Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Meal 51. Tunisian Bricka, Slata Mechouia and Tagine

The lovely Sonia has volunteered to be the first to help revive my 80 meals project (stuck at 50 meals since 2008!) while we are both in Sierra Leone. She is French-Tunisian and speaks Arabic, French and English. Her work brought her to Sierra Leone, but she has also spent time in Angola and Senegal in recent years. About her short visits in Dakar she says "it is like Petit Paris!" Not many would say Freetown is like a Little Paris, or a Little London for that matter.

We discussed my old blog project over drinks and she seemed willing to help out, but I was still surprised to receive a text a few days later that read: "As promised last Friday, tonight dinner at my place to enjoy Tunisian food." So excited!

When we arrive, the table is beautifully set in the living room and Sonia is putting the finishing touches on the meal in the kitchen, placing olives and hard boiled eggs on the slata mechouia, a spicy vegetable salad made with tomato, bell pepper, onions, chillies and a generous helping of tuna. Apparently Tunisia is famous for its delicious tuna, both fresh and in cans. However, despite their similarity, the country and the fish are not linguistically linked. The slata is served with flatbread, easy to get in Sierra Leone due to the large Lebanese community here.

Tuna makes another appearance, again with egg, as the filling of the bricka, crunchy triangular parcels of filo pastry. Very tasty!

As we dig in to the slata, bricka and tagine (a kind of omelet) with saffron rice, Sonia amuses us with stories of a hallucinogenic fish common in her town. It is called chelba in Arabic or la saupe in French and it is renowned for being good to eat as well as for its ability to make people go crazy. They say it is better to eat it at lunch, because if you wait till dinner, tempers can fray and the meal can end up causing a divorce! Sonia tells us her sister once had visions of the devil descending upon her after eating this notorious fish.

I initially do not really believe it, never having heard of any animals having mind-altering properties, apart from psychoactive toads. But then Sonia whips out her tablet and shows me the wikipedia page describing it...hard evidence! It seems it is a toxin in the green algae these fish like to eat that causes them to induce these bizarre hallucinations.

After the main meal is over we have some coffee and cheesecake (not very Tunisian!) and Sonia's Lebanese friend promises he will make some traditional dishes soon for the next entry. In addition, a few days later, Sonia herself invites around 20 people over for couscous, a truly traditional North African dish. There are mountains of couscous on huge platters, as well as exquisitely tender mutton, chickpeas with raisins, and pumpkin/potatoes/onions to accompany the twice steamed grains. Remarkably similar to the Moroccan and Sahrawi dishes I had so many years ago...

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