle of decent, if not overly smooth rosé.
During the wine exchange, the waiter had stopped using vouvoyeing us. The polite form of address. We had become friends. When he set the glasses on the table, he included a third, though he didn't pour himself any. Were we supposed to tell him to have some? We weren't sure of the protocol and I didn't want to tempt him into immoral behaviour.
We hadn't ordered appetizers, but he brought us several small plates with green olives, carrot sticks, puddles of harissa sauce inside a circle of tuna oil, sliced fennel, and a basket of bread. Before me, he set a plate of what he called tajine. It looked like cubes of fried egg filled with chopped potato. I protested that this was too much but he said it was hardly anything.
He turned away from our table to talk with some of the men, but he seemed to know exactly when I bit into one of the cubes because he whipped around to ask me if it was good.
Very good, I said. Potato, egg, and also tuna.
Exquisite? he asked.
Exquisite, I agreed.
I’ll bring you more.
Please don't or I won't be hungry for the merguez.
He returned with a second plate of egg, potato and tuna cubes. Again I protested. Again he insisted.
And you call this tajine? I asked. Because it's not like what they called tajine in Morocco. In Morocco tajine is a stew that's baked for a very long time.
But this is Tunisia! We are not the same country and we do not eat the same food! He'd drawn himself up as if offended.
I said, Of course, I understood. But why did they call such different food by the same word? It would be like the Italians calling noodles pasta, and the French calling potatoes pasta.
He shook his head as if there was something essential I wasn't understanding.
He hurried off and returned with R's meal. A piece of meat, breaded and fried, topped with an egg and melted cheese, surrounded by puréed tomatoes. R waited for my food to arrive, but as it didn't, I told him to go ahead and eat.
I was no longer hungry but I wondered what had happened to my meal. The waiter had disappeared. I helped myself to more wine.
R was almost finished when the waiter returned to say that he was extremely sorry but he couldn’t serve me merguez. He had sent someone out to buy some but the butcher didn’t have any left. It was too late in the day. C'est fini. The boy had run to another butcher in the hope that he might have some, but it wasn't likely.
That's fine, I said. I already ate too much.
But do you forgive me? You wanted merguez.
No, the tajine was very good. And I’m not hungry anymore.
More apologies, more protestation, more insisting. He told us his wife was French. Three years they'd been married. He asked how long we'd been married. Did we like the wine?
He apologized again for the missing merguez. I asked why he hadn’t simply told me from the start that he didn’t have any. That would have been discourteous, he said. He turned to the men at the nearby tables to translate what I'd said. They stared at me.
He darted off and returned with yet another plate of egg, potato, and tuna cubes.
I can’t! I said. I can't eat anymore. I’m not going to! He danced away
We got ready to leave and wanted to pay. The extra glass still stood empty on the table but there was a third of the bottle left, so the waiter would be sharing our wine, if not while we were still there. He refused to charge for what I'd eaten because I hadn’t gotten what I ordered.
A tip, yes, that would be welcome, but for the tajine I'd eaten, no.
|I don't know what I'm eating here but I'm sure it was excellent.|