Tunisian-Jewish cuisine adds to Djerba's charm

Djerba is one place where a small but veritable Tunisian-Jewish food scene exists.
Sunday 24/02/2019
A Tunisian Muslim woman buy food from a Jewish restaurant in Djerba. (Reuters)
A Tunisian Muslim woman buy food from a Jewish restaurant in Djerba. (Reuters)

DJERBA - The Tunisian island of Djerba is one of the best known touristic destinations in the North African country, which relies heavily on tourism and received a record 8.3 million visitors last year.

Tourism defines Djerba for most people. The island is famous for sunny, golden beaches lined with hotels offering inexpensive all-inclusive packages to attract European tourists. Mainland Tunisians head to the island during the warmer months, drawn by a destination that is different and distant enough to feel like a getaway but still retains a strong and enticing local flavour.

However, there is much more to the island than sun and sand that remains largely overlooked or unknown by foreigners and Tunisians alike. Of the throngs of tourists who visit the island, only a few venture into the rural Djerban interior.

When travelling across, rather than around, the island, the sporadic mosques and dwellings one finds among shrublands and plots of olive trees seem distinct and frozen in time. Despite being so open to the outside world through tourism, the island feels insular. That feeling grows the further visitors stray from the coast.

This is what I found most alluring about Djerba: a quasi-mystical quality borne by a languid feeling of antiquity belying the brouhaha of mass tourism.

There are clues strewn about ancient records: in Homer’s "Odyssey," Ulysses and his men are shipwrecked on Djerba; an old -- perhaps 1,000 years old -- Ibadi minority is visible in the distinct architecture of Djerban mosques.

Undoubtedly, the best and most alive testament to the island’s hoariness is its thriving Jewish community. El Ghriba synagogue has a feeling of great holiness and importance to Judaism and receives pilgrims every year. Legend has it that it was established as a sanctuary after Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed Solomon's temple in 586BC in Jerusalem.

While the vast majority of Jews who had been living in Arab countries have left their ancestral homes since the advent of the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict, pockets of Jewish communities are scattered around the Arab world. Two significant communities that remain including about 2,000 people dispersed around the large cities of Morocco and 1,700 in Tunisia, the majority of whom live in Djerba.

Djerba is the largest Jewish enclave in the MENA region. Numbering around 1,300, residents are distributed between two areas of the island known as “Hara Kebira” (“Big Quarter”) and “Hara Seghira” (“Small Quarter”).

Besides El Ghriba, the most visible manifestation of Tunisian-Jewish culture is food. Jewish people were among the many shapers of Tunisia's eclectic cuisine, along with the various cultures and communities that populated the North African country over its 3,000-year history.

However, delicacies specific to Tunisian-Jewish cuisine are not readily available. Besides a couple of restaurants in Tunis, Tunisian-Jewish cooking is a mainly homely affair. Djerba is one place where a small but veritable Tunisian-Jewish food scene exists.

Nearly all the Tunisian-Djerban-Jewish food scene is concentrated on a street in Hara Kebira. Only a handful of discerning locals make the trip to the quarter where most of the Jewish community is settled to indulge in Tunisian-Djerban-Jewish delicacies, such as brik and kosher grills. It can get crowded on Saturdays, however.

Brik is a triangular Tunisian food made with a thin pastry filled with egg, tuna, capers, potatoes and other garnishes.

While common in Tunisia, Tunisian-Jewish brik is a distinct speciality. Brik Ishak, a hole-in-the-wall on Hara Kebira’s food street, is the most popular purveyor with queues spilling into the street throughout the day.

Also available to sample in this unassuming fast-food street are kosher chicken and spicy beef grills and skewers, as well as a fiery meatball-kofta concoction.

Despite a security checkpoint protecting the entrance to the quarter, Hara Kebira is an easy 7-minute car ride from Houmt Souk, Djerba’s downtown and administrative centre.